Bold Icons: Isadora Duncan, Rise and Fall

by Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Could this woman really have been a dance genius? In 1921, when Duncan was 44, fat and notorious, a 17-year-old English boy bought a ticket for her performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. “I didn’t think I’d like it but I was absolutely captivated,” he later recalled. ”  That boy, Frederick Ashton, would grow up to become Britain’s foremost ballet choreographer, and he was not the only creative figure to be enchanted by the alternative dancing Duncan proposed. Auguste Rodin, the sculptor, said she was his greatest inspiration; Konstantin Stanislavsky, Moscow’s radical theatre director, was fascinated; George Bernard Shaw was impressed, despite himself; and the pivotal figures of 20th-century Russian ballet, Sergei Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine unreservedly admired her.

As all the radical women half of the people thought she was a living genius, the other half a crazy woman without any technique.

For a long time, the dance world tried to hide Duncan’s  life, to keep her image pure, or to reduce her feminist power. Ashton created his exquisite tribute to her (1975), Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, he brought her lightness, femininity and distilled force.

The great British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan conceived Isadora as an unprecedented multimedia character:  emotive, free, unrestrained, trendy, with cutting-edge film and even holograms…


Timeline: the rise and fall of a legend

1877 Angela Isadora Duncan is born in San Francisco.

1896 First job in Chicago music hall.

1900 Moves to London and gives public dance recitals, inspired by Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and the British Museum’s antiquities.

1902-3 Conquers Budapest, Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

1904 Falls for serial adulterer, English theatre designer Edward Gordon Craig. Russian debut wildly successful.

1905 While Craig’s wife bears his third child, Duncan becomes pregnant by him. After Deirdre is born (1906), Duncan despairingly ends the relationship.

1908 New York debut tour; dances Beethoven’s 7th symphony in the Metropolitan Opera House.

1909 In Paris meets sewing-machine millionaire Paris Singer; their son Patrick born 1910. Deirdre and Patrick drown in the Seine in car mishap in 1913.

1914 Develops Paris school. Becomes pregnant by Italian admirer; child stillborn. Creates Marseillaise solo.

1921 Frederick Ashton sees her dance in London. Founds Moscow school. Meets Russian poet Sergei Esenin and marries him a year later to get him US tour visa. Constant scandals on tour over drunkenness and politics.

1923 Back in Russia, Esenin struggles with alcoholism, Duncan with poverty 1925 Esenin hangs himself, aged 30.

1926 Duncan inherits Esenin’s poetry royalties, but rejects them despite debts.

1927 Duncan killed when scarf catches in the wheel of an admirer’s Bugatti.


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