Today were are going to talk about my all-time favorite drama queen, Isadora Duncan. All citations come from Barbara Holland’s They Went Whistling. Now, I may pick on Duncan a ton in this, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love everything about her. She’s as mad as purse full of bees, but she’s entertaining as hell. I love a woman who is not burdened with self-awareness or common decency.
So, of all the crazies that have ever appeared on this blog Isadora Duncan is hereby crowned QUEEN PROZAC OF EGO-CITY, population: her. She was the real-life Jenna Maroney, only instead of being an actress, Duncan was the mother of modern dance and took her Art. Very. Seriously. She wrote in her memoirs, “My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement.” Okay.
Holland writes, “Those with no sympathy for modern dance might consider her Art basically an excuse to take her clothes off in public, but then she was always misunderstood by the bourgeois philistine” (197). It’s a good thing she had a great sneering nose, because she spent 100% of her time looking down it:
Isadora Duncan was born in California in 1877, and certainly got that whole “Hollywood attitude” thing started off early. She dropped out of school at age 10 so she could start her own dance school for children in her neighborhood. She basically spent her time flitting around on the streets, disdaining any formal dance background (she thought ballet was DISGUSTING), and having no real structure to her life.
“Her father was a poet; her mother taught piano to support them and in the evenings played classical music and read aloud from Shelley and Shakespeare” (197) while the four kids just kinda did whatever they wanted. In her early teens, she convinced her mother to take her to Chicago to audition for the theatre. No one liked her, and she and her mother were soon penniless.
Isadora refused to go home while “her mother took to fainting from hunger” (198). Finally a theatre manager agreed to take her on if she promised to get a better costume. “What did she do? She marched into the Marshall Field’s department store and told the manager she needed fabric for a costume and would pay him back when she got the job. Perhaps stunned by her nerve, he gave it to her, and her mother stayed up all night, fainting occasionally, sewing frills. She got the job: fifty dollars a week, to be paid in advance. At the end of the week she quit, disgusted at having ‘to amuse the public with something which was against my ideals’” (198).
That is one cheeky 13-year-old. She deserves a good slap. Instead, she was babied and humored.
She got the whole family to move to New York. In New York, people would “get” her! So while her family was starving in a one room apartment, she kept getting and immediately quitting jobs in the theatre for being “too degrading”. She didn’t really understand the concept of paying one’s dues and working her way up the ladder. She was a STAAAAAAAAAAAR!
These are the arms a star makes.
So she decided to move to London. In London, people would “get” her! She got cash for the trip by going door-to-door all over New York and asking fashionable women to fund her genius. Very few takers. The plebes. The family managed to cross by cattle boat and once they got there, ever impractical with money, spent the whole time sightseeing instead of trying to find work. It was only when their furious landlady demanded to be paid and impounded their luggage that they went, “Huh. Guess we should get on that.”
Isadora was very, very lucky. I don’t know what would have happened had she not gotten a big break. Probably nothing good. But one night she and her vaguely-incesty brother, Raymond were dancing in Kensington Square gardens when the great actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell happened to walk by. She asked them where on earth they came from, and Isadora replied, “‘not from the earth at all, but from the moon,’ which so enchanted the star that she took them under her wing” (200).
She became instantly famous, even getting the Prince of Wales to drool over her. But London was too bourgeois and the theatre scene wasn’t big enough for what she wanted to do. She decided to move to Paris. In Paris, people would finally “get” her!
“Inspired by Greek vases in the Louvre, she took to dancing in the nude or in transparent tunics, with bare feet and flowers in her hair, whenever the spirit moved her. People dropped in to her studio for a visit and she immediately broke into dance, followed by hours of lecture on its true meaning, ‘the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power . . . the mirror of vision'” (200). She was a weird combination of bat-shit insane and incredibly boring. Either way, she was exhausting.
Parisians adored her with a near-religious fervor, which was a mixed blessing for Isadora, who found that it really cut down on her chances of getting her freak on: “From time to time she flung herself passionately on various men, trying to lose her virginity, but she says she inspired such religious awe in her admirers that they shrank from deflowering her” (201).
Her problems only grew. She spent money faster than she could earn it, so her poor mother was still shivering in a one-room apartment despite all of Isadora’s success. In addition, the devotion of the Parisians only reaffirmed her belief in her own genius. So she would turn down the desperately-needed high-paying jobs that were “beneath” her. She got it into her head that she could only ever dance in an opera house, since it was a worthy “Temple of Music”. Anything else, a theatre or a music hall, was just too petty.
She went on a trip to Hungary, leaving her mother, ever hungry (*bah dum tssssh*) alone in France. So while dearest mama was weeping and fainting, Isadora partied it up with a Hungarian actor because he was the one guy who was willing to have sex with her. “Apparently there was a misunderstanding, though, because the actor started taking her around to look at apartments and seemed to assume they’d marry and she’d devote herself to his, not her, career” (201). She, who was firmly against marriage, screamed, “SHUT IT DOWN” and immediately left him to dance her way through Germany.
“Being sensitive and high-strung, she was completely prostrated by the breakup of the affair and had to convalesce luxuriously in spas, attended by doctors, before she went on” (202). Jesus Christ, you guys.
I guess the heartache was good for her performances, because people in Germany went absolutely freaking BANANAS for her, unharnessing her horses from her carriage and pulling her through the streets and pressing up against windows SO HARD to see her that they broke them.
But being a goddess is sooooooo haaaaaaaaaaard so she scraped together some cash and took her family on a trip to Greece, where she discovered her spiritual home. She started quoting Homer and dressing in a tunic, like the ancients, because yeah, that’s what Grecian people at the turn of the century did, and that’s not at all a cry for attention.
Then the family decided to build an actual temple to dance, and this is where Isadora would open up a school:
“In the temple they would dance for the sunrise every morning and spend the rest of the day converting the local shepherds back to Greek gods and tunics and dancing. The Duncans of California would single-handedly restore Greece to its Pagan glory” (202).
Now, *my* family has a natural immunity to the chicken pox, so I guess the Duncans must have had a natural immunity to goddamn common frickin sense, because Isadora had her brother (who was NOT an architect) design the plans for the school. Then she bought land that was 1.) far away from the city and 2.) on a giant hilltop. She then went right ahead and started having stone carted up the hill.
She was too busy having a local priest bless the cornerstones and sacrifice roosters (I’m not kidding) to bring good luck to the building site to notice that, oh, hey, they didn’t have any water up there, and that was going to be really inconvenient. So they tried to dig a well, but there was no water to be had. Oh, and by the way, the temple was half built and they had run out of money.
So Isadora went to Vienna, leaving her temple in the dust. The only thing she brought with her were 10 Greek boys who would serve as her chorus, but the parents didn’t really seem to be on board and it was vaguely akin to kidnapping. However, once she was in Vienna, her act began to flop. No one cared about Greek dances to the sun god–they wanted her to dance to waltzes like she used to.
Then the ungrateful chorus boys started misbehaving, sneaking out at night, singing off-key and being UNWOOOORTHY. Didn’t those blasted 8-year-olds realize how lucky they were to be plucked out of obscurity, ripped from the arms of their parents and dragged by a stranger they were supposed to worship into a foreign country? THE INGRATES.
So she sent them back to Greece.
Isadora reinvented herself more times than Madonna–the Greek thing was DEAD. It was time to turn to German philosophy, as you do. It also helped that she found another lover, “‘inspiring what she called ‘a super-human love.’ She was so taken with this fellow that his mere presence across the room caused her to groan and cry out in ‘wild flights of ecstasy and fainting bliss’. Unfortunately he wasn’t much for actual sex and besides, he was married, though his wife didn’t appreciate him and perhaps didn’t even faint with bliss when she saw him” (203).
To save herself from this ill-fated love match, she decided to go to Russia. The Russians will surely “get” her! She just didn’t quite “get” Russia, because she walked around in the dead of winter in her Greek tunic and sandals and it was lucky she didn’t DIE, but art is above the mere sufferings of the body, and blah blah. She was a great success there, and even impressed Pavlova, but then her fickleness kicked in and she decided, “Nope, let’s go back to Germany and finally start that dancing school.”
She bought a giant house and had it remade into a dormitory that would fit 40 children. People brought their kids, thinking they’d be trained into great stars, but instead Isadora had fallen in love with Gordon Craig, the son of Ellen Terry, and she ditched her responsibilities and spent two weeks in his studio having a non-stop sex marathon, “while her mother canvassed the hospitals and police stations wringing her hands” (205). The parents of the students were NOT AMUSED and the school lost both its funding and its pupils. I can’t imagine her mother was too amused, either.
Then Isadora got pregnant, and her mother, the long-suffering Mrs. Duncan, had had enough. She went back to the US, leaving Isadora to take care of herself for once. Isadora does not seem to have given a single crap, and went blissfully forward with Gordon. After a difficult labor which she only remembers with outrage (during which she was helped by a doctor only experienced with “peasant women” and not at all used to her “more refined nerves”), she gave birth to a daughter named Deirdre.
Craig was being difficult–his ego was just as big as hers–so Isadora dumped the baby with a nurse and went back to Russia, the German school forgotten. Thankfully, she didn’t have to worry about him for long. She met someone else and banged her way through Russia and, later, America.
ISADORA: *staggers back to Europe, like a drunk stumbling in at 5 a.m.* *remembers, “Oh, hey, I have a daughter!”*
DEIRDRE: I’m a baby, I haven’t seen my mother in 6 months, who is this strange lady? *cries*
ISADORA: *FUMES* *fickleness kicks in* Oh, hey, didn’t I want to open up a school, once?
GREEKS: Yeah, that didn’t really work. Remember, the money? The water?
GERMANS: Remember how you opened a school and ditched it right off to go do the sex thing for two weeks while your mother thought you were dead or something?
ISADORA: All I hear is world-wide support! Let us open a school!
BANKS: Yeaaaaah, your reputation is great and everything, but you need actual money.
ISADORA: Is there a rich playboy around who will be the punching bag for my neuroses and will fund everything I do and never say no to anything?
PARIS SINGER: What, you mean like a handsome heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune?
ISADORA: THAT WILL DO!
ISADORA AND PARIS: *have sex*
ISADORA: I know I’ve said this twice already, but this is the greatest love that has ever been. Blah blah pretentious bohemian crap about souls and bodies and the universe and twin hearts beating as one.
PARIS: You’re pretty awesome! *throws money*
ISADORA: Let’s go to Venice! The Venetians will definitely *get* me!
ISADORA: I had a vision that an angel visited me in a Venetian church!
ISADORA: I’M PREGNANT! I THINK IT WAS THE ANGEL.
ISADORA: I have a baby boy! He looks just like that angel!
PARIS: Want to get married? I’ve got a palatial estate in England that is the exact copy of Versailles, except it’s got a 14-car garage. Does that tickle your fancy?
ME: Do you not know this woman at all?
ISADORA: Gah, commitment, marriage, trapped–I’m going to America on tour, here take my kids, love you!
ISADORA: Honey? Kids? I’m hooome!
KIDS: *have no idea who she is*
ISADORA: *flirts with every man in a 10,000 mile radius*
ISADORA: *sleeps with every man in a 10,000 mile radius*
PARIS: This whole “doormat” thing is getting kind of old. I think it’s time we separated.
ISADORA: Nope. Bring me the children and we’ll all meet up in Paris and have a wonderful time!
PARIS: *sigh* Okay.
Unfortunately, the children and their nanny got in a car accident in Paris and all three died. Isadora was understandably shattered. In her memoirs, she implies that “she suffered far more than the rest of us would have and the ugliness of modern funeral customs made it even harder to bear. (It would be nice to think that her grief was sharpened by guilt at having seen so little of them during their short lives, but Isadora’s Being was, if not actually remorseless, remarkably remorse-free)” (209).
“Then her brother Raymond dragged her off to help him in his work for Albanian refugees, and she decided henceforth to live only for others, as a token of which self-sacrifice she cut off her lovely hair and threw it in the sea” (209). But then she pulled a full Scarlett O’Hara and realized that refugee camps and hospitals and bread lines were soooo not glamorous and why should she stay here helping others when she could be with her mother at Tara on tour with her worshipers?
Then she and Paris reunited and he bought her a giant hotel that she could convert into a school as a “sorry our children are dead” present, and it cheered her up. Her cure was complete.
She got pregnant with another child, but began to think she was having psychic premonitions. Her baby was born very close to the start of the WWI, and it died almost instantly. She was spooked and believed the child was frightened to death by the ugliness of the war. Then her new dance school was turned into a war hospital. She blamed the whole thing on people eating meat, because vegetarians like her never quarrel.
ISADORA: I think I’ll have to move my school back to America, where the war can’t touch it.
PARIS: Hey, honey. I’ve bought you a present. It’s Madison Square Garden. We can have your school there.
ISADORA: No. Not good enough.
ISADORA: *gets drunk at a public function, teaches a handsome young man the tango*
PARIS: After years of being used and cheated on, this is the final straw. I’m leaving you. Please take this giant bill as a souvenir.
ISADORA: Whatever. I’ll sell all the stuff you bought me, and oh, by the way, I’ve already found someone else.
NEW LOVER: *runs off with one of her pupils*
ISADORA: Aww, HALE NO.
RUSSIA: *Sends message* “The Russian Government alone can understand you. Come to us: we will make your school” (212).
ISADORA: I am going to turn Communist and lift up the proletariat with my dance! I dance so beautifully, I can save the world!
THE RUSSIAN SCHOOL: *does not materialize*
ISADORA: *moves back to France* The French *get* me!
Isadora’s career ran downhill, with few outside the dance world remembering her. She never had her school (well, for long, anyway) and she never recovered the fortune she squandered. However, she did manage to go out with a bang.
At age 51, she was dating another gentleman, who took her out for a long drive in his sports car. Always one to make a statement, Isadora wore a long, floating scarf to dangle out behind them as they drove. It proved to be too long. It got caught in the rear tire, choking her to death.
When I was in Paris, I went to see her grave at the crematorium site at Pere Lachaise. This is the picture I took.
Considering how much she hated ballet, either someone was really ignorant or those are some serious “fuck you” pointe shoes. I bet they were left by Paris Singer’s relatives.