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Barefoot in the Park: Isadora Duncan Dances for the Ages

by Bonnie Rosenstock
June 5, 2014
Central Park – Bethesda Terrace
Mid-Park on the north side of 72nd Street
New York, NY 10024
There could not have been a more idyllic setting or ideal afternoon for an outdoor performance of the dances of Isadora Duncan. With the soothing sounds of the cascading waters of the Bethesda Fountain, the slow-moving ripples of the Central Park Lake and the nearly cloudless blue sky, Duncan herself must have given her blessing to the event.

The opening convocation, "Tanagra Figures," featured eight women whose silent dance welcomed the seated and standing onlookers. The dancers faced the Fountain's iconic Angel of the Waters, who blesses the Pool of Bethesda, giving it healing powers. The angel carries a lily in her left hand, symbolizing the water's purity.

The one-hour outdoor dance concert, in its 25th year at Bethesda Fountain, was co-conceived by Catherine Gallant, who has been dancing Duncan for over 30 years. "Every year since then we have celebrated Duncan's birthday [May 27] in this way," said Gallant. "It has become a way for various Duncan dancers and their students to come together in this beautiful environment. Whoever happens to be available among our Duncan friends and acquaintances is invited to join."

She added, "I think of it more as a 'happening' than a performance."

There were 25 short pieces, ranging from under one minute to four at the longest. "Duncan liked short," said Gallant. The dancers performed barefoot on the red pavers. They were clothed in variations of short or long tunics of differing colors, which allowed for flowing movement. They also wore garlands atop their heads. Sometimes they used long delicate scarves as arcs to dance under or to wave in patterns.

The program consisted of solos to group dances, accompanied by the music of Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and other classical composers. Dancers ranged in age from five to 63. The duet, "Morning Star," featured the oldest, silver-haired Adrienne Ramm and her sister Beth Jucovy, both attired in long beige tunics. Ramm began studying with Julia Levien, a student of Anna and Irma Duncan—two of Isadora's six adopted disciples to whom she gave her name—when she was six years old. "She is one of a very few dancers who studied Duncan dance exclusively, retaining a pure version of the style and technique uninflected by ballet or other modern dance vocabularies," related Gallant. Jucovy also studied as a child and went on to train in ballet and jazz.

The youngsters also shone and displayed great discipline, poise and ability. They danced confidently through the Duncan technique—natural movements suggestive of how children play—and seemed to be having a great time. They came from three dance schools: Children Dancing, Great Neck, LI; American Youth Dance Theater, Manhattan; and Every Little Movement Academy of the Arts (ELMAA), Hoboken, NJ.

Marin Pecarsky, 7, has been studying at ELMAA for three years. "I love its expressiveness," said her mother Robyn. "While the teacher is strict, it is not rigid. The teacher helped them learn about Greek mythology and dance. You don't have to be gifted but love it. It's more expressive than other dances. It's a great program."

There are no extant films of Duncan dancing, except for a one-minute clip of her informally dancing at a garden party, explained Gallant. All the choreography has been passed down orally from generation to generation. Annabelle Gamson, now 85 and living in Westchester, brought the Duncan canon to new audiences around 1976. "We owe her a great debt for re-invigorating the dances with fabulous musicality and captivating performance energy. She did the work with complete artistry," said Gallant, who studied primarily with the late Julia Levien and Hortense Kooluris.

Gallant learned the reconstructed dances over the many years she performed with Kooluris and Gamson. In the 1990's, Levien assembled a few dances that hadn't been performed for 40 or 50 years. "So we have the memory and documentation to refer to."

The American-born Duncan (1877-1927), considered the creator of modern dance, eschewed rigid ballet technique and pointe and introduced free, natural, barefoot movement connected to the emotions. She used skipping, running, jumping and leaping as dance elements. Her inspirations were classical Greek arts, folk dance, social dances and the natural world. She believed that American athleticism could never adapt to ballet. "The legs are too long, the body too supple and the spirit too free for this school of affected grace and toe walking," she said.

The program showcased all the characteristic elements of Duncan's choreography. It looked like great fun to dance. However, watching all those brief pieces seemed like too much of a good thing. After a while, they tended to be indistinguishable and repetitious. By the time I had to leave, at piece number 20, I felt ready to move on. Although I missed the 1:30-minute finale strewing of rose petals, I had already smelled the roses, enjoyed the scenery, admired the artistry and applauded all for their joyous commitment to preserving the spirit and legacy of Isadora Duncan.

Photo © & courtesy of T. Carroll


Photo © & courtesy of Janete Gondim


Photo © & courtesy of Fran Dickson

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