She transformed the dance world by breaking free of ballet’s restrictions. She shocked society with her free-spirited attitude toward art, sex and politics. She died as dramatically as she had lived.
So why has the woman known to many as the “Mother of Modern Dance” largely been forgotten?
“Isadora Duncan was one of the most influential people of the 20th century,” said Danville dancer, choreographer and teacher Lois Ann Flood, who’s dedicated her career to educating people about Duncan’s life and work.
“She left us a legacy of magnificent dances, beautiful, expressive dances,” Flood said, noting that Duncan’s choreography — which took its cues from nature, rather than rigid tradition — “still holds its own today because of the expressiveness of the art.”
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In her show, “The Many Faces of Love,” playing Saturday and Sunday at the Cambria Center for the Arts Theatre, Flood will recreate some of Duncan’s dances in free-flowing outfits that accentuate her fluid movements.
As she dances, narrator Martin Pendergrass will share quotes by some of Duncan’s countless fans, including American poet Carl Sandburg, French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. There will also be books and sketches on hand “so the audience has the opportunity to see the real Isadora,” Flood said.
Born in San Francisco in 1877, Duncan overcame an impoverished childhood in Oakland to become a professional dancer in Chicago and New York City. By 1899, she moved to Europe, where she developed her distinctive style of dance.
Just as Duncan’s revolutionary choreography made her a celebrity among the artistic and cultural elite, her unconventional lifestyle made her a rebel. An atheist and communist with close ties to the Soviet Union, she never married, had two children out of wedlock and carried on love affairs with members of both sexes.
Duncan’s career was cut tragically short in 1927. As Duncan and a driver sped off in an open-air sports car, her long, flowing scarf became entangled in the rear of the vehicle, breaking her neck. She was 50.
Flood, the founder of Diablo Dance Theater and Ballet Petite in Danville, first encountered Duncan’s work in 1992.
“Somebody insisted, ‘You must take a Duncan class,’ ” recalled Flood, who was 35 at the time.
“My whole being [was] changed. I was just totally enthralled by the way the body moves” in Duncan’s choreography,” the dancer said. She felt she had discovered “a new way of moving and expressing the human spirit.”
In particular, Flood was fascinated by the way Duncan defied tradition to transform modern dance.
“Before that, the only acceptable dance was ballet,” Flood said. But Duncan traded ballet’s pointe shoes and corseted costumes for bare feet and loose tunics modeled after the art of ancient Greece.
She moved away from regimented choreography toward natural movements such as skipping, running and leaping, drawing inspiration from environmental forces and her own emotions.
In Duncan’s choreography, “The bottom half of the body is rooted. The upper half is lifted,” Flood explained.
“She was really ahead of her time. She created pieces that were not only lyric but they were [also] dramatic and revolutionary dances,” Flood said, noting that Duncan was one of the first to choreograph to the music of classical composers such as Frédéric Chopin.
Although Duncan didn’t leave behind records of her choreography, Flood said, the dancer’s six adopted daughters taught her techniques to others — including Flood’s teachers, Mignon Garland, Sylvia Gold, Hortense Kooluris and Julia Levien. Flood has also studied video footage of some of Duncan’s dances.
She’s divided “The Many Faces of Love” into three categories: lyrical dances, romantic dances and revolutionary dances.
“Each dance for the most part tells a story,” she said, such as the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus.
Flood said her mission is to introduce audiences to a dancer who “changed the way the world viewed art and women.”
‘The Many Faces of Love’
7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Cambria Center for the Arts Theatre, 1350 Main St., Cambria
805-927-8190 or cambriacenterforthearts.org