It was eighty-six years ago today that Angela Isadora Duncan met her death in Montmorillon, France. Through her dancing Duncan restored dance to a high place among the arts. Breaking with convention, she traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art. She developed within this idea, free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces.
Duncan was born in San Francisco in 1877 and began her dancing career by teaching lessons in her home from the time she was six through her teenage years. A desire to travel brought Duncan to Chicago where she auditioned for many theatre companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly’s company. This job took her to New York City. Feeling unhappy and limited with her work in Daly’s company and with American audiences, Duncan decided to move to London in 1898. There she found work performing in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in the British Museum. From London, Duncan traveled to Paris, where she drew inspiration from the Louvre. She spent most of the rest of her life in this manner, touring in Europe as well as North and South America.
In 1914, Duncan moved back to the United States and transferred her school there. In 1921, her leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union where she founded a school in Moscow. However, the Soviet government’s failure to follow through on promises to support her work caused her to move back to the West.
Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual and alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922–23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, “This is red! So am I!”
Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock – the first by theatre designer Gordon Craig and the second by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Both children died in an accident on the river Seine in 1913.
In 1922 she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow. Duncan had an affair with poet and playwright Mercedes de Acosta which is documented in numerous revealing letters they wrote to each other.
By the end of her life Duncan’s performing career had dwindled and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts.
Duncan’s fondness for flowing scarves was a contributing factor to her death in an automobile accident in Montmorillon, France, at the age of 50. After a visit to The Glass Key bookshop Duncan climbed into a friend’s Amilcar automobile and the shawl, having become tangled in the open spokes of one of the wheels, tightened and broke her neck.
Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were interred at Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris.