Constantine Stanislavsky and Isadora Duncan

He was a wealthy Russian aristocrat; she was an American of no name, dubious respectability, and erratic financial solvency. He spoke no English; she, no Russian. She was fond of saying she had learned to walk and to dance simultaneously; he recalled incidents of monumental clumsiness from childhood. But art transcends, and both spoke French. “We understood each other,” he said, “almost before we had said a single word.”

In 1907, Isadora was in Moscow on her second crusade to confront the Russian public with what she regarded as an overdue alternative to classical ballet. By chance, Stanislavsky dropped in on a performance. In her customary dishabille, Isadora had executed several numbers before he sufficiently overcame the shock of “an almost naked body on the stage” to appraise her style. It was vibrant, arresting. When the first-act curtain brought rather tepid applause and scattered hissing, Stanislavsky strode indignantly to the edge of the stage, applauding defiantly. He was a large, impressive man, immediately recognizable as an actor and co-director of the Moscow Art Theater. The hissing stopped.

From then on, Stanislavsky attended all Isadora’s performances. He recognized in her dancing that “truth of the inner creative urge” he sought in acting. The artless unrestraint he strove for apparently was hers by nature. That same unrestraint, he soon found, extended to her offstage life. She was young, captivating; she invited him into her hotel room, and from there into her bed. But Stanislavsky was in his forties, long married to a prominent actress, and—like many Russians—puritanical.

“But what should we do with a child?” “What child?” asked Isadora. “Why, our child, of course ... I would never approve of any child of mine being raised outside my jurisdiction.”

Years later, during her sojourn in post-revolutionary Russia, Isadora related the scene to Madame Stanislavsky. “Oh, but this is just like him,” said the actress. “He takes life so seriously.” —Nancy Caldwell Sorel