In France, Duncan was known as the Madonna. It was there, at the height of her fame, that she lost her children in a freak accident when their car rolled into the Seine. Duncan was an icon in France, and she danced iconic images of French liberty. Moved by the sculptural façade of the Arc de Triomphe, she embodied the French national anthem and danced La Marseillaise as a call-to-arms to bring awareness to the discord brewing in Europe at the start of the first World War, and she performed it in New York to encourage the United States to take action and join the European fight for freedom.
Duncan’s choreographic repertoire is littered with images of freedom and release from bondage. Some of the later dances from her Russian period feature a gesture of bound wrists released to upraised arms, a triumphant movement representing freedom of the masses from the tyranny of the few. And as a figure in dance history, Duncan’s free-flowing tunics released women from the constraints of the corset, taught them how to breath, and encouraged a freedom of physical movement that was a precursor to other social and cultural freedoms.
Needless to say, I was very exited when Misha Penton, Artistic Director of Divergence Vocal Theater, asked if I would be interested in dancing for a Gallery Conversations event at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to celebrate the exhibit of French Impressionists. Did I want to dance in the same gallery space with paintings by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Mary Cassatt (by the way, Millicent Dillon wrote a dual biography of Duncan and Cassatt entitled After Egypt), with Rodin castings in the next room? Um…yes!
Program director Margaret Mims introduced the piece, highlighting how new and groundbreaking the Impressionist painters’ work was in the eyes of their contemporaries. It looked unfinished—but it was finished. How do you recognize evolutions in artistic expression and see them as developments of new technique and craft? Certainly in dance movement, Duncan was an icon of her age, yet she is remembered more for her personality than for the movement technique she developed (some even considered her to be without a technique!). I had never analogized the “unfinished” look of Duncan’s natural dance movement, as compared with the ballet of her day, with the blurred boundaries of impressionist renderings, and it is an interesting comparison to consider.
The program, Voix et Harp, featured French music and poetry and combined elements of dance, theatre (romantic readings of Penton's English translations of the poems as love letters by actor Miranda Herbert), opera (Penton), and live harp (Joanna Whitsett), set in a gallery space amid paintings by masters. The effect was a landscape of beauty and longing, evoking the natural forces of ocean tides and seasonal cycles, casting images of lush flowers alongside sadness, loss, scented memories. At times, the reading or the voice, the harp or the dancing was foregrounded, but each of the performance elements was always present, breathing, listening, aware and responsive.
We had a great turnout, and even after scooting the audience back a bit, there was not a lot of room to dance, side-to-side but no real depth. Although I felt limited in my ability to fully carve spatial pathways in an artful way, someone thankfully commented that the dancing made the space seem much larger, like a big hall. Someone else said that, in the dancing, the whole body came to life, and she could feel the energy transform the space—such a gratifying observation because I believe this is a strong element of Duncan’s work. It’s not a sterile picture to look at from a distance and appreciate intellectually. The work is palpable, and watching it is both a visual and a somatic experience.
I am curious as to why this can be a powerful experience for some people—is it related to our mimetic nature? Since the dance movement is motivated so strongly from the solar plexus and breath, could it be that the audience begins to share a breath rhythm? I may wax a bit esoteric here, but it drives me nuts when people assume that the contemporary value of this work lies only in its historical interest. Yes, people, it is still relevant! It doesn’t have to be dressed in a tunic (although try googling the word tunic and see how many fashion sites pop up) and a wreath (although I had great fun going completely traditional with Saturday’s costuming).
Sunday’s workshop at NiaMoves was also a great treat and well attended. It is such a joy to me to share this work, and I look forward to more opportunities for workshops and classes. Austinites, stay tuned—I’m looking for studio space for an ongoing adult class and will certainly post details here.
And in honor of today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I am dedicating this post to my former employer Dan Queen. Dan was a freedom rider in the 1960’s, a brilliant physicist and audio engineer, a soulful poet and supporter of the arts (including service as a board member of New York’s Working Theater), a connoisseur of Greek art and culture, and a passionate humanitarian. MLK day was the only holiday from work he observed—Dan would go to the office on Christmas, but, to him, working on MLK day was sacrilege! Had Duncan and Dan lived in the same era, I can only imagine they would have been great friends.