Viviana Durante Company
Isadora Now: Dance of the Furies, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Unda
London, Barbican Theatre
26 February 2020
Gallery of pictures by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Can anyone recapture Isadora Duncan’s allure for spectators who had never seen a performer like her. At the start of the 20th century, in her prime, she entranced artists, musicians, other dancers, including young Marie Rambert, who wrote: ‘Anybody else, trying to do those same dances made no impression at all. She was a genius who spoke to the audience by sharing her ecstasy with them. When you saw her dance, you felt you were dancing yourself.’
Among those Duncan impressed was teenager Frederick Ashton, even though she was fat, florid and in her forties by the time he saw her in 1921. His reimagining of how she danced when she was young and slender is at the heart of the Isadora Now triple bill, directed and co-produced by Viviana Durante. A former principal of the Royal Ballet, Durante has formed her own pick-up company to revive rarely seen classics and perform new works. She had intended to dance Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan but was sidelined by injury. Begona Cao, former principal with English National Ballet, took her place.
The programme opened with a restaging of Duncan’s 1911 Dance of the Furies from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Some of Duncan’s many creations have been handed down by her disciples in different parts of the world, keeping her flame alive in an age that fetishises athletic skill in ballet. What seemed daringly modern a century ago, however, risks looking simplistic unless performed with complete conviction. The five Furies in this staging by Barbara Kane, a veteran Duncan researcher, do their best to convey demonic frenzy: they pound their fists, claw their fingers, flail their long hair and prowl around a flaming cauldron, writhing and falling to a 1920s recording of Gluck’s music, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. In spite of the dancers’ commitment, the recreated choreography doesn’t rise above a basic rendering of the witches’ spell-casting in Macbeth.
As the Furies depart, the spare setting, imaginatively lit by Fabiana Piccioli, accommodates a piano and another large bowl, this time containing rose petals. Ashton choreographed Five Brahms Waltzes for Lynn Seymour, drawing on descriptions and sketches of Duncan in action. He was so persuasive in evoking Isadora’s ecstasy that the solo has been taken into many repertoires, performed by dancers of different physiques (as well as by Seymour herself, memorably captured on film).
The first Brahms waltz, played by Russian pianist Anna Geniushene, sets Cao’s reclining Isadora tossing imaginary pebbles with one hand: Rambert remembered Duncan simulating a children’s game of jacks, then chasing after an invisible ball. Cao is plausibly impulsive, swiftly veering in each of the five dances from playful skipping to striking heroic poses, trailing a swathe of billowing silk behind her. Every gesture is electrified to the end of her fingertips, powerful rather than prettily graceful. Finally, petals tumble from her hands in a blessing for her audience, for whom ten minutes are over all too soon. According to Rambert. Duncan’s admirers would shout for her to repeat her dances, longing for more.
Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s 40-minute Unda (meaning waves) completes the evening in a choreographic tribute to Isadora as a modern dance pioneer. Ritter has a widely varied background in different kinds of dance, including an impressive role in Akram Khan’s Until the Lions. (She has been a rehearsal director as well as dancer with his company since 2013.) Six women in flowing costumes become bacchantes and priestesses in a series of scenes to music composed and played onstage by Lih Qun Wong on the cello.
Wong creates a soundscape that combines the full range of the cello with electronic and wind and wave effects. The dancers pour water from yet more bowls, flinging skeins of droplets from their hair – a device often used by Pina Bausch. Indeed, the movement resembles Bausch’s choreography in the 1970s for Gluck’s operas, as well as for her Rite of Spring. The similarity is in the sinuous intensity of the women’s arms and torsos and their leaping, lunging legs. These are women possessed, even traumatised, when they’re not remembering happier times, with references to folk dances or Ashton’s waltzes.
By the end of the overlong sequence of dances, each of the women has contributed a physical essence of herself, even though faces are scarcely visible. All six vanish into darkness at the rear of the stage, to reappear in the light as recognisable individuals acknowledging our applause. Production values throughout the evening have been stylish, thanks to the team of collaborators, performers and the co-producers, Farooq Chaudhry and Durante. Isadora Duncan’s spirit has been honoured, even if the impact of her presence remains elusive.