"We must have the courage of our peculiarities," Marianne Moore once asserted. Who better embodies that sentiment than Isadora Duncan? A genius of dance who blazed across Europe and Russia in the early twentieth century espousing her visionary style of movement and flaunting her libertine ways, Duncan has long been shrouded in myth and misunderstanding, not least by her own hand in her 1927 autobiography, My Life. The strength of Isadora: A Sensational Life, Peter Kurth's exhaustive account of the Muse of Modernism, is that it traces Duncan's peculiarities so finely as to rein in previous accounts. Although Kurth fails to give us a robust understanding of the substance of her art (by his own admission, he did not set out to write a "dance book"), he nevertheless offers Duncan enthusiasts a balanced portrait of this undaunted life, a demythologized view of the woman who regarded herself, above all, as "an expressioniste of beauty."
Duncan was born on May 26, 1877, and was baptized just five days after the collapse of her father's San Francisco bank. From the start, her mother predicted that she would "surely not be normal." Raised in what Kurth calls "an atmosphere of aggressive freethinking and hedonism," the plucky Duncan dropped out of school at age ten to pursue dance. In 1895, she persuaded her mother to move to Chicago, and soon thereafter to New York. Four years later, she led the entire Duncan clan to Europe, where she launched her career as a dancer and initiated the first of many tortured love affairs.
"How I envy those natures which can give themselves entirely to the voluptuousness of the moment," a young Duncan bemoaned, "without fear of the critic who sits aloft and separates and insists upon interjecting his view, when least wanted, to the coupled senses beneath." Kurth's account reveals how Duncan cultivated this voluptuous nature and unleashed it onstage. "She was, in the true sense of the word, inspired," went one report of a 1902 performance, "gathering within herself forces beyond the boundaries of her own or any personality, and sending them forth so that we all felt them, and were exalted by a vision of unknown worlds." By 1903, Duncan was a sensation across Europe.
"What I am doing is only the beginning," she explained in one of her characteristic addresses to her audience. "I hope above all to teach young pupils who will outstep me and realize all that I foresee." In 1904, she founded the Isadora Duncan School of Dance in Germany; satellites would later be established in France and Russia. Duncan believed she was laying the groundwork for a revolution that would, as she put it,"free the art of dancing from unnatural contortions . . . and lead it back to natural movements." Her very name, Kurth writes, "came to symbolize women's freedom, beauty, and the birth of a new world of art." Duncan, basking in all this attention, fell into a series of whirlwind romances. She wrote of her heyday, "Now it seemed to me more natural to sip champagne and have some charming person tell me how beautiful I was."