Once and Future Dancers


For years, Lori Belilove has been teaching and performing Isadora Duncan’s dances with fervor and dedication, bringing to life the lovely, simple solos that were so radical in the early 20th century when the strong-minded young woman from California enchanted and alarmed the European intelligentsia. Belilove’s latest project (shown in January at the Duke on 42nd Street) is a captivating dance-play, Isadora . . . no apologies, conceived by her, written and directed by Andrew Frank, and produced by Fran Kirmser. Two actors—Hope Garland as Isadora and Daryl Boling as various men in her life—give the essentials of the dancer’s career, aided by voice-overs representing newspaper critics, irate ladies, and so on. The spare text introduces and sets off the many Duncan solos performed by Belilove. She is assisted by Cherlyn Smith, Beth Disharoon (beautiful arms!), Michelle Concha, and Julia Pond, who represent the six star pupils who took Duncan’s name (they also double as ballet students, variety-show chorines, and society ladies), and by a clutch of little girls ranging from tiny to mid-size, who, in a class with “Isadora,” skip about and pass an imaginary gift to one another with sweet graciousness.

The work looked handsome on Maruti Evans’s ovoid white floor and backdrop. If Garland’s Duncan at first seems annoyingly superior, it’s because the author has her speak ideas Isadora wrote. It’s strange to hear her, in the middle of taking a ballet class, denounce the teacher for this terrible, deforming technique. Isadora was very serious, but also merry, and Garland gets more winning as the evening progresses—jumping into the arms of designer Edward Gordon Craig and swigging vodka with her loutish Russian husband, poet Sergei Esenin (Boling manages all the male roles—and the costume changes—with aplomb). However, in the end, Isadora emerges as the thoughtful artist and down-to-earth person she was, rather than as she has been portrayed on film and video—the sex-mad free spirit, running on impulses and champagne.

Belilove, the dancing Isadora, shows the range and progression of Duncan’s style: the rapt, idyllic skipping of early dances to the music of Chopin and Schubert; the twisting torments of the Furies in Gluck’s opera Orfeo; and the weightier, starker gestures of works made in the years after her two children drowned. At the final performance, Belilove’s concentration in the first two dances seemed uncharacteristically erratic, her arms a bit tense. But by Duncan’s most popular number, Blue Danube, she was all generosity, resilience, and wonderful nuanced musicality. And she has enriched her performing of the darker, weightier dances, making them immensely moving. When the four fine young women in filmy tunics joined her in Gluck’s beautiful Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and a voice recited Duncan’s great Whitmanesque words about “The Dancer of the Future,” we could see that dream of freedom before us.

There was no live music for the Martha Graham Dance Company’s second week at the Joyce, but plenty of live dancing. Phaedra, a 1962 work made when Graham was 68, certainly depends on the ardent performing it received. Despite stunning images, this is a piece in which Graham’s brilliant narrative structure goes awry. Its characters endlessly rant at fate and one another, or lurk—as Theseus does, hands over eyes, while Phaedra re-enacts a lengthy lie (as if he’s waiting for a talk-show host to say, “Tell me, how did you feel when you learned your son had raped your wife?” before exploding into dancing that tells just how bad he feels).

The work is a contest between Aphrodite, who incites the queen to lust, and the chaste Artemis whom her stepson Hippolytus worships. Theseus, Phaedra, and Hippolytus are pawns. Included in the cast are six terrific bull dancers, and (surprise!) the evoked spirit of Pasiphae, Phaedra’s mother, who copulated with a bull and passed the lust gene down. Graham usually managed brilliantly the interplay between past and present, between what’s “real” and what’s being remembered. In Phaedra the distinctions are so slurred that you’re not always sure what’s happening, even if you relish the seething emotions.

Christine Dakin does a heroic job of modulating Phaedra’s nonstop lust, venom, and guilt. Kenneth Topping is splendid as Theseus. Tadej Brdnik’s innocence and confusion as Hippolytus provide the most moving moments of the evening. Miki Orihara’s Aphrodite is a mischievous flirt; Erica Dankmeyer makes Artemis a bit too stiff; and it’s somehow hard to believe the excellent Alessandra Prosperi as the incarnation of sexual heat.

Among other outstanding performances: Elizabeth Auclair in Lamentation (how beautifully she draws a thread through the movement); Katherine Crockett, Martin Lofsnes, Prosperi, and Christophe Jeannot in the wonderful Diversion of Angels; and Fang Yi Sheu and Orihara in the re-creation (via photos, film clips, and choreographic input from Sophie Maslow, an original cast member) of Chronicle. Despite its iffy provenance and the fact that the Wallingford Riegger music is not all his original score, this 1936 dance, with its jumping, striding squads of powerhouse women, hits the audience like a strong gust of fresh air.

Jeanine Durning is a little woman who makes big dances—not large in scale, but bold and full of complex passions. The new works she showed as part of Dance Theater Workshop’s Carnival series would have made Isadora Duncan blanch. Durning makes fierce movement about being helpless—hurling herself and her colleagues around, beyond concepts of harmony and “beauty.”

In her solo Part One Parting, after bouts of angry silent talking and then sputtering, she eventually spits out a speech that begins, “This is you saying goodbye from the train.” But—raging about the space in her red sparkle shoes while Chris Peck’s score smites her with rumblings and hummings—she doesn’t seem simply a woman venting her emotions over the departure of a loved one. Advancing and recoiling, challenging, trembling, shaking her head frantically, she becomes a disaster, the embodiment of loss, and even though she says, “I’m hanging on,” the sound of the train engulfs her.

half URGE is also set to very effective music that bodes no good, this time by Douglas Henderson. The vibrant women who dance it seem unable to fulfill anything they attempt or crave, including keeping their balance. Durning, Steffany George, Andrea Johnston, and Molly Poerstel begin as if flying; next minute they’re on the ground. These four, in identical duets, try to press as close to their partners as possible, but tender gestures evolve into pushing and pulling almost without their willing it. Over the course of the dance, joined by Jean Vitrano, they try unison dancing and stumble out of it; they pair up in new combinations; they fall on top of each other; they run, grabbing at one another in passing as if blown by a wind. Several times, Johnston pushes Poerstel down and won’t let her get up.

I’ve made the work sound more hectic than it is. What helps it to be so gripping is Durning’s command of variety and shading, as well as the imaginative movement she designs. Although the dance is essentially a collage about coping with daily anxieties, we see a little world.

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