May 272015


Today is the birthday of Isadora Duncan, (Angela Isadora Duncan), U.S.-born dancer and dance theorist, famed throughout Europe and the U.S. for her style. Although born in California, she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 50. She performed to acclaim throughout Europe after being exiled from the United States for her pro-Soviet sympathies.

As I hope I always am, I will be up front about my bias here: I don’t like Duncan’s dance or her theories about it. It seems to me to be a product of its time without much endurance beyond that, although it soldiers on in little isolated pockets via her disciples. I have no quarrel with the general notion of physical and mental freedom, just not really enamored of its expression in Duncan’s work.


Duncan began her dancing career by teaching lessons in her home from the time she was six through her teenage years. Her different approach to dance is evident in these preliminary classes, in which she “followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head,” A desire to travel led Duncan to Chicago where she auditioned for many theater companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly’s company. This job took her to New York City where her unique vision of dance clashed with the popular pantomimes of theater companies.


Feeling unhappy and limited with her work in Daly’s company and with U.S. audiences, Duncan decided to move to London in 1898. There she found work performing in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and drew inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in the British Museum. The money she earned from these engagements allowed her to rent a dance studio to develop her work and create larger performances for the stage. From London, Duncan traveled to Paris, where she drew inspiration from the Louvre and the Exposition Universelle of 1900.

In 1902, Loie Fuller visited Duncan’s studio and invited Duncan to tour with her. This took Duncan all over Europe creating new works using her innovative dance technique. This style consisted of a focus on natural movement instead of the rigid technique of ballet. She spent most of the rest of her life in this manner, touring in Europe as well as North and South America, where she performed to mixed critical reviews. Despite the critics’ mixed reactions, she became quite popular for her distinct style and inspired many visual artists, including Antoine Bourdelle, Auguste Rodin, Arnold Ronnebeck, and Abraham Walkowitz, to create works based on her dance.


Duncan disliked the commercial aspects of public performance like touring and contracts because she felt they distracted her from her real mission: the creation of beauty and the education of the young. To achieve her mission, she opened schools to teach young women her dance philosophy. The first was established in 1904 in Grunewald. This institution was the birthplace of the “Isadorables” – Anna, Maria-Theresa, Irma, Lisel, Gretel, Erika, Isabelle, and Temple (Isadora’s niece) – Duncan’s protégées, who would go on to continue her legacy. Later, Duncan established a school in Paris that was quickly closed due to the outbreak of World War I.

Breaking with convention, Duncan imagined she had traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art ( a fantasy which, as an anthropologist, I find hard to deal with). She developed within this notion free and “natural” movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new U.S. athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, and leaping. I hope, however, we can remember that all human movement is derived from culture.


Duncan’s philosophy of dance moved away from rigid ballet technique and towards her perception of natural movement. To restore dance to a high art form instead of entertainment, she sought a connexion between emotions and movement: “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.” Duncan took inspiration from ancient Greece and combined it with the U.S. conception of freedom. This is exemplified in her costume of a white Grecian tunic and bare feet. Inspired by Grecian forms, her tunics also allowed a freedom of movement corseted ballet costumes and pointe shoes did not.


Her focus on “natural” movement emphasized steps outside of codified ballet technique. She also cited the sea as an early inspiration for her movement. Some attribute the founding of modern dance to Duncan, but I think this is over-reaching. She is certainly ONE of the inspirations, but modern dance is a very different animal.

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!”


The circumstances of Duncan’s death are well known. On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, she was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic who was demonstrating it for her. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked Duncan to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but Duncan would only agree to wear the scarf. As they departed, Duncan reportedly said to Desti and some companions, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”); but according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan’s actual last words were, “Je vais à l’amour” (“I am off to love”). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.

Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the shawl almost immediately after the car left. Desti took Duncan to the hospital, where she was declared dead.

The New York Times noted in its obituary: “Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, tonight met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera. According to dispatches from Nice, Miss Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.” Other sources described her death as resulting from strangulation, noting that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein’s mordant remark that “affectations can be dangerous.”

My wife and I once attended an “arts costume party” where we were supposed to come dressed as our favorite artists. I went as Vincent, suitably dressed in period clothes with my ear swathed in bloody bandages; my wife dressed in a Grecian tunic with bare feet. She was instantly recognizable, while everyone was terribly worried about what had happened to my ear.


Duncan told others that her mother was desperately sick while pregnant with her, and survived only by eating oysters and sipping champagne. This, she believed, was the food of the goddess Aphrodite. I’m a tad skeptical of the latter claim – maybe the former too: Duncanesque though. In any event, it’s a good excuse for me to prattle on a bit about oysters. Longtime readers know about my love of tripe, but I have never really gone on much about oysters which are, in fact, my second favorite after tripe. I like cooked oysters all right, and have had more than my fair share of them in fritters, soups, etc. But you won’t find me eating them cooked when I can get them on the half shell.

There are really two issues about oysters on the half shell: what you put on them, and where they are from (and what type). These are both things I can prattle on about more or less indefinitely. What to put on them can be a complex question. I’m content to shuck them and eat them plain, slurping the liquor from the shell as the sauce. But I’ll also commonly indulge in the usual squirt of lemon, dash of hot sauce, or grind of black pepper. A horseradish sauce can work for me too. Some Asian cultures have some pretty nifty ideas too, although mostly they want to cook them. Here in Yunnan they are grilled with a spicy topping. In Japan they’re much more comfortable with raw stuff, and I’ve had some delectable multi-layered hot, sweet, sour, salty sauces dribbled over them.

Type of oyster is one of those things you can’t really argue about. I’ve had them all over the world. Grand Central train station oyster bar in New York is a good (but uber-expensive) place to sample different varieties if you don’t want to travel. My tastes are simple – I like them ALL !!

Truth be told, I’ve usually drunk beer with oysters. In England and Ireland it’s quite common to drink Guinness with oysters which provides a bitter contrast. For champagne I’d go with a Moët & Chandon brut if I could afford it these days. I don’t know where I scared up the money to drink it (with strawberries) when I was an undergraduate.

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