US dancer whose controversial interpretative dancing was extremely influential in the development of modern ballet although her flamboyant lifestyle and ardent feminism made her widely unpopular. Her short life was dogged by misfortune.
The daughter of a music teacher in San Francisco, Isadora Duncan rejected the rigidity of a formal ballet training from her earliest years, replacing it with a completely new technique based on what she regarded as natural instinctive movements. Her first public appearances were unsuccessful, however, and at the age of twenty-one she departed for England, where the patronage of Mrs Patrick Campbell enabled her to perform at private receptions and parties. Dancing barefoot to the music of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner in flowing gowns derived from the Greek art she had observed in the British Museum, Duncan was a controversial figure in a conventional period. In 1905 she set out on a tour of Europe, where she was seen by Diaghilev, who was deeply influenced by her and based much of his new theory of ballet on her revolutionary dancing.
Her success in artistic circles was not, however, backed by public support. Her feminist rejection of marriage led her to live openly with her lovers, first Gordon Craig, a stage designer, and then Paris Singer, a wealthy patron of the arts. She had a child by each; both children died in 1913 in a car that ran out of control into the Seine – a tragedy from which she never fully recovered. After World War I she moved to Moscow to found a dancing school and there she met and married Sergei Yesenin, an unstable peasant lad, seventeen years her junior, who wrote poetry. The hostile reception the couple received in America in 1922 – they were accused of being Bolshevik agents – forced her to abandon America for the rest of her life.
Back in Europe, life was no better: the depressed Yesenin turned against her and finally committed suicide in 1925. She settled in Nice after this second terrible blow, meeting her own macabre end in 1927 when her scarf caught in the rear wheel of the car in which she was travelling.