Barbican Theatre, London
February 25, 2020
Sidelined by injury, Viviana Durante was forced to watch as her company presented this tribute to that pioneer of modern dance, Isadora Duncan. The turn of the twentieth-century dancer-choreographer’s ten-minute Dance of the Furies opens with a bare stage and lights flickering in mock fire swinging across the stage back and forth to the sound of waves, which eventually give way to the entrance of the be-draped and barefooted Begoña Cao, Christina Cecchini, Nikita Goile, Charmene Pang and Serena Zccagnini. A prime example of Duncan’s grounded approach to dance it may but it has not travelled the intervening century and a bit well.
Very obviously skilled dancers and like superb actors with a poor script, the quintet add a gloss to the material that it perhaps does not deserve. Duncan’s choreography invests much energy in gestures and running around but any emotional connection is entirely lacking. Fortunately, unlike the originals, we were not harangued long enough to die in torment.
More familiar material came in the shape of Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes In The Manner Of Isadora Duncan. Ashton had seen Duncan in 1921 as an impressionable 17-year old whilst she was just six years from her death, fleshy and well past her prime. Cao, replacing Durante, invested it with grace and energy. The five waltzes themselves were played superbly by Anna Geniushene. This is perhaps the acceptable face of Duncan legacy, such as it is.
The evening closed with a new tribute to Duncan by Joy Alpuerto Ritter with music composed and performed by Li Qun Wong. Whatever her limitations, and putting the rose-tinted glasses aside for a moment, she did have them, Duncan did genuinely attempt to find something new in the art of dance. However, Unda provides more of the same that we have seen for decades across a long forty minutes.
Streams of water pour into bowls as the dancers spend much time flicking copious amounts of hair around their faces or mimic each other in their flailings. By the end, they have dunked their tresses, and then flick water at each other as they whirl their hair around in headache-inducing rotations. Gestures are certainly invested with intensity but are empty of meaning or relevance.
Sadly, it seems, Isadora Duncan now is not Isadora Duncan then, but then as we watch with 21st-century eyes, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to be. Duncan was not alone in veering away from the conventions of classical ballet and discarding her corsets whilst making public social and sexual mores that, even then, were hardly unknown amongst the upper classes as well as the artistic fraternity. Historically interesting, maybe, but today it does not have the same impact.
Like many before and since, she chose an imagined past as an idealistic inspiration, hers being a notion of the purity and spirituality of ancient Greece. The past is indeed another country and one of the things that the ancient Greeks did differently was a narrow, pyramidical society based on the privileges of a small, male social elite and plenty of slaves. The modern world has indeed inherited a philosophical base, some via Rome, from the ancient Greeks, but the Palladian temples of neo-classicism that were inspired by the ruins of that civilisation are pallid, sanitised ghosts of the garish painted monument that the original inhabitants would have recognised. Duncan’s dance was surely the same. Her dance and invented realisation would have bemused the Greeks as much as our buildings.
Even so, Duncan assuredly has a place in the history of modern dance. Whether she deserves a whole evening any more than Loie Fuller’s whirling skirted efforts to name but one is entirely a different matter, however.
Isadora Now: A Triple Bill runs until February 29, 2020 in the Barbican Theatre. Visit www.barbican.org.uk for details and tickets.