Isadora: A Sensational Life, by Peter Kurth. Boston and New York: Little, Brown. 608 pages. $30. BUY NOW

Reviewed by NUAR ALSADIR

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The year 1913 was a turning point for Duncan, when her two children, each by a different lover, drowned in the Seine after a car accident. Following a period of mourning, Duncan, Kurth tells us, "gave what amounted to a continuous party." Her world tour resumed, carrying her "from party to party and bed to bed" and awakening the adulation of an audience that saw her as the "torch that lights the path of progress." Nearly a decade passed this way until she returned in 1921 to Russia, where her earlier performances had given the Russian ballet "a shock from which it could never recover," according to Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. Duncan became an ardent communist and broke her vow never to wed by marrying the revolutionary poet Sergei Esenin, whose vulgarity and violent ways she forgave as part of his artistic temperament. The tour that followedˇdescribed by Kurth as "fifteen months of alcoholic bedlam and disaster"ˇroughly spanned the duration of their relationship and marked the beginning of Duncan's decline as a dancer. American audiences were outraged at her drunkenness and her scant costume coming undone at the shoulder to expose her breasts. "Why should I care what part of my body I reveal?" she responded. "To expose one's body is art; concealment is vulgar."

It is doubtful that the self-mythologizing Duncan would have been pleased at how her plea for exposure is embraced by Kurth. He delivers a barrage of quotations portraying Duncan as either "stretched on a couch, fat and bloated" or as offending critics with "'the decay of her body,' her 'massive' bare legs and 'wobbling breasts'ˇ'not a pretty sight.'" George Balanchine described her as "a drunken, fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig." Duncan's philosophy had an answer for this, in her belief in transcendence. "I see only the Ideal," she said. "But no ideals have ever been fully successful in this life." Accordingly, she refused to allow her dancing to be filmed, preferring to be remembered as a legend.

"It's so terrible to think that God has given me the secret of beauty," Duncan told a journalist in 1926, "which He gives to so few of us, and yet I've no longer the power to give it to the world." By this time, Duncan's performances had dwindled, her drinking had grown worse, and her reckless handling of her finances had made her desperate. Her death, a fittingly bizarre accident, came in 1927 during a rendezvous with a chauffeur she had picked up in a restaurant in Nice. Duncan, wrapped in a red shawl with an eighteen-inch fringe, stepped into his car and cried, "Goodbye, my friends, I go to glory!" As they drove off, her shawl caught in one of the wheels and strangled her.

We are fascinated by characters who are lit. Isadora Duncan is often portrayed as a tragic heroine consumed by her own inner fire, and although Kurth's biography is not authoritative about the dance that made her forever luminous, we are so drawn in by his account of her genius and her dazzling peculiarities that we follow her story to every corner in which her influence as a performer, a freethinker, and a sensualist blazed. "I suffer fearfullyˇbut I accept it because the source is beautiful," Duncan once wrote. "But how to live with this passion in my veins?" In the end, alas, she didn't know.

Nuar Alsadir is a poet living in New York.

 
     
     
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