Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary admission to write an open and honest dance show review of the Viviana Durante Company’s Isadora Now:Triple Bill performance.

Isadora Duncan paved the way for modern dance choreographers more than a century ago. The young American woman enjoyed movement, but felt restricted within the rigid confines of ballet. So she freely experimented with a new movement style. This month, Viviana Durante Company celebrates the modern dance pioneer in a triple bill called Isadora Now. It includes Duncan’s own piece, Dance of the Furies, alongside Frederick Ashton’s balletic Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan and Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s UNDA.

If you’re interested in modern dance history, read about the Merce Cunningham Centennial Celebration at The Guggenheim.

Dancers run off stage in Joy Alpuerto Ritter's new piece, 'UNDA'
Dancers run off stage in Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s new piece, ‘UNDA
Photo credit: David Scheinmann

Viviana Durante Company

Viviana Durante, for whom the company is named, gained fame as a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet before founding her own dance company. And, surprisingly, Viviana Durante Company performs works from multiple dance genres – not just ballet. Their company mission is to “curate dance masterpieces of the future in dialogue with masterworks of the past;” so you can expect to see new commissions alongside older pieces. Prior to resurrecting Isadora Duncan’s Dance of the Furies for Isadora Now, Viviana Durante Company performed historical works by Kenneth MacMillan in Steps Back in Time.

“We embrace all forms of dance, reviving neglected classics and commissioning new work from today’s most exciting choreographers.”

Viviana Durante Company
Performers dance over water-filled basins in ‘UNDA’
Photo credit: David Scheinmann

Isadora Now Review

Dance of the Furies: Isadora Duncan (1911)

Most of us imagine Isadora Duncan prettily prancing around in flowing garments, but her Dance of the Furies was meant to showcase demonic creatures. A group of women slither to a flame-filled cauldron, where they crouch with heads slung downward. They rise with hands bared in claws, squatting in a deep, powerful lunge – forgetting whatever society would have deemed ladylike at the time. (Or simply not caring.)

Presenting such movement on stage was previously unfathomable, but by today’s modern and post-modern dance standards, Duncan’s choreography is relatively easy to watch. The movement is constant, so the mind remains engaged as the female performers advance across the stage with kicks and whirl in formation, their long hair trailing behind.

The relationship between the dancers and the music is clear. Perhaps nowadays, as a reaction against commercial lyrical dance, modern dance students are specifically taught how to choreograph without the aid of music. But pairing music and dance can’t be all bad, since Duncan’s historic choreography still enraptures us.

“Don’t let them tame you.”

– Isadora Duncan
Viviana Durante Company dancers perform Isadora Duncan’s ‘Dance of the Furies’
Photo credit: David Scheinmann

Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan: Frederick Ashton (1976)

In the Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan solo, ballet great Frederick Ashton assigns qualities of Isadora Duncan to each waltz. The 10-minute piece flutters by, each breezy piece an ode to the early choreographer.

(Note: Although we were excited to see Viviana Durante dance, Begoña Cao delivered an outstanding performance on short notice.)

Cao begins the small suite, lying on her side. Like a flower blossoming to greet the day, she stretches and rises, optimistically pert. The long skirt of her coral dress laps around her calves, as she playfully skitters in bare feet – which could easily be represented by a cadre of baby bourrées in pointe.

The choreography varies from light skips with bent legs drawn up in front of the body to punchy arm moves with clenched fists, but the performance is all very intentional. Cao engages with the audience and the pianist; her every movement is an announcement, and the whole world is hers.

She freely dances with a large scarf, sweeping it overhead, where it ripples gently – before she flings it in another direction, accompanied by a muted snap. And during the last waltz, Cao serenades the audience with flower petals that dramatically drip from her fingers, as she twirls. The whimsy and passion make Ashton’s waltzes a fitting for a tribute to Duncan.

Begoña Cao languidly stretches in ‘Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan’ Photo credit: David Scheinmann

UNDA: Joy Alpuerto Ritter (2020)

Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s 40-minute piece, UNDA, fills the entire second half of the show and references Duncan’s fascination with ancient Greek culture. It begins in a stark, dark space with hard white lights and ends in a warm, honey-tinged glow. But the audience is brusquely dropped into each new scene, with purposefully abrupt transitions in music and lighting.

UNDA evokes images of water. The female dancers’ bodies fluidly undulate, whilst water plinks into large basins. When the cellist (Lih Qun Wong) plucks her instrument’s strings, each note mirrors the drop of a glistening bead of water. Sometimes, rather than imitating water, they react to it – carefully wading through an imaginary puddle or flicking it from their fingers.

The choreography nods to the diverse cast of dancers, including hints of whacking and balletic jumps along with a large modern movement repertoire. The performers interact with each other in pairs and occasionally they all break out into solo material. But the piece gains momentum when driven by the cello’s melody, and they move in synchrony, as chorus – reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s dancers in her iconic version of Le Sacre du Printemps (or Rite of Spring).

At one point, each dancer freezes into a pose, like Greek statue – except for one. The single performer inspects them, trying on their poses, when the statuesque figures begin to sink. She pulls them up one by one, wrangling them into their original position; but they collapse more quickly. Eventually, they refuse to rise, and they roll into a ray of light behind the lone dancer, who faces downstage. It’s as if they, the visionaries who came before, are watching to see what the future holds.

The piece cycles through many distinct phases, but the ending is most memorable. The women dip their hands into the basins, which have been filling with water throughout the piece. They rub their hands through it and schmear it on their limbs. They dip their hair in the bowls, and when they swing it, the water fills the air like clear, glittering fireworks.

UNDA never meant to replicate Duncan’s movement. Rather the contemporary piece sought to imagine Isadora today. In UNDA’s most stirring sections, the connecting thread of drama and excitement is tangible.

Water droplets surround dancers Christina Cecchini and Joy Alpuerto Ritter in ‘UNDA’
Photo credit: David Scheinmann
Star Rating:

There’s an evident connection between all three pieces in Viviana Durante Company’s Isadora Now and a noticeable growth in range of movement vocabulary from Duncan’s original choreography through to Alpuerto Ritter’s. And more than a century later, it shows why Isadora Duncan remains a radical icon.

Isadora Now will remain at the Barbican Centre until 29 February 2020. See their What’s On page for more information.

Have you seen any historical dance performances in person – or in a movie, like the 3-D film about Merce Cunningham? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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