Review

Isadora: A Sensational Life

by Peter Kurth



The early 20th century saw a flurry of revolutionary changes across
the arts. Seminal figures arose, for example, in painting
(Picasso), sculpture (Rodin), literature (Proust), and music
(Stravinsky). In the world of dance, the leader of the revolution
was Isadora Duncan.

Eschewing the techniques and constraints of classical ballet,
Isadora almost single–handedly ushered in a new method of
dancing, drawing her inspiration from deep inside herself as she
sought a dance based in natural movement and grounded in her
conception of Greek performances. Her behavior, both on and off
stage, struck many as quite unnatural, however. In both her dancing
and her personal life, Isadora ignored the criticisms of those who
tried to constrain her, creating many a sensation on stage and many
a scandal off.

In ISADORA: A Sensational Life, biographer Peter Kurth traces the
dancer's life, from her birth in 1877 to her bizarre and gruesome
death in 1927. Although Kurth maintains in his preface that he has
not written a 'dance book,' he nonetheless does a fine job
describing Isadora's dancing and the aspects of her presentations
that brought her both acclaim and derision. Along the way, the
reader is also introduced to some of Isadora's most fascinating
contemporaries, including her friends (such as Mary Desti, a
sometimes companion of Aleister Crowley), lovers (including Paris
Singer, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune), and rivals
(including Maud Allan, who caused a sensation dancing as "Salome")
as well as her quirky family. But Isadora is firmly at the center
of Kurth's carefully researched tale, a shining --- if erratic ---
sun around which the mere planets of her acquaintance dutifully
orbit.

Kurth's great contribution to Isadora Duncan scholarship is his
painstaking efforts to reconcile the various and contradictory
accounts of many of the key events of her life. From Isadora's
autobiography, MY LIFE, to the memoirs of her lovers and students,
many details of the dancer's story were obscured by poor memories
and outright revisionist accounts. Kurth untangles the skein, while
also exploring the reasons the various writers --- including
Isadora herself --- might have had for bending the truth.

To his credit, however, Kurth avoids the pitfall of allowing
ISADORA to become a dry tome devoted to setting the historical
record straight. Instead, he offers a portrait of Isadora that
captures her larger–than–life lifestyle and artistic
achievement. His Isadora loses none of her seductive mystery
despite having many of her secrets revealed. She is nearly as
captivating on the page as she must have been on stage.

Reviewed by Rob Cline (rjbcline@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

Isadora: A Sensational Life
by Peter Kurth

  • Publication Date: November 15, 2001
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown
  • ISBN-10: 0316507261
  • ISBN-13: 9780316507264