Biography of Isadora Duncan
by Jeanne Bresciani, Ph.D.
An adapted excerpt from Myth and Image in the Dance of Isadora Duncan, published by University of Michigan Ann Arbor Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan © 2000
Isadora Duncan’s Early Life in California
Born in California in 1877, Duncan’s childhood was as chaotic as it was sublime. Her mother, Dora Angela Duncan, a self-educated cultured woman, provided her four children with classical underpinnings that instilled a love and respect for art and language and a reverence for the past. Her father, Joseph Duncan, a banker-aesthete, abandoned the family when Duncan was quite young. However, even in absentia, he prophetically heralded Duncan’s formative concepts of a Greek sensibility through his published poem, “Intaglio: Lines on a Beautiful Greek Antique,” in which he wrote, “Greece is living Greece once more.” (Duncan, Art of the Dance, 144; quoting Bret Harte, ed., Outcroppings: Being Selections of California Verse. San Francisco: A. Roman, 1866).
Duncan’s family moved often, eventually traveling across America and then to Europe. They arrived in London the summer of 1899, where Duncan, then age 22, immersed herself every day for four months in the vast holdings of the British Museum. (Duncan, Original Notebook from the Arnold Rood Collection, n.d., Special Collections, Theatre Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, without pagination. Courtesy of Barbara Kane.)
Isadora Duncan Goes to Europe
Thereafter, they left for Paris, where Duncan was introduced to the Louvre’s collection of Greek vases and their iconography. In her autobiography, Duncan recalls that her brother, Raymond, sketched every red or black-figured vessel in that collection. Duncan subsequently danced from their inspired images, while Raymond photographed her. (Duncan, My Life, 67-68.) It was their self-proclaimed mission to attune themselves to the ancient Greek sensibility, its aesthetic and its ethos.
Duncan was particularly drawn to the myths and traditions of the Western cultural imagination, most notably those of ancient Greece. Their influence was deep and resolute. They infused not only her work, but her very `soul’: the latter being a concept taken from ancient Greece that is central to Duncan and her work.
From early childhood, Duncan identified with ancient Greek philosophies, rituals and ceremonies. To some critics, her life-long commitment to these and the inspiration she derived from them, would appear as an obsession. To Duncan, however, the connections were at once both historical and contemporary. She drew from them personally to live her life, and professionally, in her determination to restore the ancient ideal of “The Dance” (as she envisioned it practiced in the ancient Greek world) to its centrality in human experience.
Her dedication to this goal defined dance less as an entertainment and more as a propitiation to the forces of nature and to the gods. For Duncan, dance was the expression of creative impulse. It was a non-vocal manifestation of the human psyche and an affirmation of the human spirit. She accepted the view that dance was the most ancient of arts and that it had sprung from the vital urgencies of communal life, which were manifested in the ceremonies and rituals of earliest mankind.( Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, trans. Bessie Schonberg. New York: Norton, 1937). She also acknowledged her own role as both inheritor and progenitor of this legacy.
As early as 1905, Duncan wrote:
And how shall one name that movement which is in accord with the most beautiful human form? There is a name, the name of one of the oldest of the arts — time-honored as one of the nine Muses — but it is a name that has fallen into such disrepute in our day that it has come to mean just the opposite of this definition. I would name it the Dance. (Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, ed. Sheldon Cheney (New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1928), 67-68.
Duncan referred to both the moribund state of the Romantic ballet and the tawdry, vaudevillian presentations at the turn of the century.)
Duncan’s reference to ancient Greece as fertile ground for intellectual, artistic and popular expression was not unique for the period. Duncan was particularly influenced by the Delsartean system of expression, which emphasized “harmonic poise,” “artistic statue posing” and “plastique.”
Isadora Duncan and the Inspiration of Greek Ideals
In recent times, Duncan has been accused of appropriating Greek culture to develop her dancing persona, with further charges that her dedication to the Greek ideal was merely a superficiality. One might argue that such criticism is unfounded and reflects a misunderstanding of the sources of Duncan’s motivation as well as of the totality of the Greek world view. It is clear from Duncan’s own writings, public statements and documented accounts, that she understood her reference to the Greek world not as a rarification of their ideals, but more as a matrix that provided her with a conceptual framework from which to explore her art, her politics and her lifestyle:
To bring to life again the ancient ideal! I do not mean to say, copy it, imitate it; but to breathe its life, to recreate it in one’s self, with personal inspiration: to start from its beauty and then go toward the future. (Duncan, The Art of the Dance, 96.)
Duncan recognized instinctively that which scholars today purport: that the basis of ancient Greek art and life was religious and political at its core, not aesthetic. Therefore, as Duncan developed her artistic and public persona, she became both “priestess” and “revolutionary” to her sacred causes. These included the dance, social justice and freedom for the human body and spirit. Duncan was able to enjoin all three in her artistic declaration against the bondage of Puritanism and government without vision, in her extraordinary essay, “I See America Dancing.”( Duncan, The Art of the Dance, 47-50.) As her views evolved, she came to embrace a religion without dogma and a politics devoid of national bias. She understood and sought the roots of her inspiration in ancient Greek ideals and in their antecedents within ancient mysteries. The combination gave rise to a profound dialectic that characterized Duncan and her art. The great Irish poet, Shaemus O’Sheel, captured this essence of Duncan’s work when he eulogized:
Isadora’s art was great symbolic art. Her stage was the wind-drifted border between flowering meadow and sandy beach on the margin of some nameless sea where the horn of Poseidon faintly echoes, and Kypris, the World’s Desire, might be born of any wandering wave …. And she was the soul of man confronting nature and the enigma of life, brave and troubled and terrified among the mysteries … Symbolic art … [that] taps the very sources of joy and grief, and startles from their slumber those race-memories that live unnoted in the still places of the soul.
That O’Sheel wrote so evocatively of Duncan as spanning time, space and normal configuration in her dance is not surprising. Her exploration of human movement, which led to the notion of freedom for the body, likewise evolved to the notion of freedom for one’s soul. As inspired readers and followers adopted the concepts she espoused, they were reminded metaphorically and directly of her source of inspiration:
Duncan had long espoused the freedoms in the Greek traditions, internalizing them. They provided a foundation from which she defined her own rights and that of her contemporaries. She challenged most of society’s restrictions on human behavior, particularly those placed on women and their bodies, through her dance and public behavior. But, it was her reinvestment of the “soul,” a concept that she accepted as early as 1901, that truly reinvented the “body” for society and for modern women:
I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement. For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breasts, covering the solar plexus …. I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the crater of motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movements are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance — it was from this discovery that was born the theory on which I founded my school …. When I had learned to concentrate all my force in this one center, I found that thereafter when I listened to music the rays and vibrations of the music streamed to this one fount of light within me, where they reflected themselves in Spiritual Vision, not the mirror of the brain but of the soul. (Duncan, My Life, 75.)
In light of Duncan’s innovations and their impact on her contemporaries in the press, in the arts and among the intelligentsia of Europe, she became a cultural phenomenon, with particular spiritual and `soul-ful’ attributes. By 1903, when she was hailed in Germany as “die göttliche, heilige Isadora” (the goddess-like one, St. Isadora) and carried triumphantly through the streets on unhitched carriages by the public, she had shifted from a mere celebrity to a cultural icon.