Isadora Duncan (May 27, 1877 – September 14, 1927) was a dancer, considered by many to be the creator of modern dance. Duncan had many lovers and bore two children, Deirdre (born September 24, 1906), by theatre designer Gordon Craig, and Patrick (born 1 May 1910), by Paris Singer; both children drowned in a car accident on the Seine River on 19 April 1913, and Duncan herself died years later in another when her long scarf caught in the tires of an automobile in which she was riding, breaking her neck.
- To seek in nature the fairest forms and to find the movement which expresses the soul of these forms — this is the art of the dancer. It is from nature alone that the dancer must draw his inspirations, in the same manner as the sculptor, with whom he has so many affinities. Rodin has said: "To produce good sculpture it is not necessary to copy the works of antiquity; it is necessary first of all to regard the works of nature, and to see in those of the classics only the method by which they have interpreted nature." Rodin is right; and in my art I have by no means copied, as has been supposed, the figures of Greek vases, friezes and paintings. From them I have learned to regard nature, and when certain of my movements recall the gestures that are seen in works of art, it is only because, like them, they are drawn from the grand natural source.
My inspiration has been drawn from trees, from waves, from clouds, from the sympathies that exist between passion and the storm, between gentleness and the soft breeze, and the like, and I always endeavour to put into my movements a little of that divine continuity which gives to the whole of nature its beauty and its life.
- As quoted in Modern Dancing and Dancers (1912) by John Ernest Crawford Flitch, p. 105
- I have closely studied the figured documents of all ages and of all the great masters, but I have never seen in them any representations of human beings walking on the extremity of the toes or raising the leg higher than the head. These ugly and false positions in no way express that state of unconscious Dionysiac delirium which is necessary to the dancer. Moreover movèments, just like harmonies in music, are not invented; they are discovered.
- As quoted in Modern Dancing and Dancers (1912) by John Ernest Crawford Flitch, p. 106
- The butcher with his bloody apron incites bloodshed, murder. Why not? From cutting the throat of a young calf to cutting the throat of our brothers and sisters is but a step. While we are ourselves the living graves of murdered animals, how can we expect any ideal conditions on the earth?
- My Life (1928), Chapter 28
- I could have played the part of Saint Joan. I ought to have played it. I have the ample figure, the hardy physique of a farm-servant. Joan was a buxom creature. Yet she is always played by thin little actresses.
- Love is not the sacred thing that poets talk about … Love is an illusion; it is the world's greatest mistake. I ought to know for I've been loved as no other woman of my time has been loved. Men have threatened suicide, they have taken poison, they have fought duels for me. All kinds have come to me — [[geniuses], poets, millionaires, artists, musicians — but now there is not one to whom I have appealed for the loan of £25 who have responded.
There is love for you!
- I could not adopt him so I married him. You know how wonderful he is, like all Russians. He starts reciting verse at two o'clock in the morning.
- Of her husband, the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, as quoted in A Century of Sundays : 100 years of Breaking News in the Sunday Papers (2006) by Nadine Dreyer, p. 65
The Art of the Dance (1928)
- Edited by Sheldon Cheney
- The movement of the waves, of winds, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony. We do not stand on the beach and inquire of the ocean what was its movement of the past and what will be its movement of the future. We realize that the movement peculiar to its nature is eternal to its nature. The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body.
- p. 54
- The dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art. It is mere merchandise.
- p. 62
- The harmony of music exists equally with the harmony of movement in nature.
Man has not invented the harmony of music. It is one of the underlying principles of life. Neither could the harmony of movement be invented: it is essential to draw one’s conception of it from Nature herself, and to see the rhythm of human movement from the rhythm of water in motion, from the blowing of the winds on the world, in all the earth’s movements, in the motions of animals, fish, birds, reptiles, and even in primitive man, whose body still moved in harmony with nature…..All the movements of the earth follow the lines of wave motion. Both sound and light travel in waves. The motion of water, winds, trees and plants progresses in waves. The flight of a bird and the movements of all animals follow lines like undulating waves. If then one seeks a point of physical beginning for the movement of the human body, there is a clue in the undulating motion of the wave.
- p. 78
Quotes about Duncan
- Alphabetized by author
- All my muses in the theatre are movements seized during Isadora's flight; she was my principal source.
- Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, quoted in Dance Index (1946), and also in "About Isadora Duncan" by Lori Belilove at the Isadora Duncan Dance Company
- I shall never forget the first time I saw her come on to an empty platform to dance. … She came through some little curtains which were not much taller than herself — she came through and walked down to where a musician, his back to us, was seated at a large piano — he had just finished playing a short prelude by Chopin when in she came, and in some five or six steps was standing at the piano, quite still — you might have counted five or eight, and then there sounded the voice of Chopin in a second prelude or etude — it was played through gently and came to an end — she had not moved at all. Then one step back or sideways, and the music began again as she went moving on before, or after it. Only just moving — not pirouetting or doing any of the things which a Taglioni or a Fanny Elssler would have certainly done. She was speaking her own language, not echoing any ballet master, and so she came to move as no one had ever seen anyone move before.
The dance ended, she again stood quite still. No bowing, no smiling — nothing at all. Then again the music is off, and she runs from it — it runs after her — for she has gone ahead of it.
How is it that we know she is speaking her own language? We know it, for we see her head, her hands, gently active, as are her feet, her whole person. And if she is speaking, what is it she is saying? No one would ever be able to report truly, yet no one present had a moment's doubt. Only this can we say — that she was telling to the air the very things we long to hear; and now we heard them, and this sent us all into an unusual state of joy, and I sat still and speechless.
- Edward Gordon Craig, memoir on first encountering Duncan in 1904, published in Index to The Story of My Days : Some Memoirs of Edward Gordon Craig, 1872-1907 (1957)
- "I have the right to choose the father of my own children," she declared, and then wrote to George Bernard Shaw: "Will you be the father of my next child? A combination of my beauty and your brains would startle the world," but he replied: "I must decline your offer with thanks, for the child might have my beauty and your brains."
- Nadine Dreyer, in "Isadore Duncan : Dancer as Plaything of Fate" in A Century of Sundays : 100 years of Breaking News in the Sunday Papers (2006), p. 65; the anecdote provided here does not cite earlier sources, and though widely attributed to an exchange between Duncan and Shaw, the earliest form of it yet located is in 10,000 Jokes, Toasts & Stories (1939) by Lewis & Faye Copeland, which simply has an unidentified woman offering to have a child with Shaw, saying "think of the child with your brains and my beauty" and him replying "But what if he were to have your brains and my beauty?"
- It was never easy to coax Isadora Duncan into a photographer's studio. Like a wild and wise animal, she fled from those who sought to capture the essence of her — which was motion — by making her stand still.
- Max Eastman, as quoted in Isadora Duncan (1980) by Arnold Genthe, also in "About Isadora Duncan" by Lori Belilove at the Isadora Duncan Dance Company
- This great artist is no longer in our world. The sun has set: the cycle is finished. In her art and in her life Isadora Duncan seemed to be an incarnation of all the energies of Nature.
- Robert Edmond Jones, in "The Gloves of Isadora" in Theatre Arts, Vol. 31, Issue 10 (1947)
- "Come away! her dancing says. Come out into the splendid perilous world! Come up on the mountain-top where the great wind blows! Learn to be young always! Learn to be incessantly renewed! Learn to live in the intemperate careless land of song and rhythm and rapture! Say farewell to the world you know and join the passionate spirits of the world’s history! Storm through into your dreams! Give yourself up to the frenzy that is in the heart of life, and never look back, and never regret! You shall become sweet and mad as a lover …
- Robert Edmond Jones, in "The Gloves of Isadora" in Theatre Arts, Vol. 31, Issue 10 (1947)
- In those moments where beauty and emotion fuse and climax, something of the immortal floats about the dancer; she wanders in a divine ray, in a mist where all works of art circle in unison with her.
- Perhaps the greatest personality who has ever devoted herself to developing the art of the dance … Her interests ranged over a wide field of activities. There was a time when she wished to initiate a reform of human life in its least details of costume, of hygiene, of morals. But gradually she came to concentrate her interest upon the dance. For her the dance is not merely the art which permits the spirit to express itself in movement; it is the base of a whole conception of life, a life flexible, harmonious, natural. In the development of the dance she found herself confronted by the dilemma which has just been alluded to. On the one hand was the limited technique of the ballet, on the other the unnatural contortions of the eccentric school. To return to the unconscious gesture of the people — that is to say, the crude, stereotyped gestures of the street — offered no way of escape. She found the solution in a return to the natural gesture of human life as represented in Greek art.
- John Ernest Crawford Flitch, in Modern Dancing and Dancers (1912), Ch. 8 : The Revival of Classical Dancing, p. 105
- Isadora Duncan has not dealt with the dance intellectually, nor spiritually — but personally. The Age saw to that!
- Lincoln Kirstein, in Ballet, Bias and Belief : Three pamphlets collected and other dance writings of Lincoln Kirstein (1983)
- Her dances were hymns to freedom — of sensibility, of passion, of the transcendentally convinced and convincing Emersonian soul … Today it is hard to picture convincing interpretations of Joy, Hope, Immortality, the Soul. But at the turn of the century an American girl, incarnating these and more, coincided with historical promise.
- The revival of the dance is significant of the abiding, though much forgotten, need of the world for its arts, and a proof of the strange immortality of the arts themselves. A few years ago several great dancers came to summon the world, who must have prepared through long periods separately and without a common plan; yet with the effectiveness of premeditated simultaneity they appeared, as it were in a company. And the response of a world still hungering, somewhat dimly, for the arts, was the welcome we give to an advent long desired.
Fortunate were those whose introduction to this momentous movement came by way of the greatest of its exponents, Isadora Duncan. It was one of the great hours, of which we have but three or four in a lifetime, when we first saw her. In that hour we sensed the manifold meanings and implications of the dance; its ecstasies, inspirations, and healing beneficences, and its possibly unimaginable importance to the modern world.
- Shaemas O'Sheel, in "On With the Dance" in The Book of the Dance (1916), p. ix
- The dancing of Isadora Duncan is great symbolic art; now, when perhaps we have seen it for the last time, we must unhesitatingly re-affirm our conviction that it is one of the superlative artistic expressions of eternal spiritual glories. Her endowment is no mere talent for the consummation of exterior beauties; it is genius. She is a seer and a prophet, fulfilled of understanding and wisdom. The deep disease of the soul, its wasting, anemic illness since it ate of the weeds of prudery and went wandering on the hard roads of materialism, is known to her, and she has a great pity ; and with devoted effort, through consecrating trials of toil and rejection, she has fitted herself to be a physician of the spirit. She brings us pure wine from an ancient vineyard, and she will not mingle with it any sharp strange bitters to sting our jaded taste. In her manner is nothing either of decadence nor of gigantic, splendid but agonising dramaturgy. She is of the company of those who have held to the slender infragible thread of the eternal tradition of beauty. And coming so, she startles our spiritual memories from a sleep of centuries.
What glorious things she makes the soul remember! Once we were young, and the leaping blades of our desire striking the granite facts of life lit lively fires of wonder. We were simple, so that when the moving beauty of nature and the joy of each other's company stirred us to ecstasies, we sought free and natural expression; we danced — we danced as the movements of waves and branches, and as the exquisite beauties of our own bodies suggested. Such memories she evokes by her subtle gestures and movements, which are as the dancing of a leaf over the ground, as the drifting of mist over the still surface of a lake at dawn. The morning of time dawns upon our spirits again, and once more we have a sense that hears the gods.
Watching her we see the soul of man moving in the dance of destiny; dreaming, hoping, aspiring, questioning; thrilling with desire and joy and melancholy, crushed, purged and raised again; the spirit of man enduring its trials and triumphing in the great adventure. This is the interpretation of life by the intuitive wisdom of genius, which is feeling confirmed by thought, and which understands that the ultimate of human apprehension is a mysticism impossible of interpretation save in symbolic art.
- Shaemas O'Sheel, in "On With the Dance" in The Book of the Dance (1916), p. x
- When she read my first book Visions and Revisions, she sent me so many red roses that they filled the little flat, but I was too nervous to go and see her. She has been one of the most thrilling sensations — but that is a wretched word to express it — of my whole existence. She has danced for me alone — with a beauty that makes the most beautiful young girls' dancing seem mere child's play. It was as though Demeter herself, the mater dolorosa of the ancient earth, rose and danced. Well, she has gone — and I enclose to you the red rose she gave to me as she went.
- She suggested that the sculptor might probe the Greek spirit by studying modern dance. Antoine Bourdelle agreed. Capturing Duncan's appeal for a generation of sculptors, he likened the dancer to an "antique marble throbbing with eternity," who infused with life a classical sporty all but snuffed out by stale academicism.
- Susan Rather in Archaism, Modernism, and the Art of Paul Manship (1993), p. 124
- She was a flame sheath of flesh made for dancing.
She believed she ran into storm, rain, sun and became part of them and they were afterward woven in her dances.
- Carl Sandburg, in "Isadora Duncan", in Breathing Tokens (1978), p. 60
- The wind?
I am the wind.
The sea and the moon?
I am the sea and the moon.
Tears, pain, love, bird-flights?
I am all of them.
I dance what I am.
Sin, prayer, flight, the light that never was on land or sea?
I dance what I am.
Roses , lovers, money, children, came to her in her life dance from California to Russia.
When her dancing days were not yet over but almost come to an end, she died in a swift ride with a flame red scarf enwrapping her neck tighter and tighter.
- Carl Sandburg, in "Isadora Duncan", in Breathing Tokens (1978), p. 60
- Isadora Duncan! … I feel that she dances a symbol of human, animal happiness as it should be, free from the unnatural trammels. Her great big thighs, her small head, her full solid loins, belly — clean, all clean — she dances away civilization's tainted brain vapors, wholly human and holy — part of God.
- John French Sloan, in John Sloan's New York Scene (1965)
- Poetry personified. She is not the Tenth Muse but all Nine Muses in one — and painting and sculpture as well.
- Laredo Taft, sculptor as quoted in Archaism, Modernism, and the Art of Paul Manship (1993) by Susan Rather, p. 124, also in "About Isadora Duncan" by Lori Belilove at the Isadora Duncan Dance Company
- Whenever you feel the evil influence of the middle class muddling your soul, you'll say these two words and you'll be a free spirit again: "Isadora Duncan."
- Nor must we forget the liberating force which sprang from the art of Isadora Duncan, whose heroic practice has done more than any precepts of philosophy to widen our ideas as to the intellectual and spiritual possibilities of the dance.
- Profile at the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, Inc.
- Isadora Duncan's Web Links
- Isadora Duncan International Institute, Inc.
- "Writers, Poets and Sculptors on Isadora and the Dance" by Dahna Barnett at Mythic Imagination Institute
- Isadora: A Sensational Life by Peter Kurth
- Image Galleries @ NYPL & Library of Congress