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Spotlight: Isadora Duncan

Today's Spotlight Saturday article focuses on innovative modern dancer Isadora Duncan, who believed that dance should be freedom of movement.

An early portrait, in Greek dress

She was born Angela Isadora Duncan on either 26 May, 1877, or 27 May, 1878 (lost records make it hard to discover which), in San Francisco, United States. She was the youngest child of Joseph and Mary Duncan, and had three siblings, Raymond, Augustin, and Elizabeth, herself a dancer. Shortly after her birth, Isadora's father was exposed for illegal bank dealing, and the family became very poor.

Her parents divorced while she was still a baby, and her mother took the children to Oakland, where she worked as a seamstress and piano teacher. Isadora attended school until the age of 10, but found it too restricting. Instead, she worked with her siblings, teaching dance to neighbourhood children.

As the first fairy in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', c. 1896

In 1896, Isadora went to Chicago and was accepted into Augustin Daly's theatre company. She toured to New York with the company, but her ideas clashed with the pre-existing expectations of pantomime and theatre. Frustrated, Isadora moved to London in 1898. She took to performing in the drawing rooms of the upper class, drawing her inspiration from the Greek vases on display in the British Museum. The money she earned allowed her to rent a studio space, where she developed larger productions for the stage. She travelled briefly to Paris, drawing more inspiration from the collection of the Louvre Museum and the Exposition Universelle of 1900.

Another early portrait, in Greek dress

In 1902, Isadora went on tour with Loie Fuller, another modern dance pioneer. She created new works all over Europe, receiving mixed reviews from the critics. Despite this, she soon became popular with audiences for her distinctive style. She was to spend the rest of her life touring in this way throughout Europe and America. She emphasised natural movement instead of technique-driven classical ballet.

In Munich, 1903

Isadora tried of commercial tours as she felt they distracted her from what she saw as her true purpose: to teach the meaning of beauty to children. She opened her first school in Germany in 1904, leading to the creation of the 'Isadorables' - Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Lisel, Gretel, Erika, Isabelle, and Temple (also Isadora's niece). These girls, six of whom were legally adopted by Isadora in 1919, were her protégées and carried on her legacy after her death.

With her students in Germany; the 'Isadorables' are present

Isadora and her close friend Mary D'Este or 'Desti' became associated with the occultist Aleister Crowley in 1910. Crowley referred to Isadora as 'Lavinia King' in his novel Moonchild, in which Desti also appeared as 'Lisa la Giuffria'. Desti later wrote a memoir of her time with Isadora, entitled The Untold Story: The Life of Isadora Duncan 1921-1927.

In 1911, the French fashion designer Paul Poiret began hosting lavish parties in a rented villa called Pavillon du Butard. On 20 June 1912, he staged his grandest party yet, a recreation of the bacchanalia celebrated by Louis XIV at Versailles. Isadora, wearing a Greek evening gown designed by Poiret, danced on tables for 300 guests; it is said that 900 bottles of champagne were drunk before dawn.

Dancing in the garden with her iconic veil

Very popular in France, Isadora opened another school in Paris, but was forced to close it on the outbreak of the First World War. She moved back to the United States and brought her school with her. She staged many performances in the Century Theatre in New York, including a production of Oedipus Rex.

The 'Isadorables', her six adopted daughters

Isadora was supposed to leave the United States in 1915, on the RMS Lusitania, a passenger ship which sank after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing 1,198 people. Isadora cancelled her booking due to financial troubles. In 1921, her communist sympathies led her to move to the new Soviet Union. She founded a school in Moscow, but was disappointed with the party's failure to follow through on their promises. She went left Russia, leaving the school under the direction of 'Isadorable' Irma.

With the 'Isadorables', 1917

Isadora had three children, despite being unmarried. Deirdre and Patrick drowned in 1913 when the car they were in went out of control and plunged into the Seine. Her younger son, born in 1914, died shortly after birth. She was briefly married to Russian poet Sergei Esenin, and had an affair with poet Mercedes de Acosta.

With children Deirdre and Patrick, 1912

Towards the end of her life, Isadora hardly ever performed, and she was notorious for financial difficulties, public drunkenness, and scandalous love affairs. She wandered Paris and the Mediterranean, living on the kindness of her remaining friends. She published an autobiography entitled My Life in 1927.

At the Mediterranean Sea

Isadora was killed on 27 September, 1927, in Nice, France. Her long silk scarf caught in the wheels of the car she was travelling in. Sources report that she either died from a broken neck, having been thrown from the vehicle, or from strangulation as the scarf tightened. Isadora was cremated, and her ashes were buried with those of her children in Paris.

Isadora in a short Greek tunic, 1904

Isadora removed herself from the technique of classical ballet, developing a freer dance form with reference to classical Greek art, folk dancing, and nature. She aimed to find a connection between movement and emotion. She was revolutionary, dancing what she felt, and wearing nothing but a light Greek tunic and bare feet, considered scandalous at the time. Though she failed in her attempt to create a lasting school, her ideas continued through her students, influencing the choreographers of the twentieth century and giving her the title of creator of modern dance.

Isadora dancing on the beach

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Vaslav Nijinsky.

- Selene

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