Dance Review: “Dances by Isadora” — Freedom to Move

By Mary Paula Hunter

A passion for authenticity characterized this mesmerizing program from beginning to end.

Dances by Isadora, at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA on June 22.

“Dances by Isadora” in action. Photo: Mary Paula Hunter

Under picture perfect skies on a recent Saturday afternoon, the work of Isadora Duncan was brought to life at the magnificent Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The one-hour show set in a meadow rimmed with towering oaks featured reconstructions of the modern dance pioneer’s masterpieces as well as new works by the company’s co-director, Kelli Edwards.

A passion for authenticity characterized the mesmerizing program from beginning to end. The seven-woman ensemble appeared to relish the opportunity to demonstrate their flawless control of Duncan’s ever-changing rhythms and precise patterns of locomotion. No less impressive was the company’s commitment to the sculptural dimension of Duncan’s choreography. Torsos shaped in all directions above signature skips and hops brought to mind Merce Cunningham’s patterns of locomotion that also incorporate articulation of the spine. And while these dancers performed Duncan’s layered choreography flawlessly, they were always mindful that for Duncan complexity of design and rhythm was second to a childlike embrace of natural movement.

The opener, “Classical Duet” performed to the music of Schubert (Op. 33 No. 10), introduced us to Duncan’s playfulness. Two dancers waltzed around each other with arms intertwined like garlands. As if best friends the two dancers mirrored each other’s movements even when they pulled apart, running and skipping along diagonal paths with their backs to each other.

Duncan choreographed the group work “Rose Petals” to Brahms’ Waltz, Op. 39. No. 15. Radical in her day for setting choreography to serious concert fare, Duncan made a case in Rose Petals for the marriage of unforced movement and great music written for the concert hall. The simplicity of light runs and gambols underscored lines of notes as if brilliant artistry is rooted in the human urge to move in an unforced manner. And although Duncan mimics the rhythm throughout, she does so in the spirit of collaboration. The music never feels prescriptive as in 19th century ballets, more like a springboard for Duncan’s fertile imagination.

By attaching serious music to modern dance — still in its infancy — Duncan conferred this new art form with the gravitas it lacked. As the seven dancers wove in and out of lines and circles, effortlessly coupling and uncoupling to the lilting waltz, one’s experience of the Brahms was enriched and forever changed.

Duncan’s disdain for the artificiality of Ballet was best expressed, ironically, in a Mazurka by Chopn. A solo work, “Mazurka Echarpe” was performed by stand out and co-founder of Dances of Isadora, Patricia Adams. Adams was neither earthy nor alluring as would be typical of a character dancer. Instead she proved that simplicity and a natural flow of gesture and locomotion can not only delight the eye but enhance and clarify the peculiar accent of the Mazurka.

Throughout the program, the Duncan-inspired costumes–panels of opaque fabric lightly wrapped around the body–allowed for a full range of movement and while exposed flesh may not be radical today, the light, loose costuming allowed for individual expression, subverting the authority of what would most likely have been a male choreographer in Duncan’s day and in today’s world, as well. Despite moving in complete synchrony, these dancers were free to reveal movement personalities that reinforced Duncan’s aversion to dogma and hierarchy.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces. In 2019 Hunter published Someone Else, a novel set in her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan.

1 Comment

  1. Catherine Gallant on June 26, 2019 at 10:27 pm

    Thank you Mary Paula Hunter for the finely wrought description of Duncan’s movement and intention. Patricia Adams is unique among those who embody the Duncan vocabulary since she is completely musical without falling into representation. She has been an important mentor to our subsequent generations and has been invigorating the work for a new audience over the past 40 years. I’m so glad you were able to be there to share your reflective response.

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