Americans in Paris: Isadora Duncan, An Icon of Modern Dance

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Americans in Paris: Isadora Duncan, An Icon of Modern Dance
The second installment in a series about famous Americans who lived and died in Paris. Everyone knows how Isadora Duncan died. Her long silk scarf, caught up in the wheels of a speeding, open topped Amilcar in Nice in 1927, caused her to be flung from the car breaking her neck on impact. (There were other theories that in fact the force of the strangulation would have decapitated her.) Isadora Duncan’s life however was just as dramatic and singular as her death. Her dancing, which she always referred to as ‘my art,’ was her way of expressing truth through gesture and movement. She was never, from an early age, to be deflected from this obsession. An obsession that carried her through countries and continents, feted by the rich and famous, artists and writers and poets– she was a favourite of Rodin— but who would never compromise her form of dancing for any amount of money, despite often being in dire need. Isadora Duncan was no stranger to poverty. Born in San Francisco on May 26th, 1877, Isadora was the youngest of four children (siblings were August, Raymond and Elizabeth). Her father, Joseph Charles Duncan, was a banker and engineer who fell from grace soon after Isadora’s birth after being exposed in illegal banking practices. Isadora’s mother, Mary Isadora Duncan, divorced her husband and the family now in distressed straits, moved to Oakland. Whilst Isadora’s mother gave piano lessons and sewed, Isadora began teaching young children in the neighbourhood to dance. She was six years old. By 12 years old, she was already a feminist, anti marriage and pro having children– when and how it suited women– outside wedlock. The family, still being poor, moved often, and Isadora by her own account being the most courageous would inveigle the butcher or baker to extend credit. She gave up formal school at 10, but read incessantly: Thackeray, Dickens and Shakespeare, Greek Classics as well as trashy novels. The Greek classics would influence Duncan’s dancing for the rest of her life. One of the most extraordinary facets of Duncan’s personality was not only her unwavering self belief but her ability to sweep others along with it, to bend them to her will. Disillusioned with her progress in San Francisco, she ‘harangued’ her mother to accompany her to Chicago whilst her sister and two brothers stayed in San Francisco until she made her fortune and sent for them. Already dancing in a plain white Greek tunic which was to become her trademark, theater managers in Chicago were less than impressed with Duncan’s free form style and informed her that her singular vision of dance was incompatible to dance and theater companies. After pawning her grandmother’s jewelry, their money finally ran out and Isdaora and her mother were put out on the street. Only by selling her lace collar could Isadora and her mother afford a room for a week, eating only a box of tomatoes as sustenance. Undeterred by this episode, the family were still persuaded to move to New York on the promise of a part for Isadora in a pantomime in Daly’s theater. Once more during the six weeks of rehearsals the family had no money and were forced to live in two unfurnished rooms, skipping lunch and unable to afford tram fare. Finally after two years in Daly’s company, Isadora could take no more and left; it was only a chance encounter with Ethelbert Nevin, the composer, that changed the Duncan’s fortunes. Isadora, entranced by his music, “Narcissus”, “Ophelia” and “Water-Nymphs,” demonstrated her dance interpretations of his compositions. Carried away by Duncan’s dancing, Nevin arranged a concert for her in the Music Room of Carnegie Hall. The concert was a great success and engagements followed in the drawing rooms of rich New York society, including Mrs Astor, whose guests included the Vanderbilts, Belmonts and Harry Lehr. It wasn’t long before Isadora became dissatisfied dancing in front of an audience she believed did not appreciate her ‘art’ and lured by the idea of all the famous writers and painters of London, decided that, yet again, penniless, London was her next stop. Once more, with her inimitable ‘courage’, or some would say, brass neck, Isadora canvassed millionaire’s wives in New York, begging and borrowing enough money ($300) to pay for the family to go cattle-boat to London. Duncan says in her autobiography that in the amazement and delight of being in London and their sightseeing at the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, Kew Gardens, etc, they simply ‘forgot’ about their limited resources. The inevitable followed; they were thrown out of their boarding house and lived on the streets for three days before Isadora blagged her way into one of the finest hotels in London, stayed two nights and then sneaked out without paying. As in New York, Isadora danced in private salons, helped by meeting Mrs Patrick Campbell who had seen Isadora and her brother Raymond dancing in Kensington Square Gardens. Soon she was introduced to Charles Halle who was a director of the New Gallery which had a central court and fountain where Isadora danced in front of an illustrious audience. Isadora’s fame grew, newspapers loved her, she was presented to the Prince of Wales and her financial status improved enough to rent a small house in Kensington Square. Isadora’s sister Elizabeth, with the promise of work in America, had returned to New York and Raymond, her brother, restless in London, left for Paris. Isadora and her mother soon followed and they rented a studio in Rue de la Gaîté for 50 francs a month. Raymond and Isadora rose…
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Lead photo credit : Isadora Duncan at Theatre of Dionysus, Athens 1903 by Raymond Duncan, Online Archive of California

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.