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She Was Large...She Contained Multitudes

  • Jan 2, 2002
Here is an excellent biography of someone whose life combined artistic achievement with personal dysfunction. Arguably the creator of what we now refer to as "modern dance," Isadora Duncan certainly filled her "sensational" personal life with a series of adventures and misadventures while struggling to sustain a career during which so many of her knowledgeable contemporaries praised her artistic talents and achievements. Consider these comments:

"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.

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review by . September 30, 2008
I was sparked to read more about Isadora Duncan based on the mini-bio in John Dos Passos' U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel / 1919 / The Big Money (Library of America).    Bizarre woman. Passable popular biography, but really strange woman.
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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, ...

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ISBN-10: 0316507261
ISBN-13: 978-0316507264
Author: Peter Kurth
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Publisher: Little, Brown
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