Isadora Duncan was a founding figure of modern dance. Replacing ballet’s pointe shoes, tutus and technical armoury of steps with bare feet, loose tunics and a faith in natural movement was both a rebellion against its artifices and a radical way to cast off the corsetry of 19th-century femininity, and proclaim herself as a subject and a woman. Therein, perhaps, lies her appeal for Viviana Durante (a former Royal Ballet principal, currently a director at English National Ballet School), who directs this evening of dance in homage to her.
It’s helpful for audiences, too, to know that background. The opening work, for example – a restaging of Duncan’s 1911 Dance of the Furies to music from Gluck’s opera – may appear compositionally straightforward but is better appreciated for its historical style and spirit. Within its witchy rings, declamatory criss-crossings and pointed phalanxes, the five women are not images of beauty but sources of dangerous power: fingers clawed, feet planted in deep squats, arms pummelling, backs hunched as if poised to strike.
Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, choreographed in 1975 by Frederick Ashton, is an evocation of Duncan’s earlier, more lyrical mode: chest expanding, arms sweeping, with flowing skips and runs. It’s a more natural fit for a ballet dancer and is exquisitely performed here by classically trained Begoña Cao (Durante having been signed off for the week due to injury). Still, after the opening piece, its petalled beauty feels more like rose-tinted nostalgia than a shot of Duncan spirit.
Unda, a new work for six women by Joy Alpuerto Ritter, takes a more convoluted approach. You recognise motifs and styles from the first two works, but here they’re cut with more jagged internal rhythms and scattered into a number of distinct scenes: the dancers now surging as if in the undertow of waves, now recalling fleeting images from Duncan’s life, now clustering like high priestesses around sacred water bowls. It’s quite a mish-mash, lacking the direction or the directness of the earlier pieces – but perhaps that tacks it closer to Duncan’s own messy, complicated life.