I am red: Isadora Duncan’s Moscow life through photos and recollections

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I am red: Isadora Duncan’s Moscow life through photos and recollections
The trials the iconic ballerina had to face, the difficulties with her school and the destiny of her pupils. Find out more from mos.ru and the Moscow Tourism Agency

Isadora Duncan came to the RSFSR in 1921. She had been invited by the People's Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky. The famous dancer, who was worshipped all over the world, including in the Soviet Union, founded a school of freestyle dancing. Duncan imagined a thousand girls dancing in spacious warm rooms. She had no doubt that the government would help her solve any problems, including financial ones. Unfortunately, it was impossible in a country devastated by a revolution.

The Yesenin Moscow State Museum is now the keeper of the school’s history.

“Barefoot school”

For several years, Isadora Duncan resided at 20 Prechistenka Street. When she found out who had lived there before, she laughed: “Quadrille, change of place.” The house used to belong to a Bolshoi Theatre ballet dancer Alexandra Balashova who left Russia for Paris after the revolution and bought Isadora Duncan’s house there.

During the first year, 40 girls aged between four and ten came to Isadora Duncan’s School of Plastic Dance: much fewer that the founder dreamt of. “During the country’s dark days, she opened a boarding school for children of workers and peasants, showing them how to work, study and enjoy the world of beauty around them. The school taught about a sense of Collectivism and neatness and provided food and clothing,” wrote Soviet theatre expert Viktor Teider about Duncan.

Isadora Duncan with her pupils at the dancing school, 1921

Dance according to Isadora Duncan’s method began from the simplest positions such as jete, marching, running and rhythmic steps. A pupil’s day was completely full: gymnastics, swimming, foreign languages and, of course, basic discipline. Classrooms and practice areas were located on the ground floor and bedrooms on the first floor.

Pupils wore scarlet tunics and chitons and danced barefoot. This is why the school was soon nicknamed “Barefoot school.” Scarlet was Isadora’s favourite colour, and her costumes often had red features. This can be noted in her performances after 1917: Isadora, soaked with Communist ideas, weaved herself a red scarf and right from the stage said, “I am red.” Chitons and tunics helped recreate an atmosphere of antique dances Isadora always turned to for inspiration.

Other stumbling blocks

Isadora was the only one teaching the girls and managing the school. The parents of the pupils did not pay for the lessons, there was no speaking about state support, and in the end Isadora had to face large financial difficulties. The school was self-sufficient when it came to food. After the lessons were over, the great Isadora Duncan together with her children went into the vegetable garden in the backyard and worked. It was more difficult to find money for clothes and for the general housekeeping.

It was clear to Duncan that she had to find funding herself if she wanted her dream to come true and so in the year 1922 she embarked on a tour around the US and Europe. Sergei Yesenin accompanied her. They met in 1921 at the studio of an Avant-garde artist George Yakulov and momentarily fell in love. Yesenin was her first and only husband.

During the foreign tour, the school was managed by Irma Duncan: the only one of Isadora’s foster daughters who came to red Russia after her mother. The young girl was the administrator as well as the teacher at the same time. Isadora’s secretary and translator Ilya Shneider helped her. Later Irma married him.

Yesenin State Museum. Isadora Duncan with Sergei Yesenin and her daughter Irma, 1922. The photo will be displayed at Yesenin Centre for the first time

Duncan and Yesenin came back to Russia in 1923. There was no trace of their passion left. The marriage didn’t survive like their fame did. Outside Russia, Yesenin was not a great Russian poet but just “a Russian man married to the famous, unrivaled and charming Isadora Duncan” – the poet used this phrase in a letter to Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky. The poet began to drink heavily and took it out on his wife.

When they returned to Moscow, Duncan told Shneider angrily: “I brought this child home, but I don’t have anything in common with him anymore.” A year later she left the country. Initially she planned to put her affairs in order in Europe, collect her belongings and return back to Russia, but in fact this was never the case.

Dancing without Isadora

The school was now completely managed by Irma. As the founder wasn’t there anymore, the School of Plastic Dance turned into a touring company. Girls did not have enough time to think about the nature of dance: they had to earn money. The students even went as far as China where they presented several exclusively choreographed productions such as the Dance of Chinese Girls, the Dance in Memory of Sun Yat-sen and the Hymn of Kuomintang.

In addition to financial problems, the school had difficulties with health inspections. Numerous visits made by inspectors revealed that health and safety was taken with a pinch of salt. Pupils for example were often found lying on the bare floorboards during lessons. Once, angry after yet more remarks from an inspector pointing out that the children were consuming dust, Irma snapped: “Children must swallow dust like Donbass workers swallow coal dust!” It was decided to leave the school open as a “lab of heroic motives.”

It was difficult for Irma Duncan to manage the school. She was an excellent teacher but a bad administrator. After she divorced Shneider in 1929, she left Russia for the US. There, she founded her own dancing school, married once again and began to paint. Irma Duncan wrote several books on the theory of dancing, most of which were dedicated to the attempts to explain Isadora, who passed away tragically in 1927.

The school did not close after Irma left. For eighteen months, between 1928 and 1930, students toured around the US: Irma Duncan managed to organise a foreign tour. They were a great success and newspapers wrote about them a lot. However, in 1930, the Soviet government demanded that the dancers return and the tour was cut short. There were no more trips abroad, only across Russia.

Russian tours were like a trial because the girls had to dance in cold halls on uncomfortable wooden floors. They had less time to train, too. The school was replaced by Duncan’s Concert Studio. It had no building, but the students still toured and brought up new generations of dancers.

The studio finally closed down in 1949 when the kowtowing to the West was countered. It was called a “decadent phenomenon” in a newspaper article. During the Khrushchev thaw, former students asked Minister for Culture Yekaterina Furtseva to re-open the school, but the request was denied. “The plastic dance has lost its original significance for the Soviet audience,” the document read.

Stories of Duncan’s three pupils

Maria Borisova was one of the most talented Russian students Isadora Duncan ever had. She was born into a workers’ family in Drezna where her parents were a weaver and an electrician. During the foreign tour, the New York press wrote about her enthusiastically: “Those who saw dancers from Isadora’s school have noted a dazzling, slender and beautiful dark-haired girl who seems to be more svelte and dynamic than the rest of these amazing dancers, divas and mermaids clad in red. Maria Borisova is 19 years old…” Soviet critics also praised the girl. After Irma left, she headed the Duncan’s Concert Studio and taught dancing for some time, but made no splendid career out of it.

Maria Borisova (sixth left, second row) with Isadora Duncan’s other pupils

Actress and dancer Valentina Boye, who came from an old Bohemian baron family, was another famous student at Duncan’s school. The audience adored her. After Isadora’s death, she worked as the school’s artistic director for some time, but did not devote herself to dancing.

Tatyana Filippova was one of the few students who dedicated her life to dancing. She came to the school’s kindergarten when she was a little girl. It happened in 1926, after Isadora Duncan left. Tatyana recalled an amusing school tradition: mothers embroidered their daughters’ initials or full names on small red cushions which they took with them to school, and during breaks the girls put them on the floor to rest upon. Tata (as she was also known) also remembered dancing in a red tunic accompanied by the Internationale and girls going to Isadora’s office trying to hear some ghost movement behind the door. They imagined hearing Duncan’s steps.

Tatyana did not graduate from the dance school because her father was transferred to the trade mission to Milan, and the family had to move. Filippova enlisted in the La Scala ballet school and the Bolshoi Theatre studio after she returned back to Moscow. When she began to work at the Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, she once met Isadora Duncan’s former secretary, Ilya Shneider.

He still lived in the house on Prechistenka Street and kept many items that belonged to the students, including Tata Filippova’s small red cushion. “I know that, of course, Duncan’s school could not survive for long,” Filippova used to say. “Isadora was the only one to dance so brilliantly. The art of ballet dancing died with her. But I am happy that, even as a child, I was connected with this great art.”

A women’s felt hat, Paris, 1920s. A women’s silk umbrella, early 20th century. Women’s white kid gloves, early 20th century. Items from the collection of Isadora Duncan’s pupil V.Litvinova