"The Dances of Isadora Duncan"
Word Dance Theater
The Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum
May 1, 2008
by George Jackson
copyright 2008 by George Jackson
How have the dances of Isadora Duncan survived? Neither notated nor filmed originally, they have been passed down body to body, spirit to spirit through the sisterhood of Duncan’s adopted daughters and subsequent disciples. Perhaps pheromones have helped in the process? Our unreasonable expectation for a Duncan program isn’t just that the current performers do the movement well but that, like wine in a church chalice transformed into sacred blood, they become the divine Isadora. Of the three dancers doing the ten Duncan choreographies on this bill, one had something of the air of an original about her.
Valerie Durham is young and fresh. Ingrid Zimmer is steady and strong. Cynthia Word, though, even when she seems lost like Ophelia, reflects a guiding light from above. Word breathes differently than do the others. We catch her listening to the music. In our imagination, we accept her invitation to join her dance.
Six of the pieces were to Chopin’s music and particularly the “Prelude” (Duncan 1902; Chopin Opus 28 #7) and the “Mazurka” (Duncan undated; Chopin Opus 33 #3) reminded me of Mikhail Fokine’s ballet “Les Sylphides” that historians tell us was “supposedly” influenced by Duncan. The Duncan dances move persistently, they pulse musically and posses a purity and simplicity. Fokine’s choreography too is simple compared to pure ballet dancing that preceded him or came after (compare his “Sylphides” solos and ensembles to Marius Petipa’s for the Shades in “La Bayadere” or George Balanchine’s for the Bizet “Symphony in C”).
There were other Chopin ballets in the early 1900s. Stockholm had one and so did Vienna. The Viennese one, “Chopin’s Dances”, might have influenced Fokine. Formally at least, it sounds like the first version Fokine made of his Chopin ballet and titled “Chopiniana”. “Chopin’s Dances” premiered two years earlier than the Fokine, on 16 April 1905 at the Court Opera in Vienna on a bill with the operas “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci”. It had choreography by Josef Hassreiter and initially was to have told a bit of a story – “… Chopin would have appeared on stage, and loved and died in the course of a pas de deux and ballabile”. That “starting” notion was rejected. The result was plotless. “Chopin’s Dances” proved to be long: an hour and a quarter’s worth of national character and classical dances. “The unfortunately piecemeal nature of the music was countered by the charm of the dances.” Particular praise went to the “Minute Waltz”, a pointe variation for ballerina Irene Sironi. “The familiar and beloved music together with the precision and dance joy of the ensemble earned the work much applause and secured it a place in the repertory”. Actually, “Chopin’s Dances” lasted only three seasons in its entirety and totaled just 20 performances in the years 1905 to 1907. However, some of its numbers were added to the divertissements in Johann Strauss’s operetta “Die Fledermaus” and probably survived there into World War 1.
Fokine’s revised, all-balletic version of his Chopin work - “Les Sylphides” - was premiered in 1908 and is part of the current international repertory. Perhaps its simplicity, continuity and purity were influenced by Duncan, who first danced in Russia in 1904. It is impossible to even guess whether the choreography of the Chopin ballet by Hassreiter or the one in Stockholm had Duncan traits since neither work has lasted, nor is the archival commentary sufficient for making such a determination. Still, the vogue for dancing to Chopin may have been helped or even started by Duncan. Hassreiter was aware of modern dance and included numbers a la Gertrud Barrison, Loie Fuller, Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and others in his ballets between 1894 and 1910. Vienna had its own moderns early on and Fuller, the first American, visited in 1898; Duncan's Vienna debut was in the 1903/4 season.
Whatever influenced Fokine – certainly images of the Romantic ballet and perhaps Duncan and Hassreiter - his Chopin choreography has more structure than Duncan’s. This enables him to match the pianistic bravura of the music in a way Duncan’s naturalism can’t. Her own commitment, her concentration, her dedication might sometimes have kept the viewer’s eye from being overwhelmed by the ear. That, though, takes inspiration, which doesn’t always come when bidden.
[For some of the information on Hassreiter’s ballets I am indebted to Ruth Matzinger’s 1982 dissertation for the University of Vienna, “The History of the Ballet of the Vienna Court Opera, 1869 – 1918”.]