A product of 10 years' labour, Peter Kurth's Isadora: The Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan is a substantial and very thorough biography. The events of the dancer's flamboyant life have long been overshadowed by her dramatic and horrific death--strangled by own her scarf when it became entangled in the wheel of a sports car (the scarf was actually a tasselled batik shawl). Kurth, who only allocates a couple of pages to her demise, redresses this in balance by providing a wealth of pertinent information about her formative years. Duncan was raised by her independent-minded mother in California during the 1880s, a time when the state was obsessed by all things Greek. (Kurth maintains that Isadora's dance always bore the hallmarks of this distinctly Californian trend.) A rebellious spirit, the young Duncan outraged her teachers by announcing that Santa Claus was a lie. She never mellowed with age, always defying convention in life and in art, usually with little regard for the consequences. Arriving in Chicago at the age of 18, she declared "I have discovered the true movement of man" and at no point does her self-belief ever appear to have wavered. Her dance first scandalised and then beguiled audiences in Paris, London, Moscow, New York and Berlin. Isadora worked with Stanslavski, mingled with Rodin, Gertrude Stein and the Fitzgeralds. She appears to have had a truly voracious appetite for sex--conducting intemperate love affairs with Ellen Terry's son, Gordan Craig, the millionaire dilettante Paris Singer; the Russian poet Sergei Esenin (who she briefly married); and, apparently, competing with Jean Cocteau for sailors.
Such adventurous living had its costs. At 40 she was a "prematurely aged and bloated woman, coarsened by terrible trials" (including the tragic drowning of her two children), "labouring through gossamer steps and classical evocation". Kurth describes her decline with a great deal of compassion; unfortunately it is actually quite difficult to like Duncan. She emerges as a distinctly indulgent and, frankly, unpleasant, racist prima donna--a belle époque Joan Crawford with a dash of Judy Garland thrown in. This "Muse of the Modernists" might have danced like an angel but, as this exemplary book reveals, she was a bit of a devil offstage.--Travis Elborough END