If you know anything about Isadora Duncan, it is likely you know this: she was a modern dancer—not just any modern dancer, but the mother of modern dance—and she died, spectacularly, when her silk scarf (hand painted) caught in the wheel of an open automobile.
“When I tell people about Isadora,” says Amelia Gray, whose latest novel — titled, appropriately, Isadora—sensually captures a gut-wrenching period in the dancer’s life, “half the time they haven’t heard of her, 40 percent of the time they know only of her death, and then 10 percent of people I meet are obsessed with her.” The obsession is for good reason: if there is anyone who can live up to such a death, it is Isadora Duncan.
Which is not to say Gray herself was among the 10 percent, at least, going in. (400 pages later, that’s clearly changed.) She knew who Isadora was, having run across her, here and there, but it wasn’t until Gray was assigned a magazine article—write about an any It Girl from any time in history—that she really got into Isadora. “Everything I learned about her was fascinating to me, and heartbreaking and huge and wild. It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know about this!’ It feels like nobody knows about this.”
When we first meet Isadora in the novel—or rather, Gray’s version of Isadora; this is fiction, not biography—it’s 1913 and the dancer and the world are in a moment of transition. Already wildly successful, Duncan’s focus has momentarily shifted toward domestic life with her two young children and her boyfriend, “in an era before the word boyfriend existed,” Gray notes (“quintessential It Girl”). And then, within the novel’s first pages, both children are dead, drowned in the Seine with their nanny in a freak car accident.
“That, to me, is a fascinating point in a person’s life, and in a woman’s life, and in a mother’s life, but also in an artist’s life. She’s had this one-track, self-directed, self-obsessed, narcissistic artist’s mind—in a way that I understand pretty well,” Gray laughs—“and then this tragedy happens and she’s forced to look at her entire life in a different way.”
But the counterintuitive challenge of historical fiction, she soon discovered, is to avoid getting bogged down in the details of history. The more Gray read about Duncan, the more invested she became in the realities of Duncan’s life, which wasn’t what she’d been after at all. “I really didn’t want it to end up being a barely fictionalized portrayal of something that really happened…some broad stabs at how it would have really felt.” And while that could also be interesting, she reflects, that’s just not her thing. “You can’t make the big leaps stylistically that you could if you’re stepping away from the truth a little more.”
Isadora Duncan would likely agree: her own autobiography bore minimal resemblance to reality. “It’s completely fake. Everything about it is utter fabrication,” Gray says. “She has these wonderfully stilted conversations with people….Nobody on planet earth would ever speak like that, even her. Maybe her, if she was drunk enough." For Gray, Duncan’s “gleefully fictionalized” account of her life was freeing. “I didn’t have to worry about reality, in a way. That was my way in to historical fiction, because I love not worrying about reality.”
And reality, or at least, the details of it, are hardly the point. As much as the novel is “about” Isadora, it is, at its core, about the nature of art. “It’s this wild thing to me, somebody who spent their entire life honing and perfecting a form—making a living off it, not to mention—and then coming to this complete inability or disinterest or depression. The absence of dance with the dancer.” And then she pauses. “That would probably be the title, if I were a more pretentious person. Or if I had just thought of it earlier.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.