Monday, September 27, 2010

To Moscow… В Москве!

While Isadora Duncan may have never flown into Austin Bergstrom International Airport, she did fly through Russia…or crash land, anyway, flying out of Moscow en route to Berlin in the fall of 1924. Duncan, unscathed, walked away from that small plane’s failed take-off, and she even led an impromptu dance class for gathered bystanders.

Duncan’s history with Russia was long and intimate. Books have been written, documenting only the Russian years of her life. She first danced in Russia in 1904, astonishing St. Petersburg and significantly influencing the artistic sensibilities of Fokine and Diaghilev while developing artistic camaraderies with Pavlova and Nijinski. She also inspired a group of seven young Russian women to develop their own tunic-draped movement technique, forming a company called Heptachor to explore the interrelatedness of movement, music, and ancient Greek philosophy.
Sans tunic, but with glasses at
Tolstoy's estate in 2008

In 1905, Duncan debuted in Moscow, prompting theatre innovator Constantin Stanislavsky to declare himself a “newly baptized disciple of the great artist” (Stanislavsky, My Life in Art), and to develop an artistic friendship with the dancer that included talk of Duncan dance as part of the Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT) school curriculum. Duncan never taught at MXAT, but she did found a school in Moscow in 1921 at the invitation of then Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky. She also married the infamous Russian nationalist poet, Sergei Esenin, and brought him with her on her last tour to the United States.

Duncan is well-remembered in Russia, oddly more so than in her native United States, and that is what makes travel to Russia as an Isadora Duncan dancer even more rewarding. 

Chersonesos, Crimea
Terpsichore in Taurus
festival, 2007
Today, I land in Moscow, for my fourth visit to Russia! In the fall of 1997, I spent three months living in Moscow as a student at the MXAT theatre school, in a study-abroad program sponsored by the Eugene O’Neil Theatre Center. I returned to Moscow in the summer of 2005 with Lori Belilove & Company for festival performances commemorating the centennial of Duncan’s appearance in Moscow.  In 2007 I joined three Duncan-influenced companies from Moscow for performances in the ancient Greek ruin of Chersonesos on the Black Sea in Crimea.  That trip led to a 2008 Moscow visit, during which I facilitated a movement workshop for hospital volunteers.

This week, in 2010, I return to Moscow, for a conference of scholarship, performances, and workshops sponsored by Moscow State University and Heptachor. “Free Poetry and Free Dance: Embodied Sense in Motion” takes place October 1,2,3.  Visit Heptachor for more information on the conference. Austinites, if you happen to be in Moscow on Saturday, October 2nd, or know anyone who is, check out the performances at PROET_FABRIKA, Moscow’s first factory-turned exhibition and performance space. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Live Music Capital of the World

Swaying with scarf in front
of giant guitars at Austin
Bergstrom International Airport

Isadora never flew into Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Had she done so, she surely would have been impressed by the modern day monuments commemorating Austin’s commitment to live music. Of course, the idea of “live” music in Duncan’s day would have been a mute point—recorded music was yet to become the norm for dance performance. When Duncan was dancing, the choice was not whether to work with recorded or live music, but whether to work with piano accompaniment or full orchestra.

The relationship of music to movement is a major element in Duncan’s choreography. Critics commented that she literally made the music visible. Duncan played rhythm with her feet and legs and shaped melody with her arms and torso. When teaching Duncan technique, dancers analogize the work of the lower body as the left hand and that of the upper body as similar to the work of the right hand when playing piano.  I also like to think of the music as a force, similar to the wind, that either moves through the body or picks the body up whole and carries it through space.

Playing pipes on the beach
from Duncan's "Air Gai"
Granted, Duncan’s relationship to music was not always literal and was certainly never mechanical, and she was critical of schools that emphasized rote repetition. Duncan’s work did not limit dance by defining it as music visualization, rather the relationship between music and movement was organic in nature and conveyed the effect of spontaneity, even when the movement was choreographically structured. Duncan’s dance movement was, above all, expressive, and the desire or impulse to move had to originate inside of the dancer. Even though her work is well recognized for its intimate relationship to music (she blasphemously used non-dance music by composers including Chopin and invoked images of musical instruments like pipes and cymbals in her dances), Duncan also experimented with creating choreographic sequences in silence, exploring and developing the relationship between gesture and emotion.

This fall, I am blessed to be involved in a number of performance collaborations with live musicians—including a range of instruments from piano and percussion to clarinet and saxophone. I relish these opportunities because the conversation between movement and music is much more resonant when the dancer listens not only with her ears, but with her whole being, to the tempo, quality and tone of the musician, and when the musician is, in turn, affected by the dancer’s expression.

Austin, Texas, as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” is a great place to be as a Duncan dancer. Just last month I joined pianist Patches King for a performance as part of Central Presbyterian Church’s free weekly concert series. Look out for more collaborations with Texas musicians in the weeks ahead! 

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?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Barefoot or Boots?

Okay, I’m pretty sure Isadora didn’t wear cowboy boots. Although, as far as boots go, they are surprisingly comfortable and serve well as Texas two-step footwear. I do, however, think Isadora would have easily taken to flip-flops, Austin’s multi-purpose shoe of choice. Didn’t her brother Raymond craft handmade, leather sandals for the entire family—and maybe even get arrested for walking his tunic-garbed, sandal-clad child across New York City’s Central Park in the snow? Thankfully, snowfall in Austin is infrequent, and flip-flops and sandals can comfortably be worn most months of the year. I’m still, however, waiting for tunics to catch on.

According to Duncan biographer Peter Kurth, it was during their 1903 pilgrimage to Greece that the Duncan family adopted an ancient Greek mode of dress as their everyday attire. Kurth quotes Duncan as stating, “‘To me it seemed sacrilege to touch the stones of Grecian temples with the high-heeled shoes of a decadent civilization; to sweep with the silk petticoat of the twentieth century the sacred marbles of the Acropolis’” (Kurth, Isadora: A Sensational Life). I did mention in last week’s post Isadora’s ability to make grand verbal gestures, and not just physical ones, right?

Tanagra Figures, Deep Eddy, Austin, TX
Nevertheless, Duncan’s choice to dress “‘like an antique statue’” (Kurth), was an attempt to get closer to what she perceived as the ancient Greeks’ understanding of the beauty and physicality of the human body as an expression of divine creativity and intelligence. Duncan seriously studied the articulation of the body in ancient Greek sculpture, not to copy or imitate it, but to understand, in an experiential way, whether the Greek aesthetic of harmonizing proportions had a corresponding effect on the soul. As a Duncan dance practitioner, I would say that it does.

Duncan’s Tanagra Figures, a movement study linking together several poses or sculptural positions of the body, teaches dancers the line of the body in Duncan technique. The fourth figure in this series calls attention to both the tunic and the sandal and is often instructed as “fix your tunic…look, fix your sandal.”  Duncan not only sanctified dancing with bare feet as valid expression for modern concert dance, but she also validated everyday life as source material for choreographed movement.

Isadora may have rejected the moniker “Barefoot Dancer,” but she freely espoused the “religion of the beauty of the human foot” (Duncan, Art of the Dance). So, Austinites, next time you are shoeless at Barton Springs or Deep Eddy (pictured above), or maybe rolling out your mat to celebrate today’s Free Day of Yoga, stretch your ankles, spread your toes, and imagine what it might have felt like at the turn of the twentieth century to firmly plant the bare sole of your foot upon the earth.