In an era when strict ballet was thought to be the highest form of dance expression, one woman threw off her corset and transformed Western movement. In nothing but Athenian garb, Isadora Duncan revolutionized the world of dance. Generations ahead of her time, she brought her progressive thought and free-spirited style to the forefront of the Edwardian era. For this year’s Piccolo Spoleto, Word Dance Theater will memorialize her innovative method in Revolutionary! Isadora Duncan.
“Often people ask, ‘Why would we be doing these dances now?'” says Artistic Director Cynthia Word. “One thing to think about when you look at all the great artists — Shakespeare, Homer, Beethoven — they do survive through time, and she’s certainly in that class.”
The life of Duncan is almost as fascinating as her work. Revolutionary! combines the artist’s personal history with 12 of her best-known pieces sprinkled throughout the show. “She certainly used dance as her medium, but her vision is much larger,” says Word. In keeping with that idea, the script was culled together from the dancer’s own words taken from books, including Duncan’s autobiography, My Life.
Actress Sarah Pleydell plays Duncan and serves as Revolutionary!’s narrator. Sitting in a chair upstage, she explains her life from growing up in San Francisco, to her move to Paris, to the tragic death of her two children who drowned with their governess in the Seine in 1913, to her move to Russia following the Bolshevik revolution.
Festival attendees will enjoy an extra treat as well, with the inclusion of Jeanne Bresciani, director of education of the Isadora Duncan International Institute, who will perform with the cast for the Piccolo run. Bresciani, one of the few people alive who trained under Duncan’s daughter Maria-Theresa Duncan, will perform four pieces.
Beyond dance appreciation, audiences will enjoy the insight Word brings to Duncan’s years. A libertine, Duncan was a champion for progressive thought when the movement was still in its infancy. From a very young age she denounced marriage. She rejected class barriers and aimed to bring art beyond the bourgeoisie to the masses. She founded three schools in Paris, Germany, and Russia, whose objectives were not only to teach young girls how to dance, but to develop their overall intellect with grounding in the sciences and literature as well as art. “Her schools were the most advanced. We still don’t have schools like that,” says Word.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Duncan was her fearlessness in her ideas, in her dance, and in the way she lived her life. “She didn’t hedge her words. That cost her in many ways,” says Word, who hopes Piccolo audiences, like previous Revolutionary! attendees, will be inspired by the show. “Isadora was the most democratic of all dancers. She wanted it for and of the people. We want our work to be for the people.”
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