Careful reconstruction brings life to Duncan dances

January 12, 1996|By J. L. Conklin | J. L. Conklin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Kennedy Center's five-year retrospective of the art of contemporary American dance was successfully launched last weekend with the performance of the Florida-based Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble.

Isadora Duncan, who was notorious for her dances and her wild lifestyle at the turn of the century, is one of the main roots of the modern dance family tree. Her dances, carefully reconstructed by company artistic director Andrea Mantell-Seidel under the supervision of Duncan dancer Julia Levien, provide a port of entry for the Kennedy Center series' initial focus on choreographers, including Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

The 22 short pieces on the program traced Duncan's artistic history from 1904 to 1923 -- from pleasant party dances performed at various soirees, when she was the toast of Europe, to those imbued with political overtones, created after her visit to Russia.

The highlights of the first half were the last two offerings, "Brahms Waltzes," danced by guest artist Bambi Anderson, and the rousing "Strauss Waltz," which featured the ensemble. Ms. Anderson is a dancer with gusto.

The second half of the program was decidedly more heroic. Ms. Mantell-Seidel's performance and physicality were highly reminiscent of Duncan. "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" conveyed a peaceful sensibility, and "Cherubim" created the impression that the choreographed movements were the body's natural response to the music.

The evening closed with works inspired by Duncan's visit to Russia after the revolution. "Revolution" and "Dubinushka" were strong, earthy dances, and the "Washavianka," in which a waving red banner passed from one fallen dancer to another, was stirring.

Compared with today's dances, Duncan's works seem quaint and old-fashioned, but at the turn of the century she was a revolutionary -- both in her thinking and her dancing. This Kennedy Center series should be a must-see for any serious student of dance.

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