by Isadora Duncan; with introduction by Joan Acocella
Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, NY, 2012
Revised and updated from 1927 version
368 pp. Paper, $17.95
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
Isadora Duncan’s autobiography, My Life, has just recently re-appeared with its original content intact. For those compelled by genius and history, not only in dance, but of the birth of the modern sensibility prior to WWI, this is not something to pass up. This striking, bold and graceful woman for whom the dance became a self-taught mission, and which she revealed as never before, speaks to us with the kind of clarity, passion, pleasure, despair and grief that I cannot get enough of. Nor do I respond viscerally to most books of this sort. But Isadora Duncan did not live an ordinary life, either as a choreographer and dancer or as a woman. By strength of will and vision, by perseverance, and by those chance events that can ignite a career, she became as we know her; this woman who, even now, somewhat lost to time, returns in these pages as determined, voluptuous, and original as she was for those who saw her perform, for those who celebrated her, for those who knew her distantly and those who knew her intimately: as friend, collaborator, lover, or as teacher and mother and daughter.
“It has taken me years of struggle, hard work and research to make one simple gesture, and I know enough about the Art of writing to realize that it would take me again just so many years of concentrated effort to write one simple, beautiful sentence.” This statement occurs in the second paragraph to her introduction. It speaks of the honesty that she approaches her life with, as she configures it, and of the difficulty she will have in keeping true to her task. After 368 pages I know that she has done all she can to clarify who she is, what she has experienced, and with whom.
More poignantly, she tells of how, after the loss of her three children, two by drowning in a sudden automobile accident, another later, just after birth, she once again took to the dance as her salvation, however fleetingly full it was for her then. For never thereafter would she be that woman, artist and mother, those roles too briefly entwined; that all else, except her effort to found a children’s school for the dance, seemed less. Her tragedy lies here. It was what her close friend, the actress, Elenora Duse, intuited one day as they walked along a deserted Italian beach, their retreat from the world; Duncan grieving still for her two children, Duse refusing to act unless the demands of her theatrical vision were met.
It is worth repeating something of this encounter.
“One day Duse and I were walking by the sea when she turned to me. The setting sun made a fiery halo about her head. She gazed at me long and curiously.
“’Isadora,’ she said in a choking voice, ‘don’t, don’t seek happiness again. You have on your brow the mark of the great unhappy ones of the earth. What has happened to you is but the prologue. Do not tempt Fate again.’”
Duse was right, and Duncan knew it. When she lost her third child, there was no turning back. Incapable of enduring another disaster, her motherhood banished, her exceptional effort to sustain her school over several continents and cities finally come to naught, she receives as if from out of the blue an invitation from the new Soviet Government to establish her school there. And so in 1921 she leaves for Moscow again as a celebrated figure in full support of a revolution she knew little of. And the next phase of her life begins with its chaos and hope. She is married for a year to a leading poet, Sergei Esenin, a fellow whose lyrical gifts were matched by his propensity to rough Duncan up. Several years after their split, Esenin commits suicide in 1925.
Duncan travels west, settling in Nice, performing now and then, her years of hard living, performance tours and affairs having caught up with her as she nears 50. With her stature as a celebrity now grown ragged, she begins to write her autobiography. In 1927 she gives her last performance in Paris, and in September sends the current manuscript to her publisher in New York. Soon thereafter, one late afternoon, her long red shawl gets caught in the spokes of the back wheel of a speeding convertible, snapping her spinal column and killing her.
Isadora Duncan’s life and achievements are here for us in this restored edition. The story is incomplete, perhaps a bit histrionic for our taste, and steeped in an idealism that we can all too easily forgo were it not for Duncan’s gift to embody it in her dance, with her school, in her friendships, and the largess and drama that infused her. Because of her, not only her but certainly her, modern dance in America, if not elsewhere, came to be beyond the artificial bounds of the ballet and the garish lights of the music hall; and because of her, not only her but certainly her, women came to accept more openly than before the pleasures and beauty of their bodies. And that is reason enough to meet Isadora again on her terms, in her words, and in the style she brought to them.
Would she have it any other way?