Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Isadora (1966)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Isadora Duncan dances frenziedly on stage, in nightclubs and any other space to hand. Newspaper clippings summarise her life as a series of scandals. Sewell Stokes, a close friend during her final year, acknowledges this, but also emphasises her combination of warm-heartedness, glamour and exasperation.

She teaches herself to dance on Californian beaches, turning professional at sixteen. After Broadway rejection, she goes to Athens, intending to devise a dance inspired by life, nature and the Greek environment and a school to teach its spirit. By the age of thirty, she has founded it, and it becomes a lifelong obsession.

Her pupils rarely stay long, as lack of funds forces her to relocate from country to country. She has a daughter, Deirdre, by the theatre designer Gordon Craig, whom she refused to marry.

Isadora falls in love with sewing-machine heir Paris Singer, whom she calls Lohengrin, creating a fantasy life for them in his castle. But after their honeymoon, Paris and Isadora see little of each other. A second child, Patrick, is born, but Isadora is intensely lonely and dislikes the family home in Devon. She still dances, but only for herself.

Isadora moves to France in spring 1913, opening a new school in Passy. Her children die later that year after the car they were in plunges into the Seine. A third child is stillborn and she takes to drugs and alcohol. War disperses the pupils and the school becomes a hospital. Singer disappears, along with his millions. Isadora tours South America in 1916, but years of alcohol and lost training prove disastrous. She ends up dancing in brothels for a living.

But her obsessions return, and she resolves to recreate her school. A French appeal proves unsuccessful, so she goes to Bolshevik Russia, which recognises her as a fellow revolutionary. Her Russian hosts never seriously expected her to come, but give her a gutted Tsarist palace and an endless stream of homeless children. After a year, classes begin, though attempts at creating an authentically Greek atmosphere are thwarted by Arctic temperatures.

One day, a troupe of Russian musicians and dancers bursts into the school, to the pupils' delight. Their leader is the poet Sergei Yessenin, who begins an affair with Isadora. They communicate in mime and pictures. When the authorities threaten to close the school, they go on an American tour, but are stopped at Ellis Island in 1922 on suspicion of being Communists.

The tour nonetheless goes ahead, but their relationship worsens. Yessenin is expelled from hotels and banned from theatres, while her performers are widely interpreted as Bolshevik propaganda. In Chicago, he rapes a woman in the dressing-room and escapes onto the roof. Isadora's performance ends to boos, to which she responds with a revolutionary tirade, claiming that Russians have more freedom than Prohibition-oppressed Americans. She concludes by stripping herself to the waist.

The couple are deported back to Russia, where Yessenin disappears. Isadora re-establishes her Moscow school, but needs more money. A Siberian tour generates no income, and she refuses a newspaper offer of a thousand dollars for her love letters. She returns to Moscow with grandiose plans to unite Russia in a vast brotherhood of love, which she claims is the true meaning of Communism.

She leaves Moscow for Berlin in 1925, where she hears about Yessenin's suicide. In a letter to her friend Wilma, she outlines plans to establish another school in Paris with the support of French Communists - but this remains a dream. Professional engagements dry up, though her friends still stage performances in her honour.

Broke in Nice, Isadora concocts stories about her life for visiting journalists. On Wednesday 14 December 1927, she gives a press conference where she describes herself as "an expressionist of beauty" rather than a dancer. During a photo session, she outlines her credo: her art symbolises freedom of women, her body is the temple of her art, and age is only self-hypnotism. She dances to 'Bye Bye Blackbird' out of the hotel and into the car... where she is strangled after her scarf is caught up in the rear wheel.

Hundreds of children dance to the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Isadora among them.