Isadora Duncan: A Dance Prodigy or Ridiculous Charlatan?

Isadora Duncan: A Dance Prodigy or Ridiculous Charlatan?

The Melodramatic Isadora Duncan: From International Celebrity to Poverty

Isadora Duncan was born in1878 in San Francisco (CA) and died on September 14, 1927, in Nice, France. As a young girl, Isadora rejected the formal rigidity of classic ballet and based her dancing on more natural rhythms and movements. Her earliest public performances in Chicago and New York City met with little success, and at the age of 21 she left the United States to seek recognition abroad. With her meager savings she sailed on a cattle boat for England. Duncan was soon invited to perform at the private receptions and salons of London’s leading hostesses, where her dancing, distinguished by a complete freedom of movement, completely enthralled those who were familiar only with the conventional forms of ballet, which at that time was in a period of decay. Soon the phenomenon of Isadora Duncan dancing barefoot and scantily clad as a woodland nymph, brought large crowds to theaters and concert halls throughout Europe. Duncan toured widely and at one time or another she founded dance schools in Germany, Russia, and the United States, although none of them survived.

Duncan’s private life, quite as much as her dancing, kept her name in newspaper headlines owing to her constant disregard of social taboos. The father of her first child, Deirdre, was the stage designer Gordon Craig, who shared her abhorrence of marriage; the father of her second child, Patrick, was Paris Singer, the heir to a sewing machine fortune and a prominent art patron. In 1913 a tragedy occurred from which Duncan never really recovered: the car in which her two children and their nurse were riding in Paris rolled into the Seine River and all three were drowned. Her subsequent tours in South America, Germany, and France were less successful than before, but in 1920 she was invited to establish a school of her own in Moscow. There she met Sergei Esenin, a poet 17 years younger than she, whose work had won him a considerable reputation. Her marriage to Esenin was a disaster, and his drinking and increasing mental instability turned him against her. He returned alone to the Soviet Union and, in 1925, committed suicide. During the last years of her life, Isadora Duncan was a somewhat pathetic figure, living precariously with little money in Nice on the French Riviera, where she met with a fatal accident: her legendary long scarf became entangled in the rear wheel of the car in which she was riding, and she was strangled.

Isadora Duncan: Dance Prodigy or Ridiculous Charlatan

In the early 1900s, fat, middle-aged, highly sexed women weren’t supposed to dance, bare their breasts, or take lovers half their age. But Isadora Duncan did all of that and more while she was leading her free-range, tragic, melodramatic life 90 years ago. Could this woman really have been a dance genius? In 1921, when Duncan was 44 years-old, fat and notorious, a 17-year-old English boy bought a ticket to see her perform at London’s Prince of Wales Theater. “I didn’t think I’d like it but I was absolutely captivated,” he recalled many years later. “I suppose she was rather blowsy, and the first impact of her gave me a shock, but that soon passed. I find that people now stress this appalling life that she led, and the sexual side, but I didn’t get that impression at all. She had the most extraordinary quality of repose. She would stand for what seemed quite a long time doing nothing, and then make a very small gesture that seemed full of meaning.”

That boy, Frederick Ashton, would grow up to become Britain’s foremost ballet choreographer, and he was not the only creative figure to be enchanted by the alternative dancing that Isadora Duncan performed. Auguste Rodin, the acclaimed sculptor, said that she was his greatest inspiration; Konstantin Stanislavsky, Moscow’s radical theater director, was fascinated; George Bernard Shaw was impressed, despite himself; and the pivotal figures of 20th-century Russian ballet, Sergei Diaghilev, Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine unreservedly admired her. But while half the dance world marveled at Duncan’s magical ability to pluck dance from the air without apparent preparation or technique, the other half was totally dismissing of her as nothing but a sensationalist. The strongly held diametrically opposed opinions of Isadora ranged from those who adored Duncan and described her work as spectacular, to those who flatly described her as rubbish. But one can’t ignore the fact that Duncan was outside of her time, and very bravely, too; she knocked a lot of conventions on their head. She was also a widely-known celebrity figure, honored in theaters throughout Europe and pulled through the streets in carriages surrounded by adoring throngs. During her onstage performances, Duncan would give little talks that embraced Communism, attacked the rich and harangued her audiences.

The very short video presented below is footage from an outdoor recital given by Isadora Duncan. In the opening section, Isadora adjusts the robe on her shoulder, and then the dance continues beyond that. It is the only known piece of film showing her dancing.

Isadora Duncan: A Dance Performance in the Forest

Photo-Gallery: The Melodramatic Isadora Duncan

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Photo of the Day: Hands-Atop-Hands

Photo of the Day: Hands-Atop-Hands

Photography by: Joseph O. Holmes, NYC

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Photo of the Day: The Shadow Dancer’s Finale

Photo of the Day: The Shadow Dancer’s Finale

Photography by: C. Ray Dancer

The shadow dancer is swathed in the mystery of darkness. She is forever fixed in mid-passage, as are the gestures of all the men around her whom she never really sees. Forever rooted in place, a frozen metaphor, she’s a burlesque dancer rehearsing her routines that we can only behold in our imaginations.

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AIG Greed Redux: John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

AIG Greed Redux: John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

A national outcry of public outrage has forced the Obama administration to take action on the large bonuses that AIG has given to a group of its executives. The bonuses that AIG has distributed went to the very group of employees whose risky trades brought the company to the brink of collapse. “It’s hard to understand how derivative traders at AIG warranted any bonuses, much less $165 million in extra pay,” Obama said at the outset of an appearance to announce help for small businesses hurt by the deep recession. “How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat,” the president said.

The whole debacle of the greed displayed by AIG, as well as by some large banks that recently received large sums of bailout money from the government, is reminiscent of the simultaneous collapse of both the French trading arm and royal bank in the early 1700s. That collapse has been described as “John Law and the Mississippi Bubble.” John Law was a Scottish economist who believed that money was only a means of exchange that did not constitute wealth in itself and that national wealth depended on trade. During the reign of Louis XIV, John Law set up France’s Banque Générale Privée (“General Private Bank”), which developed the use of paper money. Many have considered Law to be little more than a colorful con man, responsible for the Mississippi Bubble and the chaotic economic collapse in France.

Richard Condie’s 1978 animated short film, John Law and the Mississippi Bubble, offers up a history lesson about that sensational get-rich-quick scheme, which took place in France over 200 years ago. The film won the Best Film Award at the 1980 International Short Film Festival in Tampere, Finland. With economist John Law at the helm, the plan was to open a national French bank and exchange bank notes for gold at wildly inflated share prices to mask the fact that the country’s gold had been depleted in the building of Louis XIV’s palace. In the film, when the inevitable rush to cash in the notes takes place, poor John Law is left broke and broken-hearted.

It was one of the most sensational get-rich-quick schemes heard of in a long time, but it eventually burst over the head of its originator, John Law. This “rags to riches to rags” story, in which the plan was to open a bank and exchange banknotes (paper!) for gold at wildly inflated share prices, ends when John Law, having been cleaned out as a result of a rush to cash in the notes, is left broke and broken-hearted.

John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

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Photo of the Day: Trois Très Artsy Dummies

Photo of the Day: Trois Très Artsy Dummies

Photography by: Joseph O. Holmes, NYC

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Pure Detroit: When Old Things Get Broken

Pure Detroit: When Old Things Get Broken

Pure Detroit is a short film by Ivan George with gorgeous cinematography, but also one which confronts the viewer with dramatic images of the effects that rapid economic and social change can have upon urban life. The impact of the film has been described as somewhere between heaven, hell and quiet meditation. While Pure Detroit is a beautiful visual mood piece, it’s also incredibly sad. The film reveals so much about the rapid changes we’re encountering in our world right now, how the old things gets broken much faster than new things are put in their place. Pure Detroit serves as a powerful reminder of what the old things breaking down can be like for so many of us.

Pure Detroit: When Old Things Get Broken

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Photos of the Day: Train of Thought

Photos of the Day: Train of Thought

Photography by: Joseph O. Holmes, NYC

Train of Thought

Animated Short Film by: Jeff Scher

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