Bad Housekeeping

Isadora Duncan: The Russian Years

by Ilya Ilyich Schneider
Harcourt, Brace & World, 221 pp., $6.95

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan; drawing by David Levine

She had a Greek phase, along with brother Raymond, dressed and danced in Greek tunics, poured a small fortune in early box-office receipts into Raymond’s illusion of a well to go with their temple on a dry hill facing the Acropolis. And long and ardent study of Greek vases, in the British Museum and the Louvre, sometimes when the whole family in their crazy courage were close to starving, as she told it in My Life, did help to shape her views of the human body and her innovations in the dance. But her spirit was quite other, as she well knew herself, naming as her masters in the dance influences as far from the classic world as from the art of classical ballet, which she despised—Rousseau, Beethoven, Wagner, Nietzsche, Walt Whitman, of all people. She recalls ancient Greece to the end, though, in her proneness to accidents, only with some weird inner engineering in place of the divine, and a strange failure to achieve tragic status even under her most tragic blow.

That of course, as everybody now knows from the Vanessa Redgrave movie even if they didn’t before, was the drowning in the Seine of her two beautiful little illegitimate children while driving with their nurse, in 1913. It was eight years later, after what reads in her own account like a mad crescendo of love affairs and being thrown over in one by pianist Walter Rummel, “the most hallowed and ethereal love of my life,” that she set out for the “glorious promise” of a New World, on the invitation of USSR Commissioner of Education Lunacharsky.

As the final accident prevented her telling the story herself beyond that point, it is useful to have a chronicle of her last years and only legal marriage, written by her chief Russian colleague and amanuensis, the man who continued to direct the Duncan school in Moscow for some twenty years after her death. Unfortunately, although the author seems likable and intelligent enough, the book is badly organized, often to the point of being incomprehensible, and the translation has only such inadvertent felicities as “I stopped with a start.” The flap announces a Foreword by Sir Frederic Ashton, which must have been mislaid in the office—there is no Foreword by anybody; and various points of fact in the text have been left obscure, not from the bureaucratic miasma that somewhat veils the whole picture of the Russian Duncan school’s beginning and operation, but for no reason at all except editorial carelessness.

Who, for instance, was Irma Duncan? She figures very largely in the story, as the only one of Isadora’s pupils who went to the USSR with her and stayed with her there, even seeming to have kept the whole show going nearly single-handed quite often when the boss was off gallivanting. No doubt any true Duncan fan knows all about her, but…

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.