Isadora Now: A Triple Bill
Viviana Durante Company
Barbican 21-29 February
Julia Pascal


Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) has been re-visioned by Viviana Durante in her new programme Isadora Now.  Duncan was a major pioneer and a dance radical.  Ken Russell’s biopic wowed cinema audiences in 1966 but Duncan herself has not been a widely known figure among the general public for some time.  Viviana Durante’s aim of returning Duncan’s art centre stage is an important tribute.

Dorée Seligman’s programme notes reveal the importance of Duncan as a trailblazer.  Rodin calling her ‘the greatest woman the world has ever known’.  Californian born, Duncan lived her life outside the boundaries of conventionality.  She loved men and women, dressed as she pleased.  Her dance was a defiance of classical ballet where Woman is formalised by the traditional ‘feminine’ imagery of the tutu and where her body is presented in a classical front-on stylization.  Ballet’s pointes elevate the ballerina, Duncan’s barefoot dance roots the woman to the earth.  Hers is a proclamation of the freedom of the uncorsetted body.  Duncan was inspired by the flow of movement that she saw depicted on classical Greek vases.  The pliant back bend, the raising of moving arms, the sense of space and the spiral of the spine, are all central motifs which are the antithesis of the posed, placed arabesques of classical ballet.

This triple bill at the Barbican is eclectic.  The 1911 restaging of Duncan’s Dance of the Furies to Gluck’s Orfeo and Eurydice is exciting in its use of light, space and the emphasis on circularity of movement.  Fabiana Piccioli’s wave-lightening effect is highly imaginative in its breaking of stage space.

The jewel of the evening is Frederick Ashton’s 1976 Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.  Ashton saw Duncan dance when he was a young man.  This composition was his act of admiration of her art.  Durante, a former Royal Ballet principal, planned to dance the Waltzes but an injury meant that Begona Cao took the solo.  Cao’s richly textured movement, her assurance, her bravura and utter stylishness, is mesmeric.  There is a strong symbiosis between Ashton’s revelation of Duncan’s style, Cao’s interpretation and the single, grand piano, majestically played by Anna Gelushene.

New choreographer Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s Unda completes the evening.  This is the least successful of the ballets.  The gorgeous cello performance of Lih Qun Wong, in her own composition, is thrilling.  However, the overlay of thunderous beats is alienating and jars with the choreography for the six strong and expressive dancers.  If the final work is not as well-achieved as the first two this is perhaps because Duncan does not sit easily in the aesthetics of the 2020, high tech, head-banging aural clichés that we are used to in the night club.  Choreographically it has not found its own language and the throwing of water around in some crazed climax reduces Duncan’s legacy.

Julia Pascal © 2020.