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Celebrating the Mother of Modern Dance

When you’ve seen a hundred modern (and postmodern and contemporary) dance productions, with their twisted postures and gasping contractions, it’s easy to forget where it all started. When Isadora Duncan took to the stage at the turn of the twentieth century, she dazed the establishment by rejecting the upright postures of ballet, insisting that beauty—and with it, artistic dignity—could be found in a looser, more grounded form. “Isadora Now” spotlights Duncan’s vision, celebrating her work as the Mother of Modern Dance and contemplating its impact today. That it’s been produced by a distinguished classical dancer, Viviana Durante, is proof positive of Duncan’s rousing influence—the inspiration and empowerment her legacy has seeded in dancers of all backgrounds.

Performance

Viviana Durante Company: “Isadora Now”

Place

Barbican Theatre, London, February 21, 2020

Words

Sara Veale

Begoña Cao in “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan“ part of “Isadora Now” by Viviana Durante Company. Photograph by David Scheinmann

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Duncan created “Dance of the Furies” in 1911, giving vivid shape to the venomous divinities who taunted Orpheus at the gates of Hell. Durante has restaged the ten-minute piece with the help of Duncan authority Barbara Kane, reviving the malice of these demons, who hunch and heave, dropping to the floor and rising for creepy cat-like leaps. Crouching in candlelight, their fingers wrenched like claws, Durante’s five dancers conjure a deliciously witchy atmosphere. There’s too much poise among this bunch to approach anything truly ugly, but there’s fire in their beating fists and swinging hair, a dark, primal hunger that thrusts outwards. The shock factor of the contorted choreography has faded—it must have seemed repulsive to early audiences, used to sugary ballets and cheery vaudeville acts—but its vivacity resonates, urged on by the bounding notes of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” opera.

Begoña Cao in “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan“ part of “Isadora Now” by Viviana Durante Company. Photograph by David Scheinmann

Durante herself was slated to perform the bill’s second piece, Frederick Ashton’s 1976 tribute to the late choreographer, but an injury saw Begoña Cao of English National Ballet step into this solo last-minute. Behold the ballerina draped luxuriously across the floor, kitted in a coral tunic and shiny finger waves. Ashton’s interpretation is distilled into five piano waltzes by Brahms, refracted through a classical lens that marries balletic glides with Duncan-branded inflections: clenched fists, cocked legs, scooped postures and flinging arms. It’s an ode to the artist at her most lyrical, and Cao rises to its poeticism, resplendent as she twizzles a canopy and scatters petals around the stage.

Duncan was taken with Greek mythology, and there are through-lines to this fascination across the programme, starting with the urns dotted around the stage in each piece. These vessels spit fire in “Dance of the Furies,” pose ornamentally in “Five Waltzes.” In Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s “UNDA,” receiving its premiere here, they hold water that pours in from the sky. Those familiar with Duncan’s biography will know that water was a source of both inspiration and suffering, particularly after her children’s tragic drowning. Ritter embraces it as a symbol of cleansing. There are nods to storms, waves, rivers, baptisms; the six dancers dip their hands in the urns and wash their faces. The piece climaxes with a hair-flinging crescendo, the cast soaking their manes and thrashing in tandem.

Christina Cecchini and Joy Alpuerto Ritter in “Unda" by Joy Alpuerto Ritter. Photograph by David Scheinmann

Elsewhere are snaking formations and ripples of waving torsos. Ritter nods to Duncan technique, which champions the solar plexus as an axis for energy, though her choreography mixes all kinds of vernaculars, from classic fall-and-recovery to kathak-style chugs. Gentle moments of sisterhood dot the opening scenes, but the half-hour work steadily chugs towards a bolder aesthetic that includes aggressive floorwork and throbbing contortions. To stage right is cellist Lih Qun Wong, who fashions a magnetic soundtrack out of fleet-fingered strings and ragged gasps into the microphone.

With both ballet and contemporary dancers in the cast, there’s a range of dynamics to lap up: soft classical, brassy hip-hop, sleek contemporary, even traces of tanztheater. An extended interlude costs the work some of its momentum, but its passion never wanes.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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