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Isadora: A Sensational Life Hardcover – November 15, 2001
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It's a bit of a stretch to suggest, as Peter Kurth does in his biography of the expatriate artist, that Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) single-handedly invented modern dance, a claim that Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine, among others, would almost certainly contest.
But Kurth has that claim on good authority, namely Duncan herself, who recalled, "I was possessed by the dream of Promethean creation that, at my call, might spring from the Earth, descend from the Heavens, such dancing figures as the world had never seen." Never shy of self-promotion, Duncan captivated audiences wherever she took the stage, earning a following--but also stirring controversy--in her native United States, and even greater exaltation and stormier criticism in Europe, where she made her home for most of her adult life. There she emerged as a textbook bohemian, avidly practicing and preaching free love and other convention-flouting doctrines, breaking hearts, taking up with political radicals and some of the great artists of the day, and drinking far too much. She also defined the figure of the artist as celebrity, living each day, as one Russian critic remarked, "as though bewitched by music" and unconcerned by the mundane. She even died spectacularly, done in by a fashion accessory and bad timing.
Toward the end of her life Duncan remarked, "I am not a dancer. I have never danced a step in my life." She was a dancer, of course, and one whose influence has endured. She was also an original, self-aware and certain of her greatness. Kurth tells her story well in this vivid biography, one of value to students of modern dance and the history of the Lost Generation. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Kurth (Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson) presents an exhaustive march through an exhausting, tragic life, organizing endless material into a coherent chronology. Duncan's contributions to dance are better documented and analyzed elsewhere. With minimum commentary, Kurth follows Duncan's frenetic existence from her 1877 birth in San Francisco until her infamous death (when her scarf caught in the wheel of her car, strangling her) in France in 1927. Duncan, her sister and two brothers, professionally entwined throughout their lives, spent early childhood vacillating between luxury and penury (her financier/swindler father, an integral part of San Francisco's 1877 banking collapse, was prone to long disappearances), a tendency which prevailed throughout their adulthood. Duncan seemed marked by tragedy: various fires destroyed belongings and homes (her earliest memory was of being tossed from the window of a burning building); her father died in a shipwreck; two of her children perished when a chauffeur rolled their car into the Seine; the third died shortly after birth. Throughout adulthood, Duncan moved restlessly and incessantly about, principally from Paris to Berlin to Russia. She danced, drank and enjoyed volatile long-term relationships while simultaneously leaping into bed with numerous so-called geniuses. Occasional professional successes peppered Duncan's life, but perhaps her most defining experience was her 1922 marriage to the mad, alcoholic and abusive Russian poet Esenin. By the time of his suicide in 1925, the couple had essentially destroyed each other professionally and personally. Neither a dance history nor a portrait of an era although Duncan knew everyone and participated in everything this book instead offers a meticulous chronology of an extraordinary life. (Nov. 15)Forecast: This is not, as the publisher claims, "the first major biography" of Isadora (Frederika Blair's predates it by 15 years). Its exhaustive rather than illuminative qualities will limit its readership to the most dedicated dance fans.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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From her early scandals to her incredibly grotesque death (much worse than portrayed in the Vanessa Redgrave movie), Isadora moved in an elite heightened world, drinking and carousing with the other great names of the European modernist movements. This book lets us view a lot of those encounters. Epigrams fly like lightning bolts. Insults are flung like spears. We get 558 pages of main text, heavily documented. Letters are quoted. Other writers are cited.
The book is well-written. (I object to "vocal chords" on p. 29) If you want to bathe in the hothouse world of famous influential artists who changed our world, you should read this great biography, which not only gives you a total picture of Isadora's life and impact on dance, but also lets us enjoy the many other famous artists whose orbits often crossed hers. There are lots of good pictures, which give you an idea of how people were mesmerized by her posings, posturings, and gestures. I can recommend this wonderful book without any hesitation.
"I got an impression of enormous grace, and enormous power in her dancing -- she was very serious, and held the audience and held them completely." (Frederick Ashton)
"She moved with those wonderful steps of hers with simplicity and detachment that could only come through the intuition of genius itself." (Tamara Karsavina)
"She incarnated music in her dance." (Serge Kousevitsky)
"The soul becomes drunk with this endless succession of beautiful lines and groupings [of movement]." (Ernest Newman)
"The greatest woman I have ever known....Sometimes I think she is the greatest woman the world has ever known." (Rodin)
Impressive accolades indeed which, for me, increase the poignancy (at times the tragedy) of her poor judgment and irresponsible behavior when not performing before an always adoring audience. Even for those who know little (if anything) about dance, Kurth has written an absorbing, at times compelling biography of a woman who (in the words of a contemporary, Janet Flanner) embodied "the grandeur of permanent ideals...[but was] too expansive for personal salvation."
By the time I approached the final chapter of Kurth's biography, I had observed a number of similarities between Isadora's life and the lives of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sylvia Plath. For example, their original and substantial talent, their excessive self-indulgences, their passion for experiencing (both physically and emotionally) as much as possible each day, and their vulnerabilities which so many others exploited shamelessly. With Whitman in mind, Robert Gottlieb observes: "For Isadora there were no rules, there was only the Song of Herself; she lacked the discipline, the emotional and moral resources, to keep liberty from lapsing into license." Such is often the fate of a genius which, by most accounts, Isadora Duncan was. "Sensational" indeed.