Article abstract: Reacting against the strictures of classical ballet and the artificialities of other forms of dance, Duncan was a major innovator and one of the founders of modern dance. In her personal life, Duncan also endeavored to extend women’s freedoms.
Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Angela Isadora Duncan was the youngest of four children. Her father, Joseph Charles Duncan, was fifty years old and a divorced father of four other children when he married Mary Isadora (Dora) Gray in 1869. She was twenty. Joseph Duncan was a charming businessman who had achieved considerable financial success. In early October of 1877—at the time of baby Angela Isadora’s christening—an illegal banking scheme in which Duncan was involved failed. Joseph Duncan disappeared, leaving bank records in chaos. Finally captured in February of 1878, he was tried four times, the first three resulting in hung juries. At his fourth trial he was acquitted. In the aftermath, Dora divorced Joseph Duncan, who remarried and moved to Los Angeles.
Dora stayed in the Oakland area, supporting the children by eking out a living as a music teacher. In her autobiography, My Life (1927), Isadora Duncan tells of a “good-looking,” well-dressed man who appeared at the door and turned out to be her father. Subsequently, Joseph Duncan did provide a home for his former wife and children, but Isadora’s childhood was largely fatherless.
At an early age, Isadora Duncan revolted against ballet lessons and developed an expressive style of dancing that relied on spontaneity and freedom of movement. This was basically the same approach she was to use in her mature work, freely interpreting the music of the great composers. Duncan’s first public performances, in Chicago and New York, were as a dancer in other people’s shows. In 1897, she traveled to London with Augustin Daly’s theater company, returning to New York later that year. Subsequently, she quit the Daly company, and she and her family set off for England, where she eventually began to achieve recognition. In the British Museum, she and her brother Raymond studied the art of ancient Greece, convincing themselves that Isadora’s use of dance rhythms was based on a classical model.
Her career began to gather momentum when she was invited to perform at private receptions, thanks in part to the patronage of well-known actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Dancing barefoot in a tunic, Duncan charmed her audiences, and soon she was performing to great acclaim in theaters and concert halls all over Europe.
Isadora Duncan rose from humble beginnings to international celebrity by being an independent-minded American. Her success in Europe was counterpointed by her defiance of traditional female roles. Her fame as a dancer was perhaps equaled by her notoriety as a woman who defied conventional mores. Duncan wanted to use dance as a form of self-expression to create a new way of living. Because most of her students were women, Duncan’s identification of dance with freedom exerted a profound effect on women’s roles.
To grasp Isadora Duncan’s revolutionary attitude, it should be remembered that the world into which she was born was extremely conservative about exposing the human body and about women’s roles. In her clothing, both the tuniclike Greek chitons in which she danced and the classical Greek garb she and her brother Raymond affected as street wear, Duncan shocked and fascinated audiences.
Contemporary accounts of her dancing, usually written by male dance critics, often mention her “scanty” or “flimsy” costumes, her bare legs and feet, and her scandalous behavior. Spectators who came to her performances expecting to be scandalized, however, more often than not went away deeply moved by Duncan’s powerfully expressive dancing. Duncan was openly celebrating the relationship between body and emotions in a way she also acted out in her personal life.
A notorious free spirit, Duncan bore children out of wedlock by three different fathers. In My Life, she says that in her romance with stage designer Edward Gordon Craig, she felt an increasing tension between her art and her lover. Tempted to submerge her dancing in the tumultuous romance with Craig, Duncan bore her first child by him—a daughter, Deirdre—and, during her pregnancy, briefly left the stage.
Later, she had a son, Patrick, by Paris Singer, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. The wealthy Singer funded some of Duncan’s projects, and even after their relationship was over, he continued to provide her with financial support. While Duncan was involved with Craig, and later, with Singer, both men were married to other women by whom they already had children. This fact contributed to the scandalous air surrounding Duncan’s behavior.
In 1905, Duncan made a...
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