Monday, November 29, 2010

Tunics on the Tracks

Tunic on the Tracks
in South Austin
Isadora Duncan not only created whole-body movement through space in her dances, she also traversed great geographical distances over the course of her life and career. Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Duncan moved first to Chicago and then to New York City in search of an audience for her developing dance art. Dissatisfied with dancing for New England socialites, she migrated further east to England and then France, achieving her first breakout successes in Budapest, Hungary in 1902. Her travels took her not only across Europe and into Russia, but also to northern Africa and South America as well.

Duncan must have logged a lot of rail hours in her day—traveling by train across the United States, Europe, and Eurasia. Long-distance train travel is a less known phenomenon in contemporary U.S. culture, with the exception of the heavily trafficked northeast corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Nevertheless, there are great benefits to travel by train (no traffic jams and fewer distracted drivers for starters).

A native of the Southeast United States, my first impressions of train tracks were twofold: you must lift your feet when you drive over them or risk losing your lover (an odd superstition to teach a young girl) and awareness that train tracks generally divided Southern towns along class and racial lines (hence the ominous phrase “the wrong side of the tracks”).  I remember researching the price of train tickets from South Carolina to New York City, and feeling disappointed and disheartened to discover that Amtrack was just as pricey as Delta.  Of course, I logged my fair share of rail hours when I eventually became a New Yorker—both subway, within the city, and commuter rails into Connecticut, upstate New York, and (my favorite trip) out to Long Beach, Long Island, for the glorious summertime beach pass.

While travel within Texas by passenger train is not yet a viable option, I am hopeful that some day hopping the train up to Dallas or down to San Antonio will be a convenience and a reality. In the meantime, there is the new METRORAIL commuter train from Leander to downtown Austin to explore, if you haven’t ridden it yet! Check out LightRailNow! if you’re interested in reading more about the call for light rail transport in Austin.

And, Austinites, if you’re hunkering for a ride on the rails, pronto, you’ve got options. The Austin Steam Train Association offers rides through the Hill Country on a train powered by an historic steam engine (check out the seasonal North Pole Flyer), and for those of you without several hours of local sightseeing time to spare, there’s always the Zilker Zephyr, Austin’s kid-friendly, twenty-minute circuit through the park, both departing and arrive at a depot conveniently across from Barton Springs.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dionysus and Devotion

Isadora Duncan was certainly aware of yoga. In fact, “The Mother of Modern Dance” was developing her work about the same time Krishnamacharya, “The Father of Modern Yoga,” was reinvigorating the asana aspect of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yogic path and introducing yoga to the mainstream. At the turn of the twentieth century, yogic practices and ideas were filtering westward, and dance scholar Nancy Ruyter cites Genevieve Stebbins’ early encounter with yogis in London and her incorporation of pranayama (breathing) exercises into her version of the Delsarte system, which she eventually called “psycho-physical culture.”

Duncan studied images
like this lunging Maenad
for the line in her dances.
Stebbins authored numerous pamplets and books explicating French actor and orator Francios Delsarte’s laws governing human expression, including an 1893 publication entitled Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics (Rutyer, The Cultivation of Mind and Body in Nineteenth-Century American Delsartism). Ruth St. Denis actually saw Stebbins perform some of her Greek statue dances onstage, and Duncan, who early in her career acknowledged Delsarte’s influence on the development of her ideas (but later denied knowledge of his system), was likely also familiar with Stebbins’ publications.

To my knowledge, there is only one direct reference to yoga in all of Isadora’s writings—a small snippet in a letter to artistic soul mate Edward Gordon Craig. Duncan wrote of her difficulty in sitting still in an attempt to meditate, and described the capabilities of yogis as “beyond nature.” She writes, “Well, unless one can be a Yogi, one must live according to one’s nature—only the Yogi lifts above all and I haven’t yet heard of a woman Yogi” (ed. Francis Steegmuller, “Your Isadora:” The Love Story of Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig).

Peaceful Warrior Pose
Photograph by Deanne Clark
Of course, in 1906 when that letter was written, yoga practice was still largely limited to men. Duncan, in her search for natural dance movements, focused first on the needs of women, and for her, movement of the body through space, motivated by the solar plexus (which she called “the central spring of all movement…the unity from which all diversities of movement are born” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance)), was the key to experiencing mind/body unity. In her essay “The Philosopher’s Stone of Dancing,” Duncan identified three different types of dancers, one physical, one emotional, and one spiritual. This last dancer, she claimed, had the ability to “convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). In my opinion, Duncan’s dance practice, with its goal of luminosity, is a practice of devotion, in line with bhakti yoga practices.

So, Austinites, what then would Isadora have thought of Dave Stringer’s kirtan Friday night at East Side Yoga? Kirtan, a devotional singing practice, certainly raises energy in the spiraling-up-and-out pattern that Duncan insisted music should accomplish. Likely, Isadora would have taken Stringer up on the opportunity to fade to the back of the crowd, where there was room set aside for inspired dancing.

But, she might have disagreed with his assertion that the chanting, the singing, is the pinnacle of ecstatic expression. Following Nietzsche, Duncan identified ecstatic expression with Dionysus and Dionysus with the dance, insisting, “Man must speak, then sing, then dance. But the speaking is the brain, the thinking man. The singing is the emotion. The dancing is the Dionysian ecstasy which carries all away” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Veterans Day

Okay, space is an issue at The Girls’ School of Austin, where I teach my weekly Isadora Duncan dance class for K-2nd grade students. Right now, we push the furniture to the walls in the kindergarten classroom in order to facilitate the nearly dozen tunic-draped dancers whole-bodily exploring the relationship between music and movement. Thankfully, the weather in Austin is nice enough to accommodate some dancing outside of the classroom, but when winter sets in, this will no longer be the case.

Dancers in the courtyard
In brainstorming end-of-semester performance options for the dancers, we realized that a classroom performance would seriously limit the size of the girls’ audience. Ms. Schmitt, the principal, asked me if it would be possible for the girls to dance something patriotic. If that was the case, they could perform outdoors (and earlier in the semester), for the school’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

Something patriotic? Well, Duncan certainly choreographed revolutionary, if not outright patriotic, themes in her day, and her impulse to choreograph these dances is evidence of her deep conviction that all peoples of all nations have an inherent right to physical and spiritual freedoms. While the range of revolutionary songs she choreographed may seem paradoxical from a contemporary political perspective (Duncan lumped revolutionary themes from the French "Marseillaise" to the Soviet "Internationale" into one category), Duncan’s desire to represent freedom in her dances was transnational. It is from this place that I could say, yes, we can work with that—the girls will dance something patriotic on Veterans Day.

Salute from
"Stars and Stripes Forever"
Of course, with the girls, I talked about heroes, freedom, and working together to accomplish goals that benefit everyone. Somehow, I just didn’t feel the time was right to address the historic complexities of female bodies representing abstract ideals or governments employing dance and other performance arts for nationalistic ends!  Nevertheless, I did tell them how Duncan donated the building for her school Bellevue, located just outside of Paris in France, to the Allied cause for use as a World War I hospital. I also told them how her German students were held on Ellis Island when she brought them to the United States during that same war. The history of Duncan’s school intersects with some world-defining events, and since life provides the content for our dance art, what better jumping off point to begin developing historical perspective.

Under the scarf from
"Stars and Stripes Forever"
So, in honor of Veterans Day 2010, we created choreography to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” John Philip Sousa’s patriotic tribute to the American flag as a symbol of freedom and currently recognized at the national march of the United States. The girls shot across the courtyard in their blue tunics with sharp-kneed skips and outstretched arms.  They soared under a lofty blue scarf and finished by lunging deeply with outstretched arms or kneeling in salutatory tribute.  A sincere dance of freedom, strength, and joy in recognition of those whose military service has protected and preserved our many freedoms, including self-expression through the dance!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Selkie, a Sea Tale

Rather than pondering what Isadora would have thought of the selkies, I’m inclined to argue that she was one. Given her penchant for myth, her Celtic heritage, and the image of seal-skin-shedding selkies dancing on the beach in the moonlight, I’m kind of surprised Duncan didn’t animate their legend through movement. But, perhaps, the selkies would have fallen into that “nymph…fairy…coquette” category that Duncan was disinclined to dance, favoring instead “woman in her greatest and purest expression” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).

Selkie, a Sea Tale premiere at
Obsidian Art Space in Houston
Of course, Isadora herself was constantly drawn to the sea, even narrating the beginning of her life story by declaring, “I was born by the sea, and I have noticed that all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea. My first idea of movement, of dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves” (Duncan, My Life).

The rhythm of wave movement is central to Duncan dance technique—there is a pulsation between doing and not-doing. The moments of not-doing, or complete repose, are difficult for very trained bodies to experience, but when dancers find that place of softness, they open up to the swelling of an internal impulse to move. Following this impulse, by opening the body to the possibilities of unencumbered momentum in motion, enables the dancer to explore great joy and freedom in movement. This approach also accounts for the organic quality of Duncan technique.

Yet, in creating movement vocabulary for Divergence Vocal Theater’s production of Selkie, a Sea Tale, I departed a bit from pure Duncan technique. Rather than initiating all movements from the center of the torso at the solar plexus, I began to carve through space leading with the distal tips of my fingers. I did maintain, however, a strong sense of my spine, from the tip of the tailbone through the crown of my head (or the long neck as we would say in Noyes Rhythm).

Selkie, a Sea Tale at Obsidian Art Space in Houston
Moving with awareness of the back of the body creates a different sense of embodying space—in yoga we analogize the back body with the universal and the front body with the individual. In some way, this exploration begs the question of whether moving with back-body awareness creates a more animal-like quality, while front-body awareness portrays beings that feel more human? Needless to say, I was gratified to hear composer Elliot Cooper Cole liken my seal-inspired, selkie movements to water—even while I departed from Duncan’s method of coordinating successive movement from the center to periphery, I maintained the organic, wave-rhythm quality, characteristic of early modern dance.

So Austinites, if you missed last weekend’s premiere in Houston, don’t fret! There will be opportunity to hear Misha Penton’s haunting voice, as well as the longing and lament in her poetic lyrics set to Cole’s evocative score, when Selkie, a Sea Tale comes to Austin next May—I’ll keep you posted!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Myth and the Harvest

Just as Isadora looked to antique Greek vases and statues to discern the ancients’ wisdom regarding harmonious anatomical proportions, themes and stories from Greek drama and mythology also informed the development of her movement technique and even appear as content in some of her choreographed dance works. With the change of seasons finally upon us here in Austin, I am reminded of Duncan’s insistence that we attune ourselves to the body’s relationship to nature, and what better way to explore that relationship than to check out the bountiful fall produce at our local Austin markets!

Duncan's bouncy run with
a red Roma apple!
Upon sauntering in to the Newflower Farmers Market on the corner of William Cannon and Manchaca the other day, I was struck by the plump yams, the fat squashes and the plentiful varieties of apples overflowing the baskets and bins in the produce section. Not to mention the giant pumpkins just ripe for jack-o-lantern carving. The combination of cool winds beckoning sweaters and scarves and the hearty fruits and vegetables begging to be baked or stewed and served warm brings to mind two fruit-inspired myths important to the Duncan dance tradition.

The two stories—Atalanta (and the golden apples) and Persephone (and the pomegranate seeds)—model characteristics of woman in a variety of aspects.  Atalanta is strong, willful, independent, and unwilling to marry. She challenges potential suitors to a race in which victory for the suitor is rewarded by marriage but Atalanta’s victory equals the suitor’s death. Pretty high stakes for the suitor—does that mean that Atalanta equates marriage with death?

Of course, in the second story—that of Persephone—there is no doubt that marriage equals death, for the maiden Persephone is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld to be his bride. Yet her sorrow and reticence coupled with her mother’s outrage over her fate (and a few ingested pomegranate seeds) result in a compromise allowing Persephone to return to the earth’s surface for several months of the year. These myths are complex and offer room for interpretation from many different perspectives—exactly what makes them so interesting to explore through dance movement!

Offering a pomegranate
to the autumn sun!
These myths also highlight the seasonal aspect of women’s lives—from maiden to reproductive maturity to crone—as well as the earth’s rhythm of planting, growing, harvesting, and decay.  While some might find the perennial philosophy that undergirds Duncan’s early modern dance practice to be a tad on the romantic side, during this time of shifting seasons and with festivities abounding from Halloween to All Saints Day to Day of the Dead, I personally enjoy contemplating how the themes of these myths resonate with contemporary life experience. For instance, how do you find the balance between fighting for what you believe in and letting go, in acceptance of circumstances beyond your control? Perhaps the lesson is in contemplation rather than in answering the question. And what better way to contemplate than through the dance?

Stay tuned for next week’s reminiscence on another ancient myth—but this time from the Celtic tradition! Austinites, if you happen to be in Houston next weekend, check out Selkie, a Sea Tale, a contemporary opera I am collaborating on with Divergence Vocal Theater for Friday and Saturday evening shows at Obsidian Arts Space in Houston—and Houstonites, come see the show!