Isadora Duncan

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Isadora Duncan: Life and Literary Connections
(1877-1927)

By Carolyn Sinsky

Isadora Duncan, following Loie Fuller, was one of the great pioneers of what became known as the “free dance” movement of the early twentieth century.  During her career in America, Russia, and Europe, she developed a dance technique influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and advocated the idea that a dance based on that of the ancient Greeks (which was perceived as natural and free) was the dance of the future.  Duncan and Fuller were both seen as pioneers of free dance, but while Fuller focused on creating a magical, otherworldly synthesis of the arts, Duncan developed a philosophy of dance based on spiritual concepts and advocated the acceptance of pure dance as a high art, and a connection to a new and vital spirituality. 


Duncan arrived in Paris in 1900, where she began to immerse herself in the tradition of Greek tragedy (such as those performed by the Comédie Françcaise), and the arts of antiquity (such as those held at the Louvre).  Her 1903 speech, “The Dance of the Future,” given in Berlin, became one of the manifestos for the emerging art of free dance.  In her descriptions, she adopted a rhetoric of revitalized arts that was in many ways parallel to that of the Futurists, Symbolists, and other avant-garde visual art and literary movements.  Duncan declared that:


There will always be movements which are the perfect expression of that individual body and that individual soul: so we must not force it to make movements which are not natural to it […]

The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of the soul will have become the movement of the body.  The dancer will not belong to a nation but to all humanity.  She will dance not in the form of a nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette but in the form of a woman in its greatest and purest expression.  She will realize the mission of woman’s body and the holiness of all its parts.  She will dance the changing life of nature, showing how each part is transformed into one another.  From all parts of her body shall shine radiant intelligence, bringing to the world the message of the thoughts and aspirations of thousands of women.  She shall dance the freedom of women. 

This is the mission of the dancer of the future…she is coming, the dancer of the future: the free spirit, who will inhabit the body of new women; more glorious than any woman that has yet been; more beautiful than … all women in past centuries: The highest intelligence in the freest body!”[1]

Both the performances and personal life of Isadora Duncan were received as revolutionary and scandalous, as she broke not only the old nineteenth-century codes of bodily movement but also the social mores of her time, dancing partially naked and engaging in extravagantly publicized affairs with both men and women who shared her irreverence toward the standard moral, social, and aesthetic conventions, thus becoming “both the greatest living dancer and the symbol of the body’s deliverance from mid-Victorian taboos.”[2]


Her connections to contemporary writers were profound.  “Art was whatever Isadora did,” wrote John Dos Passos in his 1930-1936 trilogy, U.S.A.[3]   In Isadora Duncan, Dos Passos both discovered and recreated an image of the modern artist.  At once ironic and idealized, his portrayal of her captures the complexities of artistry in modernity.  As a dancer whose myth was at least powerful as her movements, she attracted both the public imagination and that of individual contemporary artists. 


Dos Passos claimed that Duncan “was an American like Walt Whitman,”[4] and saw in her revolutionary artistry a resonance with his own ideal of the American spirit and democratic expression, the “speech of the people”[5]  that he ultimately envisioned his own art to be.  He both parodied and embraced her concept of art as religion, discovering a kindred revolutionary spirit and implicit parallels between his Joycean revitalization of language and Duncan’s turn to ancient Greece to break the codes of nineteenth-century ballet and transform dance from entertainment into religion and high art.


Duncan’s myriad love affairs often had a literary and artistic dimension as well.  She was briefly married to the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, and although they barely understood each other’s languages, they shared ideals about the revitalization of art.  In a manifesto of his literary movement, Imaginism, Yesenin wrote,


Words have become used up, like old coins, they have lost their primordial poetic power. We cannot create new      words. Neologism and trans-sense language are nonsense. But we have found a means to revive dead words, expressing them in dazzling poetic images. This is what we Imaginists have created. We are the inventors of the new.[6]


Yesenin’s Imaginism and Duncan’s free dance took similar approaches to words and movement: both strove to recapture the “primordial poetic power” of art: Yesenin with long spirals of images and metaphor, and Duncan with the simple, powerful movements of what was understood to be the dance of ancient Greece. 


Following Yesenin’s suicide in 1925, Duncan’s literary affairs continued: she embarked on a lengthy correspondence to (and affair with) the Cuban-American poet and playwright Mercedes De Acosta, as well as an affair with poet and expatriate Natalie Clifford Barney, famous for her literary salons in Paris.  Her own autobiography, written to stave off imminent poverty, is both an effort to express the meaning of her dancing and her consummate challenge to both create and to embody inspiration:


It has taken me years of struggle, hard work, and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the Art of writing to realize that it would take me again just so many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence […]  Any woman or man who would write the truth of their lives would write a great work.  But no one has dared […]  No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life. The autobiographies of the most famous women are a series of accounts of the outward existence, of petty details and anecdotes which give no realisation of their real life.  For the great moments of joy or agony they remain strangely silent.
My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement.  It has taken me long years to find even one absolutely true movement.  Words have a different meaning.  Before the public which has thronged my representations I have had no hesitation.  I have given them the most secret impulses of my soul. From the first I have only danced my life.[7]


Duncan’s aura of radical artistry gradually disintegrated as those around her began to believe that she had outlived her prime.  She became increasingly known more for her financial troubles, public affairs, and regular intoxication than for her dancing.  And after the visionary artist of Dos Passos’ biography (“Art meant Isadora.”[8] ), images of dance in U.S.A. follow a similar pattern of disintegration, become increasingly sexualized, materialized, and cynical, chronically split from the old ideals of art even while parodically recalling them in allusions to the arts of antiquity, as in “Newsreel LX”:


you too can quickly learn dancing at home without music and without a partner . . . produces the same results as an experienced masseur only quicker, easier, and less expensive.  Remember only marriageable men in the full possession of unusual physical strength will be accepted as the Graphic Apollos[9]



U.S.A., in its tension between cynicism and idealism, the coexisting belief in the ability to revive primordial sources of beauty and recognition of what Duncan once called “the pitiless brutality and crushing progress of life,”[10]  takes up Isadora Duncan as a powerful but equally vulnerable image of art in the modern world.   


 Finally, a conversation between Sergei Yesenin and Isadora Duncan, translated between them by their secretary, expresses the tension between poetry and dance, transience and immortality that Duncan’s writing, dancing, and life embodied:


    “A dancer can never become very great because her fame doesn’t last.  It is gone the moment she dies.”
    “No,” said Isadora, “for a dancer if she is great, can give to the people something that they will carry with them forever.  They can never forget it, and it has changed them, though they may not know it.”
    “You are just a dancer.  People may come and admire you—even cry.  But after you are dead, no one will remember.  Within a few years all your great fame will be gone. . . . No Isadora!”
    All this he said in Russian, for me to translate, but the last two words he said in the English intonation, straight into Isadora’s face, with a very expressive, mocking motion of his hands, as if he had waved the remnants of the mortal Isadora to the four winds. “But poets live,” he continued, still smiling.  “I, Esenin, shall leave my poems behind me.  And poems live.  Poems like mine live forever.”
    Beneath the obvious mockery and teasing tone there was something extraordinarily cruel.  A shadow passed over Isadora’s face as I translated what he said. Suddenly she turned to me, her voice very serious:
    “Tell him he is wrong, tell him he is wrong.  I have given people beauty.  I have given them my very soul when I danced. And this beauty did not die.  It exists somewhere. . . .” Suddenly she had tears in her eyes, and she added in her pitiful, childish Russian: “Krasota nie umiray” (Beauty not dies).[11]
  1. Isadora Duncan, The Dance of the Future. Leipzig: Eugen Diedrichs, 1903.
  2. Melvin Landsberg, Dos Passos’ Path to U.S.A.: A Political Biography, 1912-1936. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1972: 196.
  3. John Dos Passos. U.S.A. (New York: Library of America, 1996), 899.
  4. Ibid, 899.
  5. Ibid, 3.
  6. “Sergei Aleksandrovich Esenin,” http://www.sovlit.com/bios/esenin.html. Accessed March 28, 2008.
  7. Isadora Duncan, My Life. New York: W.W. Norton, 1927, 7-9.
  8. U.S.A., 899.
  9. U.S.A., 903.
  10. My Life, 9.
  11. Lola Kinel, This is My Affair. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937: 250-1.
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