A Breath-taking Interview with Isadora Duncan
It’s an honor to interview you Ms. Duncan. I understand you had a very eventful childhood, what events in your life affected your interest and experiences in the arts?
Oh, to be young again! My childhood was sprinkled with many happenings, good and bad, that have molded me into the artist I am today. In fact my whole life was pretty tragic. Yet I would not change that for the world, for great art comes out of great suffering… or so I’ve heard. My father left my mother when I was four, and this caused my family’s financial situation to always be quite disheveled. I took my need to help support my family, as an opportunity to teach dance, which has, and will always be, my true passion.
Anyway, all throughout growing up I never had much control - of anything! And when I got older I still did not have control, for example my two beloved children were tragically killed in a car accident with their nanny and there was nothing I could do about that. The lack of control caused me to create a style of dance. I created Modern Dance. A style I could control while incorporated my beliefs of freedom and almost completely opposition to ballet, which is all about control. In my new style of dance I experienced everything I ever wanted growing up, and I was able to combine it with my love of teaching.
Both your parents were greatly involved in the arts, do you think that mentors played a large role in helping you develop the interests and talents you have as an artist?
When I was young, in my early twenties, I was fed up with Americans. The real American type can never be a ballet dancer. The legs are too long, the body too supple and the spirit too free for this school of affected grace and toe walking. (Duncan) I moved to the inspiring city of Paris. There I met Jacques Baugnies, and his mother gave me the opportunity to perform at her soiree. My unique movement captivated the audience, and that was my real start as an artist. I couldn’t have done it without Madame de Saint- Mar- ceaux. She was my Parisian mentor that gave me the tools to pave the way for Modern Dance.
I was one of a kind in my art form, so I really didn’t have any mentors. Though my parents were the ones to get my involved in the arts. My mother was a pianist and my father was a poet, so growing up I was constantly surrounded by beautiful art. Without the help of my parents I don’t believe I would’ve had the push to break through the barrier into the dance world.
What was the dance world like when you entered it?
What can I say about the dance world? Well, it’s harsh and constantly changing. In my time. ragtime was very popular. I have no clue why, but needless to say it was. I’m talking about real dance though. Serious dance was ballet, ballet, and more ballet! Hair up, corsets, tutu’s that barely showed any skin! Pish-posh, I would have nothing of it. When I entered the dance world I came in barefoot with my hair down and free, just the way I like it!
There was no such thing as modern dance before I came along. I have paved the way for pioneers like me such as Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis. My free-flowing modern style was revolutionary in the early 1900’s and somewhat frowned upon, but I never gave up because I knew there were more dancers like me. Dancers who desire to be free! The dance world when I entered it was tool and I made it silk.
How did the major cultural, economic, and political situations of the time impact your work?
My family was always very poor, and what got me into dance was my families’ need. As a young adult to help out my family I taught dance classes. Not ballet classes, mind you, modern classes. I loved to teach and I loved to dance, so this part of our poverty was very nice to me. No matter how successful I was though, I was always financially precarious. Always worrying about paying the rent for the studio or not having coals for the stove.
When I was a young girl in Chicago I had my first run-in with the Bohemians. They were poets, writers, actors, the most spirited people of the community and I felt as though I belonged with them. They took a liking to me and I would go out every night and rally with the Bohemians. These people, the Bohemians, helped me discover that I was a Bohemian a heart. This greatly impacted my work, because I was able to belong to a group of free-loving people much like myself.
What were your major accomplishments and the methods you used in your art?
The year 1903, in Berlin, I gave a lecture named “The Dance of the Future” this became the manifesto of modern dance. I was the mother and my child was modern dance. After that in 1904, Cosima Wagner invited me to dance at her new Opera Hall Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. I danced the famous "Bacchanale" from Wagner's opera Tannhauser. This was one of my greatest performances, and was covered in newspapers across the globe. I had shown all the people who ever said I couldn’t being an important dancer that they were wrong.
I stirred up quite the controversy in Moscow in 1922. I performed all across the newly named Soviet Union and started yet another school in Moscow. The Russian government's failure to follow through on extravagant promises of support for my work, combined with the country's Spartan living conditions caused me to return back to the my home country.
What were the key opportunities you had that led to you establishing Modern dance as an art form?
When I established my first school in Grunewald, Germany I could see my aspirations coming to life. But my school was not just dance! The school day included four hours general schoolwork each morning, taught by state-certified teachers. My students learned History, Literature, Mathematics, Natural Science, Drawing, Singing, Languages, and Music. To dance is to live. What I wanted was a school of life, and that’s what I had. (Duncan)
I gave myself many opportunities by constantly moving. I had a list of places I wanted to live and I established myself in each one. When I moved to Paris in 1903 I met a woman, Madame de Saint- Mar- ceaux, and she gave me my first performance opportunities. She was the person who gave me the chance to establish myself in Europe.
What personal choices did you have to make to become successful?
I had to choose to be different, and work hard. Just because I love the freedom of expression that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to work hard! It took me years of struggle, hard work and research to learn to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the art of writing to realize that it would take as many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence. (Duncan)
After reading many books I mad the decision that I was going to perform abroad. I left my mother in San Francisco and headed to Chicago. After finding myself in the Bohemians of Chicago I left for New York. No matter where I went I could never pay my bills, but I was determined to go anywhere and everywhere. I chose never to let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something. People would tell me ‘You’re pretty, but that’s not for the theater.’ I never listened to them and once I was in the theater I would get scathing reviews critiquing every breath and every move. I didn’t listen to them either! Of course I took the criticism to improve myself, but I had to choose not to let them win.
Wow, sounds like you overcame a lot of obstacles! What hardships or roadblocks did you have to overcome to become world-renowned?
My whole life I spent over coming diversity. I wasn’t thin enough or pretty enough, never good enough, and I never had enough money! Hah- but I was always teaching. Every city I moved to was a new school, a new classroom with new students. At the start of my career it was very hard to find performance spaces, for no one thought what I was doing was ‘true dance’.
My personal life often complicated my life on stage. I had two beautiful children, yet I was never married and they had two different fathers. Their names were Deidre and Patrick, and I loved them dearly. They were tragically killed on April 19, 1913 when they drowned in the Seine River with their nanny. Forever lost, and I was desperately alone. I also had many lovers, men and woman. My sexuality was greatly frowned upon. Yet, I over came all of that and came out a legend.
What kind of limitations did you run into while establishing Modern Dance?
My most prominent limitation was that I was so unique. My free flowing, carefree style was a polar opposite from the classical ballet style. I faced my limitations by exposing myself to the entire world and creating fabulous schools. I showed everyone what Modern dance really is, and who I am. My pupils were beautiful and they followed in my footsteps as pioneers of Modern Dance.
It has been a pleasure interviewing you, but I have one last question. What personal stories do you have that show how you became famous in the arts?
I had a full rich life, and if I could tell you all my stories- Oh! We’d be here all night. Well I was always quite eccentric. My sexuality was also something frequently spoken about in the press. While performing in Boston, during an American tour, I bore my breasts on stage while holding a red scarf and proclaimed, “This is red! So am I!” Oh, I was quite the wild one!
In 1922 I married the lovely exuberant Russian poet Sergei Yesenin. He joined me on all my wonderful tours across the globe, but he had a slight alcohol problem. His rages were frequently talked about in the press and gave me a bad name. I had to leave him, and he returned to Moscow. After we separated he was placed in a mental asylum. Released from hospital, he tragically took his life on December 28, 1925, at the age of 30. I was crushed. This was all part of the publicity, love comes and goes, but dance lives on forever.