Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) may be the most influential dancer who ever lived — the one who did the most to change how others danced. Ballet changed course because of her; she was perhaps the main reason modern dance came into being.
Yet how did she dance herself? We have many telling illustrations by contemporary artists of her rapturous, barefoot work; we know the music she danced to. A few observers — notably the choreographer Frederick Ashton and the critic André Levinson — analyzed her salient qualities poetically. Her students did what they could (much) to pass on her style and her repertory.
Lori Belilove, who directs the Isadora Duncan Dance Company and has a studio in New York, describes herself as a third-generation Duncan dancer who studied with members of both the first and second generations. On Monday night, Ms. Belilove presented a program of Duncan’s dances at the Joyce Theater with the ballerina Sara Mearns as a guest artist. Of the (too few) recitals of Duncan dances I’ve seen over the years, this seemed the longest and most diverse.
I enjoyed the program in varying degrees, admired Ms. Mearns immensely and Ms. Belilove considerably, and found that almost each dance added in some way to my notion of Duncan’s art. The dancers were gloriously free of the mirror-consciousness that dominates most theatrical dancing today. Often faces turned up to address the sky, as with the maenads and nymphs whose shapes in Greek sculpture did so much to inspire Duncan. Lower bodies moved in the natural movement that Duncan preached as a religion — walking, skipping, running, twirling.
In those skips, the exposed thighs really tugged the dancer up into the air. Dance phrasing joined musical phrasing in many ways, showing both micro and macro aspects of Gluck, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Mind and movement often met as gestures initiated dances (fingers scooping imaginary sand, hands holding mighty unseen ropes). And the speed with which several dancers rushed in waltz triplets, changing the front foot with each downbeat, was terrific.
My reservations? Ms. Belilove uses her own handsome face a little too theatrically, and most of her dancers deliberately project specific facial expressions (usually smiles and bright eyes). It can be no accident that depictions of Duncan’s dancing make her face more or less expressionless; the turn of the head, the focus of the eyes mattered only as part of the larger movement.
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