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Dreaming of Modern Dance

by Morgana Mellett
February 3, 2014
     A dream of children dancing in innocence and joy.
     I once was a little girl who danced in my little world.
     I ran through the wooded forest, I ran through the dark trees.
     I pounded soft little feet on trails left by leaping deer.
     Around trees and above rocks I flew as if I had wings.
     I laughed at the wind in my face.
     I twirled like the leaves all colors, red, orange and green.
     I twirled like the falling leaves until I fell to my knees.
     I danced with fairies, elves and gnomes.
     I sang a song that's all my own.
     I danced beside the brook,
          the babbling song the water sang served as the only rhythm I would need.

     I played with friends in the shaded moss.
     Walked through the woods on Halloween,
          in the dark with lanterns.
     Witches and ghosts.
     Sinister pumpkin faces glowing orange and bright with candlelight.
     I learned and told stories of far away lands,
          of dreams and nightmares melting into one.
     I dreamed of days when I'd be grown and dance upon a great stage.
     Of Isadora and her wildly tumultuous lifestyle.
     Unpredictable, outrageous, wild rebellion.
     Virgin, Mother, Goddess, Whore.

Many little girls dream of being dancers and many women still harbor that dream. I cannot count the number of times successful women have, upon learning about my career as an Isadora Duncan dancer, become starry eyed and deeply emotional as they share with me that it had always been their dream to be a dancer. That they live vicariously through people like me who embody that dream.

For many girls it is the dream of being a ballerina. I enjoyed watching my grandmother's Swan Lake with Natalia Makarova dancing the part of the swan and I loved watching The Red Shoes. But I did not have big ballet dreams. Thanks to my grandmother, Jean Raymond Day, who danced with Gertrude Bodenwieser's expressive modern dance company in the 1940's, I was surrounded by too much exquisite modern dance to think of modern dance as the option for when you fail as a ballet dancer, which is unfortunately the feeling of many modern dancers. For me it was Isadora Duncan as well as Mary Wigman, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham and Gertrude Bodenwieser, who entranced me. That was my dream. As a girl I wished I had been born in the era of early modern dance instead of the late twentieth century. I wanted to be immersed in the passion for a new dance, and to be consumed by the belief that dance could really change something. I wasn't sure if that belief existed in today's dance culture.

What is it that makes so many women dream of being dancers? Is it simply a foolish romantic notion of what it means to be a dancer? Or is it something deeper? What is it that makes me want it as badly as I do?

Some days I think, enough is enough. Why do I suffer through all this nonsense: financial insecurity, a stressful work environment, a crazy schedule, giving up my world in Vermont, my horse, my dog and my home. Leaving my grandmother during her final years. Asking my lover to accompany me on this path, thereby giving up many of his own dreams and passions.

Is this why so many little girls never become dancers? Because the sacrifices are too high? It is not just the physical work, the never ending relentless need to be in the studio forever working for perfection. Never more than a week off. Never. That in a way has not been the hard part for me. It is the sacrifices I and my loved ones have made for me to pursue this dream that so many girls dream.

What is it for?

When I dance, I am working towards, and often feel that:
     To dance is to be alive.
     Movement is life and dance is the fullest expression of movement.
     Being alive in every fiber of my being.
     Energetically going higher than the clouds and plunging deep into the ground.
     To feel oneself at the center of the universe.
     To share oneself with an audience is an intimate and global experience.
     You do not hide yourself on stage. You grow bigger than you are and share what is most intimate and emotional about yourself with a group of strangers. No one will tell you to be quiet, small, discreet or polite.

I grew up in the woods of Vermont, but with my grandmother's encouragement I began in my late teens to travel to New York City to take dance classes. I finally moved to New York and began training with Lori Belilove's company.

Lori Belilove, a third generation Duncan dancer, founded the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation (IDDF) to extend the historical legacy of Isadora Duncan's impact on the art of the dance. The Foundation seeks to expand public awareness and understanding of the legendary American dancer Isadora Duncan, the "mother of modern dance," known as an important figure in both the arts and history, a world-famous performer and choreographer, an innovator, a feminist, educator, author, and philosopher. Lori's direct lineage from Isadora Duncan and prestigious performing career have earned her an international reputation as the premier interpreter and ambassador of the dance of Isadora Duncan.

Training with Lori's company, I felt honored to stand at the barre next to such exquisitely beautiful dancers. I longed for the day when I would move with the eloquence, ease and joy with which they moved. They danced across the studio of City Center as if shrouded in mist. Lyrical and expressive from their faces to the tips of their toes. Ahh, their toes! How I longed to have feet as supple and buoyant. To bounce and skip and run in the Isadora technique takes a high level of elasticity in the feet and legs. I felt heavy and glumpy in comparison to their light yet earthy steps. And they moved quickly with such ease and grace. I could barely keep up with their swift feet. Then there were the upper body movements, which are the real essence of the Isadora Duncan technique. I was in awe of the range of motion of the upper torso of all the dancers around me. I felt stiff and incompetent next to their open and expressive chests and backs. Would I ever really be one of them? Lori had taken me on saying she felt I had great potential for her company since the techniques my grandmother had exposed me to shared many similar qualities of movement. She also appreciated my passion for Duncan on all levels. I read voraciously about everything related to Duncan dance. I was interested in teaching children. I came to her with a holistic vision of being a part of her world, rather than just as a dancer. However, I often felt that while I easily embodied the spirit and feeling of Isadora Duncan dance I would never fully actualize the movements to the level I wished and longed for.

In the beginning of my training I was so sore; my calves especially took a beating from Duncan technique. I remember also feeling winded and out of breath as the dances are intensely aerobic in a way that most techniques of dance are not. But it always felt good on my body. Nothing in all my time dancing Duncan has ever hurt in the true sense of the word. The soreness I felt was more like how a body would feel after a long hike or run if it was unaccustomed to that kind of exercise. And now that those muscles are strong I feel nothing but joy in the movements themselves.

To be a dancer means not just to create art but to be art. All the radiant beauty emanating from the Greek sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – Isadora wanted to be that. I wanted to be that. To be so beautiful as to be able to dance barefoot and naked outdoors and seem not like an intruder, but as inevitable as the trees and wild animals.

When I began studying Duncan, days at the beach became for me an opportunity for deep study. Isadora wrote extensively about the inspiration she drew from dancing beside the waves. Here I could see that crest, that up and over feeling, before the wave came crashing down, a movement that is present in many of her dances. The dance embodies the ocean: fluid but bone crushingly powerful. The endless rhythm of the waves pulling in and then rushing back out.

Isadora felt and I felt that through this sublime vision of dance you could change the world. That if young children were brought up with fresh air, clean food, and art, in particular the dance of Isadora Duncan, then we would have a world of well-adjusted, kind, compassionate human beings who are connected with themselves and the world around them.

After dancing with the Isadora Duncan Dance Company for several years I began to feel a restless stirring inside of myself. A need for something which I couldn't put a name on. I needed some other creative outlet. I started to find great joy in other modern and contemporary technique classes. It was a pleasure to simply move in a different way than I was accustomed to. While continuing to work with Duncan and explore a wide range of movement vocabularies I began to realize that what I really longed for was to create my own dances. To discover what it feels like to just move without being told exactly how to do it. This was I believe what my grandmother had always hoped for me. During our private lessons she always left time for improvisation and often discussed theories of dance composition. I would often come into her living room either for tea or for a lesson and find her deep in thought about an idea for a dance.

It dawned on me that I had not improvised in years. While Duncan sometimes gives us a structured improvisation section in class, we still dance within the technique of Duncan, and the time allotted to each dancer is very brief. Growing up in Vermont with both the great outdoors and a large living room I had often danced for hours of my own volition. Here I was in NYC spending hours a day on technique and repertory and I had not danced with complete abandon since my arrival. Through a fellow dancer I learned about a unique company called BalaSole, which auditions ten soloists to perform original choreography at The Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater. And unlike most showcase situations, this one paid well. I can not say that my first choreographic attempts were anything I would like to have remembered. I struggled for months to find a movement that did not look cliché, overdone and completely lacking in dynamics. I began to question why I danced at all. And not for the aforementioned reason of it being difficult and involving great sacrifices in your life, but rather, whether or not I had anything to say or contribute as a dancer, let alone as a choreographer. Why did I think I had anything of such significance that people should or would want to pay money to see me dance? What an egotistical pursuit to be an artist of any sort. And why dance as the medium of choice? Why dance when it is so incomprehensible much of the time. Why dance when it vanishes the moment it is over. Why? And what on earth was I going to make a dance about? What could I possibly speak about with my one body in a great big black space? And if I could find something to dance about, would anybody know what I was saying, or care one way or another?

With a rush of excitement, similar to waking up as a child and remembering it is Christmas, I had an idea that I could get passionate about. I have never had such extreme tunnel vision. I no longer cared if anybody liked what I did or if it was at all worthwhile. It was like falling in love but somehow painful at the same time. I would dance the story of an earth spirit crawling out of the deep dark recesses of time to strike out in revenge against the world's environmental destruction. Here was an idea where I could draw from so many of my inspirations. Certainly I could call on my early childhood love of the woods which later developed into a passionate attempt to live sustainably on the earth, all expressed through the various movement techniques in my body. I drew from Isadora's dance of the Furies, revengers of injustice, as well as Martha Graham's contractions and distorted movements. For music I had my parents original music to choose from. At long last I improvised with my full range of emotional and physical abilities. And out of these improvisations I was able to organize a dance which was eventually accepted into one of BalaSole's performances.

Next came the terror of having to go out on a stage with something I was completely responsible for. The lighting, the costume, the hair, the movements, the dancer, the music, it was all my own. How exciting, and horrifying at the same time. I have never felt so vulnerable in my life. However, despite being frightened and trembling with adrenaline I felt more in control of myself than ever before. I calmly centered myself with my usual pre-show routine. Feeling my feet spreading down through the floor and into the very center of the earth. Pulling energy up from the lava at the core of the earth and connecting that energy all the way up through my body. When the music and dance began I danced on stage more fully than ever before. I was immersed in the story and images of the dance and had to reserve very little space for remembering what happens next or where center stage is. I felt more than ever before that I was dancing in character, present on the stage and in the world I had created.

As I have continued my dance career in NYC as a performer, teacher and choreographer I have changed and grown not only as a dancer but as a person. Many naïve fantasies of what this life path would entail have been destroyed, but I have discovered many blessings along the way which I did not anticipate. While dancing with my fellow Duncan dancers, I have found that the connection with the other dancers is unexpectedly one of the most meaningful parts of the whole experience. I had always had visions of myself as a grand soloist but what I actually find most rewarding, the moments which I will cherish most, come from the group dances, moments when our eyes lock and our hearts soar together. When all of us leap up in unison and I feel the support and inter-connection of our bodies and minds all directed together. Like a rushing wave, a herd of horses, or a flock of birds. The support we offer one another on the stage, in the studio, and out in the rest of our lives is a rare and beautiful bond. And I do feel that the nature of the dances lends itself to this. Interwoven into the dances are moments of connection with your fellow human beings. We would have to either ignore this completely, thereby removing a huge part of Isadora's choreography, or fake it, which needless to say would be felt by the audience. We have all, with the sincerest of intentions, chosen to fully embody the feeling of unity. We are truly dancing together.



Morgana Rose Mellett is a member of Lori Belilove's Isadora Duncan Dance Company, a scholarship student with Jennifer Muller/The Works, choreographer, dance teacher, and Pilates and Yoga instructor.
Morgana has completed the IDDF Basic Teaching Certification Program.
Morganarose.net
YouTube: Morgana Rose
Morgana Mellett

Morgana Mellett

Photo © & courtesy of Stephen De Las Heras

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