Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy

by Walter Terry
Dodd, Mead, 174 pp., $3.50

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan; drawing by David Levine

Everybody knows something about Isadora Duncan, but it is usually gossip rather than history. She undoubtedly has some degree of genuine historical importance; modern dancers honor her for her service in the development of their art, and she was internationally famous at a time when dancing ceased to be an entertainment and became in the minds of many the key to all the arts A serious inquiry into the real nature and quality of her work would involve a laborious historical investigation, but it would certainly be worth doing. Mr. Terry’s book is not as serious as that, and is in fact a little sentimental, deficient in documentation, scrappy, and gossipy; but it has some use and interest.

Mr. Terry of course, is not to be blamed for his subject’s highly colored life. She came of an odd family (in a passage of her autobiography not mentioned by Mr. Terry she attributes some of her eccentricities to the fact that her mother ate and drank nothing during pregnancy except oysters and champagne). Her lovers were at least interesting, and included Gordon Craig and Yesenin, the revolutionary poet, whom she actually married. Her extravagance was notorious, and she became one of those whose whole fate takes the color of her bizarre personality; her children were drowned in an auto accident, and she herself was strangled by her scarf when it caught in the rear wheel of a Bugatti All this, and the social career of one whose main business was to be outrageously free, Mr. Terry records. On her place in the whole history of exotic and “new” dancing at the time he has much less to say, though the book has some excellent photographs. As for Isadora’s theories, he chronicles them without much comment, and dreadful nonsense they are.

Duncan’s hatred for orthodox ballet was fairly standard in some circles at the time. Technically she was ill-equipped and undisciplined, and as time went on she made this worse by laziness, carelessness, and obesity. Balanchine, in an article here quoted, saw her in 1920, and found her “unbelievable—a drunken fat woman who for hours was rolling like a pig.” André Levinson, from whom Terry rather misleadingly extracts a favorable comment, thought both Isadora and the “Isadorables” insipid—elementary in technique, boring in their bogus “Hellenism,” and responsible for a European torrent of imitative large flat feet. In spite of these disadvantages, she more than held her own in St. Petersburg, and, which is more remarkable, succeeded in Paris in 1909, the year of Diaghilev’s arrival there. Diaghilev supports the tradition that Fokine was much affected by her; so, according to testimony provided by Terry, was Sir Frederick Ashton, who says it shows in Ondine. So she has her place in ballet as well as in modern dance.

Some of the evidence for her originality is questionable. Mr. Terry twice rejects suggestions that Duncan owed…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.