writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Evoking Isadora

ISADORA. . . No Apologies
Lori Belilove & Company
Lisser Hall, Mills College
San Francisco, California
April 16, 2004

By Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 19 April 2004

By calling her dance/theater evocation of Isadora Duncan, ISADORA…No Apologies, Lori Belilove signaled in no uncertain terms that she has heard all the objections to Duncan’s art, but she also summarized the great dancer’s own perspective on her life and her work.

At close to ninety minutes, ISADORA pushes the limits of a sustainable single trajectory. Somewhat inexplicably this otherwise smoothly devolving dance/theater piece also loses momentum right before the finishing line, fumbling through what looked like three different endings. But the individual episodes encapsulate the various stages of Isadora’s life and artistry beautifully and succinctly. The show smoothly laces narration with dance, lingers over some and racing through other incidents. It nicely balances ensemble vs. solo dancing, and while it generally follows Duncan’s chronology, the work uses the dances as they seem to fit. The show did have some technical problem, such as cutting off the music before the end. But overall ISADORA is remarkably effective effort of introducing an artist to a audience that might recognize the name but not be familiar with Duncan’s work. It’s a model that might profitably be copied for other bio/picture shows.

With a script by Andrew Frank—the program stipulates “originally written and directed”—based on Duncan’s own writing, Belilove danced Isadora “the spirit”, while Aimee Phelan-Deconick embodied Isadora “the Woman” into a speaking role. Beautiful, with immaculate diction and a radiant persona, Phelan-Deconick’s casting was inspired. She brought to life the shimmering complexities of this infuriatingly naïve and self-centered, visionary artist.

Sometimes the two women were quite separate, at other times they clearly moved as one. They crossed each other’s path; the Woman’s beat her fist against the wall, as the Spirit beat hers’ against the floor in despair about the fate of the poor of the world. At one of the work’s most poignant moments—the death of the children—both Isadora’s were prostate to the ground. Here it was striking to see how at the moment of Duncan’s lowest point Phelan-Deconick’s simple sinking to the ground, conveyed the tragedy more effectively than Belilove’s dancing. Not because of any failing on Belilove’s part, but because seen through contemporary eyes, the choreography looked melodramatic.

Carl Van Vechten, who did see Duncan perform, observed that she was most effective when performing joyous and light-hearted music and emotions. This concert suggested that he may have been right. Works like “Blue Danube”, “Narcissus” and “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” with which the program ended, looked less dated than the anguished cry of “Mother” or the rousing call for action in “The March Heroique.” The latter's pathos seemed to rely more on pantomimic than dance gesture. It may have been due to a decline of Duncan’s ability to dance at this stage of her life or, as has been speculated, Duncan simply didn’t have enough of a vocabulary to push her expressive capacity into a tragic direction.

Still this concert beautifully demonstrated that Duncan’s way of “natural” dancing was anything but. Belilove, more so than her ensemble (Cherlyn Smith, Karen Dantzler, Julia Pond and Beth Disharoon) illuminated just how much of a specific movement language Duncan had developed. Her vocabulary may have been restricted—not surprising in someone who was looking for a new way—but what there is is quite specific: extraordinary backbends against lifting knees, the swirling head which creates its own rhythm, the scooping arms that seem to waft but whose strength emanates in the center back. Going from a sense of rushing to complete stasis and suspension in what seems like a single breath make Duncan’s dances radical even by today’s standards.

Presented as a journey through her life, ISADORA opened with an account of her birth in San Francisco and ended with her vision of the dance of the future represented by the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” Most of the choreography was Duncan’s but Belilove also created Duncan-style dances where the narrative required it. The scooping arms and rushing steps of “Slow and Beautiful” suggested the ocean waves which Duncan claimed had influenced her so much. What the early dances, in particular, also showed was something that was in the air: the German style outdoor gymnastics which grew up as part of the labor unions’ concern about improving the health of working class people.

In addition to her own dancers, Belilove also had trained a group of little girls from Berkeley Ballet Theatre as what she calls “The Belilovables”. Bending over them, giving them encouragements for their floating arms, skipping feet and circle dances, Phelan-Deconick looked every bit the young Duncan as we remember her from all those photographs. It was a charming moment in a charming show.

Natasha Guruleva’s costumes, mostly along the tunic model, were excellently supplemented by various overcoats, shawls and wrappings. Sound effects, a male perspective in voice overheads, were smoothly integrated into the musical choices. But were some of those supposed to sound muffled? Given the quality of the rest of the sounds, “antiquing” the music didn’t make much sense.

The evening also included two of Belilove’s own choreographies, Perfumes of the Night and Wind Sail. While informative because they demonstrated how Belilove thinks Duncan’s vocabulary can be used in different contexts, these ensemble pieces came across as tagged on to the evening’s major event.

The well-performed and quite good Perfumes, to the“ deconstructed then reconstructed” Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius, was by far the more intriguing one. Appropriately developed along a circular trajectory, the piece slowed down and sped up as if its dancers stepped in and out of dreams, or maybe nightmares. A sense of intoxication pervaded these mad whirlings into which yet a different sense of reality periodically intruded.

Wind Sail had several strikes against it, not least of which were the diaphanous white “sails” sewn onto blue unitards. These costumes looked like something having come out of a high school class on costume design. And then there was Michael Nyman’s vacuous movie music score Piano Concerto. The choreography had nothing to hang onto. No wonder it was utterly bland. According to the program notes, “this abstract work is about the trials and tribulations of facing nature, parting from this material world, the ‘terra firma’, to wander treacherous oceans and return to step foot on the earth again. “ One can only hope, that traveler has smoother sailing than the one that took place on stage.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 14
19 April 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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