Monday, September 13, 2010

Looking Through Trees

Most of you probably know that nature significantly influenced the development of Isadora Duncan’s dance technique. When I teach my Duncan technique class at The Girls’ School of Austin (and, yes, enrollment for that class quadrupled this year!), one of the first movements we explore is Duncan’s sway. We root our feet down into the earth and allow our torsos and arms to move in response to the melodic line of the music. This is no small feat (pun intended) for a group of five, six, and seven-year-old dancers eager to travel through space. But when we play “The Forest and the Trees” (forest stays rooted while trees locomote), the girls begin to experience the oppositional pull that is a cornerstone of Duncan technique.

Rehearsing LTT at Spoke
the Hub, Brooklyn, NY
Of course, the trees in Austin aren’t quite the same as the giant redwoods that populated Duncan’s California youth, nor are they quite like the towering pines that guarded the imaginary landscape of my South Carolina childhood.  What strikes me most in Austin is not trees, but sky. Moving to Austin after almost a decade of living in New York City, I’m still grateful that I haven’t caused a major car accident on Mopac or I-35 while driving during rush hour sunsets and gawking in awe at the Texas sky. Of course, given Duncan’s history with cars, I should probably be more careful, but we’ll leave that subject for another post.

Isadora Duncan was incredibly sensitive to the relationship between gesture and environment. When she first encountered the Parthenon, for example, she realized that architectural space called for a quality of movement different from her previous dances. She wrote, “Neither Satyr nor Nymph had entered here, neither Shadows nor Bacchantes—only a rhythmic cadence, those Doric columns—only in perfect harmony this glorious Temple, calm through all the ages. For many days no movement came to me. And then one day… my arms rose slowly toward the Temple and I leaned forward—and then I knew I had found my dance, and it was a Prayer” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). I can only imagine with what sustained or sweeping movements Isadora would have painted the glorious Texas sky in her dances—might be a good theme to explore in a choreographic study soon!

Rehearsing LTT at
Noyes School of Rhythm,
Portland, CT
Given the dominance of sky over trees in the Austin landscape, I suppose it is a good thing that I spent three weeks living in Lufkin, Texas, while working on choreography for Looking Through Trees, premiering this weekend at the Irondale Theatre in New York (composition/direction by Chris Chalfant). The pine trees of East Texas rival those of South Carolina, and their long slender trunks are a good study for Duncan’s sway. Although her technique is but one influence on this new choreography, Duncan’s belief that the most powerful and expressive human movements align with natural forces undergirds the entire work.

So Austinites, if you happen to be in New York City on September 17th and 18th, come check out the show! If not, next time you’re bowled over by a stunning Texas sunset (which is likely to happen at least once this week), pause, inhale deeply, and imagine—how would Isadora move?