The Ecstasy of a Modern Romantic

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan; drawing by David Levine

In her youth Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) more or less created what we now call American modern dance, and she soon became famous for it. She was also a beauty, leaving behind her a trail of glamorous lovers. But by 1927, when she was fifty, all that was over. Duncan was living in a rented studio in Nice. She was barely performing any longer, and years of hard living—above all, heavy drinking—had coarsened her looks. Her most recent and thorough biographer, Peter Kurth, quotes Nicolas Nabokov to the effect that, already in the early 1920s, “her baggy face was glistening and red.” Her hair was patchily hennaed; her body, heavy now, was draped in tatty shawls. She had no money. She went to parties in order to eat the canapés.

Partly, no doubt, to improve her financial situation, she decided to do something that she had talked about for years: write her memoirs. In early 1927 she signed a contract with the Liveright Publishing Corporation, in New York. For six months she worked on the book, dictating, as a rule, and usually after a number of drinks. It is reported that her first typist could be heard saying, “Miss Duncan, you don’t mean to say this…you simply cannot.” In August or September, she sent the typescript, entitled My Life, to Liveright. It was brought out that same year. This year, it will be republished, with some changes.

At least during Duncan’s early career, most concert dance, in both the United States and Western Europe, was a frivolous business, given over to the simplest entertainment values: spectacle, good cheer, thighs. This was the case, preeminently, with classical ballet, which, until Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived in Paris in 1909, was scorned by people of taste. As for modern dance, it didn’t exist yet. A few imaginative soloists were at work in the seedbed, notably Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis. There were side matters, too. At the end of the nineteenth century, a Swiss music teacher, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, had developed a system, “rhythmic gymnastics” (widely known as eurhythmics), that, later, would come to seem an antecedent of Duncan’s Greek-nymph look. In fact, Duncan had developed her style by the time she saw any Dalcroze demonstrations. If anything, Dalcroze took from her.

More important for Duncan was something that, today, seems more quaint, the Delsarte System of Expression, invented by François Delsarte, a French teacher of acting and singing, in the late nineteenth century and popular in the United States during Duncan’s youth. Here the performers, dressed, like Dalcroze’s students, in Greek tunics, struck poses modeled on ancient sculpture and thereby represented human emotions. One is reminded of Emma Hamilton’s “attitudes.”

Of the personal qualities that Duncan brought to her art, the most powerful was a species of Platonism, a vision of dance as an exalted and abstract entity that her own creations merely, but…

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