Tuesday, September 15, 2015


(Author at a February 2015 photo shoot)

Isadora.  Isadora Duncan.  A part I had been asked to play for Nacre Dance Company back in January of this year. I had agreed to take on the role of the woman who was credited with starting modern dance and was about to immerse myself in a weekend of Duncan culture, costume and movement.

 Nacre Modern Dance Company had taken on a new project of producing the play “Revolutionary;” depicting Isadora Duncan’s life.  The play was a combination of both dancing and an eight page monologue by the solo actress - me.  I was flattered and excited to play a historical woman of dance.

Friday evening, April 10th I arrive at Universal Preservation Hall (UPH) at 5:45 to prepare for the first session of the weekend.  Beth Fecteau, director of Nacre, hands me my silk tunic and sash which is contained in a matching silk bag.  I open it up and pull out my silks and am surprised by the color.  I thought I was receiving a periwinkle silk tunic but it turns out to be a pale violet.  I look around at the emeralds and burgundies worn by some of the other dancers and at first am disappointed but soon realize that the pearly, luminescent quality of the silk suits Isadora Duncan.  It is a complete mystery to me as to how to wear my tunic and sash but am soon helped by other dancers in the draping and knot-tying required to achieve a Duncan look. Apparently a number of them have danced Duncan before and are accustomed to the Greek style tunics and the fact that we wear them for both warm-up, rehearsal and performances.  I am entering Duncan culture.  It is thrilling.

Before we start, Beth introduces me to the visiting Duncan instructors, Cynthia Word and Ingrid Zimmer, as “our Isadora” and Cynthia comments that I even look like her a bit.  My hair is the right length and style, bone structure is similar and I do have a long neck.  She was famous for her elongated cervical area.

At 6pm sharp, we begin with Beth introducing Cynthia and Ingrid  from Washington who are setting the pieces on us.  They have done the show “Revolutionary” a number of times and are here to share the choreography, the spirit and the styling.  Before we start to move, we sit in a circle and they show us photos of both Isadora Duncan and her dancers as well as some of the classic Greek artwork that inspired her.  I am currently, reading her autobiography, “My Life” and recall the unwavering influence that the Greek art had on her.

(Cynthia Word starting the workshop with Duncan history)

We start with a warm-up that has a loose structure and does not adhere to strict counts with the music.  I follow along and am soon having fun with the beautiful warm-up that is much looser than ballet. I feel that I am dancing already at the barre.  At the end of the weekend, my hips were quite loose due to the multitude of leg swings we do.  I also felt that the warm-up offered a cardio benefit as few exercises were explained but really it was based on follow the leader and there was no stopping in between. How revolutionary!!  

In the weeks building up to this weekend, Beth had been giving us more Duncan movement in class which helped me through this weekend.  But truth be told, it was clear that everyone else had been in a Duncan environment before - from their expert draped tunics to their knowledge of the warm-up.  And other people showed up, who I didn’t know who apparently love Duncan and wanted any opportunity to be a part of it.  Furthermore, a number of the dancers, including Beth, had been to Greece to dance among the artifacts and reproduce Isadora’s experience.  I had some catching up to do.

Friday evening we worked on “Balspiel,” a light hearted dance that depicts young women going to a party and Isadora as a dancing young girl.  I found this one a little challenging but fun.  I went home exhilarated and looking forward to the next day.

Saturday at 9am after the warm-up, we are divided up into two groups to learn different pieces.  There are 10 numbers to learn so we must divide and conquer.  My first number of the day is “Revolutionary” which is a comment on the Russian Revolution and serfdom which she was vehemently against.  She was opposed to  anything that constricted the human being and human spirit from a tsar to a tight ballet corset.  She was frequently asked to wear more substantial undergarments under her tunic which she wore everywhere and firmly refused.

“Revolutionary” is I believe her most dramatic piece filled with quick drops to the floor, clenching of the fists and emotionally strong movement.  Ingrid warns us that our left thigh might be sore in the morning and it was as we repeated the dance over and over. I was learning the piece to better know Isadora but I would have performed this one in a heartbeat.  The choreography is mature and rich.

My second piece of the day was “Orientale” a piece that has some gypsy influence and is danced with a scarf. It is meant as a seduction and while not difficult in movement was actually challenging to memorize as much of the movement was repetitive but clearly different in some subtle way.  In the script this piece follows her story about performing in Budapest and you see the blending of east meets west in the movement. 

Apparently, I danced “Orientale “ well as it was decided afterwards that perhaps this Isadora would dance in the show.  Other versions of the show had kept the acting and dancing separate.  I was all for it. The dance possessed a Latin flair and I related to its movement and sequence of steps.

During the day we worked on “Ave Maria” which is the heart wrenching piece that is offered up after Isadora relates the death of her two children.  A part of the play I was equally looking forward to and dreading.  I have done dramatic work onstage before but it had been awhile since I had lost it onstage and had a break down.  I was in tears just learning the piece and ached to be a part of it.

Saturday evening was a dinner party with some of the dancers including Cynthia and Ingrid.  It was a whole new experience for me to learn of the Duncan world; almost a cult for some. Some dancers participated and left the dancing in the studio while others carried it throughout their day and life taking on a Duncan spirituality.  It was not unlike the world of Argentine Tango where people danced Tango, dressed Tango, listened to Tango music and some up and moved to Argentina.  I was happy to learn anything I could about Isadora and her personality, delivery, demeanor.

I was fascinated to learn of the Duncan lineage and how important that was to some. It was akin to having Mayflower roots.  How many steps away from Isadora had your teacher been?  Some had learned from the woman who had learned from Isadora; only two degrees of separation.  

On Sunday, I spent time with the director Aaron Holbreiter going over the script.  That afternoon we were having an open rehearsal at UPH and I would appear as Isadora for the first time.  We were just doing selections from the show and I would be allowed to use my script.  Beth, Aaron and I had edited the script for the open rehearsal.  While I was in the back room acting, the other dancers were learning new pieces and reviewing for the afternoon performance.  

What is also unique about Duncan is its spontaneity and natural quality.  It is considered appropriate not to be over rehearsed and to have your own personal touch and styling within the Duncan repertoire of movement.  A challenging balance to achieve.

After lunch, we do a quick run of the 20 minute show and I have my second encounter with the tunic and sash.  It is one thing to wear a tunic in a casual style for a rehearsal but it needs to be “just so” for the show.  Having never really been in a modern dance concert and accustomed to wearing tango high heels, fishnets and a flashy black dress, I am thrown by the beige/nude liner/leotard with a full nude/beige unitard that I am to wear under this beautiful but unpredictable shapeless piece of silk.  We achieve shape by wrapping, tucking, pinning and twisting.  Much to learn but we look fabulous.
(Classic Duncan shape in classic tunic)

The show starts out with us warming up at the barre in front of the audience and I notice that everyone seems to know a different order than I do but I hang in there- after all, I tell myself, I don’t want to look over rehearsed.  After the barre, we head across the floor doing things I had never done before let alone in public.  It occurs to me that while I was in the other room rehearsing with Aaron, that there had been some agreement as to what was happening at the barre and across the floor which I had not been a part of.  I start to smile and then suppress a laugh as I realize that I probably wasn’t supposed to be out there, just the full time dancers.  I hang in there awhile longer and when I deem it appropriate, depart from the group and go in the back room to gather myself for the acting portion of the day.

The truncated show goes well and I read from the script with some light staging in the community room at UPH. I am aware of some acoustical issues and am concerned that I may be sacrificing inflection and expression for volume. In the audience are some friends and family of the performers as well as our Duncan teachers as well as some other Duncan devotees.  I feel supported yet watched and scrutinized.    

After the show, an experienced Duncan dancer, who I had yet to meet, comes up to me and has more information on Isadora.  She says that Isadora would sometimes lecture audiences for hours and had a high pitched voice.  I nod and put it in the hopper for further consideration and reflection on my road to becoming Isadora.

More "Becoming Isadora" to come.

Diane Lachtrupp Martinez

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