Word Dance Theater
'The Dances of Isadora Duncan'
by Carmel Morgan
May 1, 2008 -- The Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum, Bethesda, Maryland
Have you seen any of Isadora Duncan’s dances lately? On May 1, 2008, in Bethesda, Maryland, Word Dance Theater, directed by Cynthia Word, presented a program of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan’s original choreography. It was a rare opportunity to see these seminal works performed. Three women, working with two different reconstructionists, put together an evening of diverse dances that showed different phases of Duncan’s influential career as well as recurring themes.
The venue was the main floor of the tiny Ratner Museum. The tight space was filled to capacity. It was warm and crowded and hard to see all of the dancing, especially movement on the floor. The audience, seated in plastic patio chairs, had to shift about to keep sight of the dancers, but they were nonetheless enrapt.
The works ranged from the light and spirited “Balspiel” that opened the program, to the grief-saturated “Mother,” to the classics “Water Study” and “Fire Dance.” The costumes were true to Duncan’s legacy – flowing, Greek-inspired garments that fluttered as the dancers moved. Interspersed between the short pieces were comments by the dancers that elucidated the works and explained various bits about Isadora Duncan’s life.
Duncan was a visionary whose minimal costuming and sparse dance style was in great contrast to the Victorian ideal of ornamentation, with abundant lace and corsets. As she birthed modern dance, Duncan did more than lose extra items of clothing (and her shoes). She had a profound effect on the development of dance that continues today.
Ingrid Zimmer performed, among other dances, “Angel and Spirit Rising” from 1910. In this work, Duncan evoked images of an angel and a fallen soldier. The solo was slow and elegant, as was the white drapery Zimmer was swathed in. A finger pointed at an unexpected visitor. Arms scooped in a comforting but eerie spectral gesture, then opened overhead and quickened in their unfolding like beating wings. The piece, to the music of Chopin’s “Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2,” is a lesson in simplicity, beauty, and expression.
The two obviously nature-inspired works, “Water Study” and “Fire Dance,” were adeptly performed by Cynthia Word and Valerie Durham, respectively. “Water Study” recalls, not surprisingly, waves. Word, wearing a watery blue-green, used her head and wrists to ripple like dolphins rising and falling. Durham, in predictable shades of glowing red, provided a lively spark. There were rapid runs forward and shimmying shoulders that suggested smoke and fire.
Two pieces were performed to the music of Aleksandr Scriabin, “Mother” and “Revolutionary Etude.” Both are powerful works choreographed in 1923. They marked a period later in Duncan’s career when she was understandably more serious. Her two young children drowned in an auto accident in 1913, and “Mother” addresses Duncan’s unspeakable heartache. Scriabin’s almost violent music stands in sharp contrast to the happy, pretty tunes of Chopin and Schubert, the concert music that accompanied many of Duncan’s earlier works. Durham, in a shadowy scarf, performed the darkly painful “Mother” with passion.
“Revolutionary Etude” was danced by Zimmer. This work was the forerunner of the political dances of today. Duncan danced to urge the oppressed of the world to unshackle themselves and fight for freedom. Just as the music of Scriabin is somewhat jarring, so are the raised fists that emerge in “Etude.”
To close the program, the three Duncan devotees joined for “Trio Waltz.” Each wore a different color – green, red, and blue. They resembled flowers, twirling in circles with arms above their heads. They moved easily and freely together, although the three had only been rehearsing as a group for a matter of weeks.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of these women and other like them who are fourth generation Duncan dancers, Duncan’s works survive to enlighten and enthrall new generations of dance fans. One can still be incredibly touched by Isadora Duncan’s dances despite the passage of time, and it’s wonderful that her works are being so carefully preserved.