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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the Altar of Art

Mearns Rehearsing "Narcissus"
The Art of Isadora
Lori Belilove and the Isadora Duncan Dance Company
Joyce Theater, New York
June 19, 2017

A prophet may always be without honor in her home country, but Isadora Duncan may finally have won respect in America.  It happened last night at a jam-packed Joyce Theater, where a famous ballerina gave a boost to a sworn enemy of ballet.  Isadora would have been amazed.

Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet joined the Isadora Duncan Dance Company, briefly, for a solo to Chopin's "Narcissus."  Duncan's choreography has probably never been performed with the articulation, power and speed Mearns brought to it. It was exciting, electric, especially the upsweep of her moving turns. But it wasn't strictly Duncanesque.  
In a rehearsal covered by the New York Times last week, company director Lori Belilove told Mearns to come onstage like the wind. This is one ballerina who can take that kind of direction -- it reminds me of her entrance as a 19-year-old in 2006, making her debut as Odette in "Swan Lake." Still there are different winds. Mearns's energy is tightly wound, like a tornado, and comes out in sudden dramatic bursts. In Duncan's style the breeze is steadier, like a trade wind from the west. Filling the dancer in the belly of her sails it carries her forward, with gossamer veils streaming behind. The energy moves smoothly, horizontally, as on a Grecian urn. Its most dramatic effects come when it is directed outward, to the audience.
Lori Belilove, a third-generation Duncan dancer, speaks with her arms, in gestures offered not to the Gods but to us. In "Orpheus' Lament," she steps forward repeatedly, forming a circle with her arms and raising them to the level of the heart, with a final lift of that draws our eyes to her hands. These hands will hold you up, she seems to say, expressing a revolutionary feminism that proposes to save the world through compassion.  

Isadora's life, of course, was a failure. Her reputation in America was smeared by sordid tales of drunkenness, dysfunction, unpaid debts. uncountable lovers, lost children, and a spectacular, grisly death -- nearly decapitated when her scarf caught in the wheel of a racing car.

But vita brevis, ars longa. Now, at the 140th anniversary of her birth, we can begin to see her as the true mother of modern dance. Belilove makes the case that Duncan's kinetic flow is both more classical and more American than Martha Graham's sculptural tableaux.  
Though her solo came early in the program, Mearns stayed through the curtain call and seemed delighted to be in the company of Isadora and her muses. She and Duncan have something in common -- a reckless faith in Art, a willingness to sacrifice themselves on the altar of it. As Duncan put it,"there are joys so great, so all perfect, that one should not survive them."  
Belilove has the same faith, and has given herself the Herculean task of founding and leading a company, while dancing and teaching. Her dancers are of mixed levels, some clearly professional, some more like talented part-timers. Mariel Harris caught my eye with her whipping turns, Caroline Yamada with her quickness, Hayley Rose Brasher with her broad leaps and the gentle float of her arms. But the spirit is there in all the women, as well as the little girls who opened the program dashing around the stage with scarves flying behind. And it's not just the spirit of the nurturing female. In Gluck's "Dance of the Furies" the women are violent, strong, scary.  Isadora is known as a "feminine feminist," a woman who didn't envy men in any way, because she had the full scope of human feeling and behavior in herself, untamed. 

"Dance of the Furies"

Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips
Photo of Sara Mearns from NYTImes
Photo of Caroline Yamada, Hayley Rose Brasher and Emma Pajewski by Rose Eichenbaum