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Lori Belilove and the Isadora Duncan Dance Company: Isadora at 137

by Jamie Townsend
May 10, 2014
Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater
405 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of Isadora Duncan. From her central role in the development of modern dance choreography to her radical often predictive thoughts about art practice and politics, she remains as iconoclastic today as she did at the height of her career 100 years ago.

Celebrating Isadora Duncan at 137 (one can imagine that, if her life hadn't been tragically cut short at age 50, she might still be with us today, so strong is her presence) at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theatre provided a rare look into some of Isadora's lesser known solo and ensemble pieces, all under the direction of Duncan authority and legacy bearer Lori Belilove.
Belilove structured Isadora 137 as an intimate character study, presenting works displaying a wide variety of Duncan's choreographic gestures, alongside new pieces created by Belilove echoic of major themes and events in Duncan's life. Punctuating the individual dances were audio clips featuring text by Duncan and others writing about her work, which aided the biographic movement of the evening, and deepened the impression of each dance growing from source material, both interior and exterior; a real person/body interacting with others in time and space, searching for clear, unrestrained expression.
Highlighting the vital importance of this real body in time were the dances themselves - selections of Duncan's work from the beginning of her career at the turn of the last century all the way up through the mid 1920s, just several years before her death. Belilove's lively set of three original compositions, "Ritual 1", "Ode to Joy", and "Ave" framed Duncan's first piece of the evening "Ave Maria". A solitary figure emerging as the stagelights rose, crossing and uncrossing arms over her chest, ascending lines and generous curves through the air with her limbs, invoking the sky.
Longer ensemble pieces, including "Air Gai-lento-Air Gai", "Feathers Gavotte", and "Dance of the Furies" filed out the first half of the evening's schedule. These pieces, ranging in tone and energy, established an important connection between Duncan and Christoph Willibald Gluck, the early German classical composer whose music Duncan frequently choreographed to. Gluck sought to return the, by then staid, opera form to the primacy of human passions. It's no wonder that Duncan, who consistently railed against the overly rigid and "unnatural" dominance of popular dance forms at the turn of the century, would find inspiration in these lush, evocative compositions.

"Dance of the Furies" was a particular highlight of the evening in this regard; the stage immersed in scarlet light, matching the costumes of the dancers whose highly energetic waves of movements seemed a invoke a tempest, a fierce struggle then final conquering of the air around them. This classic scene from Greecian mythology, impeccably rendered in dance and performed with starling intensity by the company, provided the perfect counterpoint for the fluid, sensually intoxicating ensemble performance of one of Duncan's most iconic works "The Bacchanal" in the program's second half.

Aside from Duncan's classical Greek figures, the evening's second half also focused on two crucial elements of her later work - politics and grief. A selection of worker's dances, choreographed while she lived in Moscow in the early 1920s, most clearly displayed her minimalist strength and unvarnished approach to choreography. These pieces invoked the emotionally charged yet rough and ready images of flag bearers, soldiers, and laborers in a struggle against the elements and one another. Two solo pieces, "Revolutionary" and "Mother", performed by Belilove herself, paired down the choreography to an absolute minimum, portraying, often with just a subtle movement of the hands a grief over loss, of country, security, and family ("Mother" was choreographed by Duncan in 1924 as a response to the accidental death of her young children).

Closing the performance was "Marche Heroique", not chronologically the latest work in evening's selections, but an obvious final statement about Duncan's spirit. Dancers criss-crossed the stage in a high-stepping march, at first individually, then together, the whole ensemble moving as one bright column. Left with this striking image it was easy to see that, though Duncan may have often gone it alone during her lifetime, there are many now who are moving with her.
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