Isadora Duncan (1877-1927)

Isadora Duncan. Photo by Arnold Genthe

Born Isadora Angela Duncan in San Francisco on May 26, 1877, Isadora discovered the joy of dance in nature, amidst the wind, sea and waves at the beach as a young child. Her home provided artistic and intellectual riches – even though her father left the family in financial straits soon after Isadora was born. Isadora’s mother, Mary Dora Gray, was a skilled pianist and teacher, who played Beethoven and Schubert for the children and read Shakespeare, Shelley and Browning to them. Isadora’s brother Raymond was a dramatist, Augustine an actor, and Elizabeth and Isadora danced and taught dance classes from early ages as the family scrambled financially.

Isadora left San Francisco for Chicago with her mother in 1895 where she danced at the Masonic Temple Roof Garden and auditioned for Augustin Daly’s theatre company. She joined Daly’s company, moving to New York with most of her family. She toured America and went to London with the Daly company. Displeased with what she considered a trivial role of dance in the theatre productions, she quit the company in 1898. Isadora danced in private salons, and first danced at the Music Room in Carnegie Hall, in collaboration with composer Ethelbert Nevin, in a program including Nevin’s Narcissus, Ophelia and Water Nymphs on March 24, 1898. She described her dance as “movement expressive of thought” in her early lectures.

In May 1899 Isadora and family traveled to London, in search of ways to deepen and broaden her art. Isadora studied the Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum. After meeting artist Charles Hallé, she performed for prominent Londoners at his New Gallery, dancing the legend of Orpheus, to music of Gluck. In “The Art of the Dance” Isadora described herself as neither the narrator nor the character of the myths she danced, but the “soul of the music”, a “role reserved by the Greeks for the Chorus.”

The following year Isadora followed her brother Raymond to Paris, where he sketched and she studied the Louvre’s Greece vase collection. After a tour with Loie Fuller’s company, Isadora was invited to perform her own programme in Budapest, Hungary (1902), where she danced to sold-out performances with full orchestra. Her famous encore was The Blue Danube. Performances followed in Berlin, Vienna and Munich. Many artists were to draw and photograph her including Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, Peter Berger, Robert Henri, August Rodin, Jose Clara, Jules Grandjouan, Valentine Lecomte and Abraham Walkowitz. Her European success allowed for a trip to Greece (1903), time to appreciate the art and ruins, to purchase land, and to perform in front of the Greek royal family, including King George.

In January 1905, Isadora accomplished a long-time goal, as she opened her first school for twenty children in Grunewald, Germany. In true visionary style, the children were given free room, board and instruction in dance, music and literature. They wore tunics and sandals and were surrounded by great artworks indoors and nature outdoors. Among these first students were the six who were adopted in order to enter the United States during World War 1 and would later be dubbed “the Isadorables” by the French press: Anna, Erika, Irma, Lisa, Margot and Marie-Theresa. She was able to establish a second school which she named Dionysian at a mansion in Bellevue, outside of Paris, in 1914, with financial help from Paris Singer. Bellevue was later given to the Red Cross as an army hospital at the start of World War I. Isadora and her students then met in America, where “the Isadorables” debuted at Carnegie Hall, in December 1914. Isadora regularly left her schools to tour and perform in order to sustain the school and to support members of her family, a recurrent theme throughout her life. While away, her sister Elizabeth often acted as school director and teacher.

Isadora’s legacy as the “Mother of Modern Dance” is seen in the progression of her repertory, from the lyrical dances to classical composers like Chopin, Brahms, Strauss and Schubert (a radical use of classic music at the time), to the dances of Greek myths, archetypes, human emotions and later in her heroic dances of nationalism (La Marseillaise, Rakoczy March). Isadora and Irma traveled to Russia in 1921, at the invitation of the Russian government, where they formed a third school for children. Isadora danced the Revolutionary, and dedicated songs and dances to the Russian workers and for the Russian children. What had started as lyrical, free spirited, barefoot dance, a rejection of the stilted ballet world of her time, deepened with her life experiences, travel, and with the influence of a wide range of artists, poets, composers and intelligentsia in her circle. Although Isadora was drawn to Greek myths and philosophy, she recreated, rather than copied, ancient themes. She defined the solar plexus as the “central spring of all movement” (Duncan, “My Life”). As a performer, she continued to move audiences deeply throughout her career, as evidenced by reviews and personal accounts.

A revolutionary thinker in women’s issues, espousing freedom for body and spirit, Isadora vowed never to marry. From her first long-term relationship with famous British set designer, Edward Gordon Craig, her daughter Deidre was born (September 24, 1906). With Paris Singer, she bore her son Patrick Augustus Duncan (born May 1, 1910). Both children died in a tragic accident on April 19, 1913. Isadora’s devastation is later reflected in her choreography 'Mother'.

Although Isadora’s success blossomed in Europe and led to travel to Egypt, South America and Russia, she returned to tour America several times. Many of her Isadora’s programs are shared in Private Collections. Isadora was generally well received in America, until her visit in 1922 with Soviet poet and husband Sergei Esenin, (married to allow him a travel visa), when anti-Soviet feelings ran high in the United States.

In 1927, Isadora agreed to publish her memoirs “My Life” and finished writing and dictating them to her secretary. Her last performance was at the Mogador Theatre in Paris on July 8. Isadora was accidentally killed in an automobile, near her studio in Nice, on September 14, 1927, at age 50. Her enduring legacy continues to inspire new generations of dancers.

Isadora Duncan in the Marseillaise. Photo by Arnold Genthe.
Isadora Duncan, reclining. Photo by Arnold Genthe.
Portrait of Isadora Duncan. Photo by Arnold Genthe.

Related items in the Archives

The Collection of Joanna Gewertz Harris > Photos > Isadora at Lido, Venice Beach — Photograph by Raymond Duncan — 1903

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Photos > Photo of Isadora

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Photos > Irma, Isadora, and Sergei

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Photos > Double exposure by Richard Stoots — Arnold Genthe, Richard Stoots

The San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design > Programs > Isadora Duncan — Nov 25, 1917

The Collection of Christy Cornell-Pape > Programs > Dances and Choruses from Iphigenie in Aulide — Isadora Duncan — Jul 06, 1908

The Collection of Christy Cornell-Pape > Programs > Chopin and Schubert — Isadora Duncan — Jul 29, 1908

The Collection of Christy Cornell-Pape > Programs > A Revival of the Greek Art of Two Thousand Years Ago — Isadora Duncan and Walter Damrosch — Nov 08, 1908

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Programs > Isadora Duncan — 1908

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Programs > Isadora Duncan — Nov 21, 1916

The San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design > Artwork > Drawing of Isadora by Jules Grandjouan

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Artwork > Four drawings of Isadora in the Butterfly Etude

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Artwork > Isadora at end of Rose Petals

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Artwork > Knucklebones

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Artwork > Jose Clara drawing

The Collection of Janaea Rose Lyn (McAlee) > Artwork > Drawing of Isadora by Van Dearing Perrine

The Collection of Barbara Kane > Leaflets > The Dance of Isadora Duncan

The San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design > News Clippings > Miss Duncan Triumphs in Homecoming at Columbia, Nov. 26, 1917 review

The San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design > News Clippings > Newspaper ad for My Life

The Collection of Christy Cornell-Pape > News Clippings > Review of Isadora's New York performance, New York World, 11/7/08 — Nov 07, 1908

Related references

Huddleston, Sisley - Bohemian Literary and Social Life in Paris, Salons Cafes Studios. George G Harrap and Co Ltd 1928 Chapter XIII The Tragedy of a Dancer pg 220-236

Colin Chambers - 'Here We Stand' Politics, Performers and Performance - Charilie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Isadora Duncan. A Nick Hern Book, London 2006. ISBN - 13 - 978 185459 92D9