by Rachel Beaumont

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She was then but is she now?: Isadora Now at the Barbican

Isadora Now
Viviana Durante Company
Barbican Theatre
Upper Circle A14, £22
22 February 2020
Barbican page

Isadora Duncan, Dance of the Furies
Frederick Ashton, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan
Joy Alpuerto Ritter, UNDA

Dance of the Furies is the first time I’ve seen any Isadora Duncan live and it pleased me, even with the hoary old recording of the Gluck used (I assume either a gesture to the style of musical performance in Duncan’s day, or just an out-of-copyright recording). There’s a simplicity – my companion called it naivety – to Duncan’s gestures and their open-hearted response to this entertaining music. It made for a very interesting comparison with Wayne McGregor’s cerebral take at ENO last year – no second-guessing but a sweet and straightforward manifestation in movement of the shape of the music. Professional dance almost never makes me want to dance, but this time I felt my bones wanting to join in.

At times seeing the legendary Viviana Durante dance Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes I felt some scepticism, a scepticism I probably shouldn’t admit to. As is the wont of some dancers she anticipates the beat, placing herself at a dancerly remove from the music’s spirit. In this respect I felt an unfavourably comparison with Romany Pajdak’s interpretation for the Royal Ballet however many years ago. But it would be wrong to deny the beauty of Durante’s line and its ever-moving energy, always plastic and supple and gorgeously shaped so that the movement is constant and and the enjambment sinuous. And ultimately the Ashton is a lovely piece and it felt lovely in Durante’s hands.

The crowd went wild for Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s UNDA and I can see why. The music by Lih Qun Wong combines pulsing dance beat with yearning cello line, and seeing her perform live on the side of the stage is impressive. The six dancers, including Ritter herself, are superb and their bodies beautiful. There are gestures both to the Duncan and the Ashton we’ve just seen, and to recognisable still images of Duncan. The piece is nevertheless unquestionably of its own stamp and character. The choreography for an all-female group is refreshingly free of male tropes – the few lifts are saved to the climax and are handled collectively – and there is much material that can be interpreted as a hymn to sorority and unconstrained liberation.

Despite all this, UNDA left me cold. I might have responded differently had it not been presented in a Duncan programme. Wong’s music, while undeniably impressive and of the moment, is notably lacking in good toons, unlike the Brahms and Gluck. Ritter’s choreography, as befits a professional choreographer today, is highly professionalised and, let’s face it, very serious, a long way from the carefree freedom seen in the Duncan and Ashton. Of course it would have been wrong to expect the same kind of tribute Ashton made from Ritter – but in this context I focused on the deadly seriousness of the music, the deadly seriousness of the choreography and then the handful of attributes of Ritter’s art that seem just part of the same old toolbox of contemporary dance. These, unfortunately for me, rose to a pitch in the piece’s finale, where Wong’s music becomes suddenly thumping and punchy and the six women engage in a lot of hair flicking. ‘I bet the audience is going to go wild for this’, I thought grumpily to myself. And so they did.

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