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Winter 2004

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Interpreting Isadora

Back at the turn of the last century, when baring an ankle was considered risqué, the legendary choreographer Isadora Duncan tossed convention—and her corsets—to the wind, performing barefoot and loose-haired in floating Grecian-style silks. “The hussy doesn’t wear enough clothes to pad a crutch,” a popular evangelist hissed. But dancer-choreographer Ruth St. Denis saw it differently: “Isadora was dancing God right in front of you.”

That was then. This is now: a class of decidedly contemporary Skidmore dance students in a one-month fall workshop in the divine art of Isadora Duncan. The students begin to take on the look of Duncan dancers the moment they layer Isadora’s signature sensuous silks over their workaday leotards and leggings. To get them to the heart of the matter, enter acclaimed Duncan interpreter Jeanne Bresciani ’72.

With her long black hair, translucent white skin, and elegant carriage, Bresciani virtually channels Isadora. And when she sends the young dancers into motion, it feels like a Duncan rehearsal circa 1903, coaxed into the present by Bresciani’s rich, low voice quoting Rilke, Nietsche, and Isadora herself. “Isadora was the mother and founder of modern dance,” she murmurs, directing long, supple warm-up stretches. “Her dance has been called ‘organic ballet…’” They do a little barre work. “She sought the highest intelligence in the freest body…” Duos cross the studio with gracefully rounded arms. “Now we’re going to play with the light, high Duncan skip,” says Bresciani. And they’re off, thirty-five young women nymphing madly around the room, silks flying.

The childlike skips and artless runs look simple but are surprisingly difficult for contemporary dancers trained to do more intricate steps, says Bresciani. Learning Duncan is a process of undoing, and it’s no cakewalk. But when the taped music stops, everyone laughs as Bresciani applauds: “This is dance to show what you are made ofmagnificent!"

“At first, I felt self-conscious,” admits Alison Berg ’06. “Jeanne asked us to do stuff ballet dancers don’t do. But in three and a half weeks, she transformed us.”

Transformation has been a motif of Bresciani’s life. Given just two years of dance classes—“the most ecstatic experience for me”—when she was a child, she didn’t know the wonderful movements were based in Duncan. It was only as an art-history major at Skidmore that she recognized the style in a movie about Isadora, and “I knew I had to reconnect with that childhood experience.”

Bresciani sought out and learned from mentors who had lived and danced with Duncan. “It was a charmed life,” Bresciani smiles, “and it gave me the authority to make decisions as to what was true, to keep Isadora’s dance alive.” Rising from Duncan student to soloist to director of the Isadora Duncan International Institute, she now reconstructs lost dances, adds informed improvisation to keep the spirit alive, and teaches dancers young and old at New York University, Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, and around the world. The fifty or so concert performances she dances each year win both critical and audience applause. New York Post critic Robert Kimball once said, “I have never seen more greatness, intensity, power, and passion on the stage,” and Duncan expert Kay Bardsley cited Bresciani as “closest to my concept of the ideal Duncan dancer.”

Fast-forward three weeks into Bresciani’s Skidmore residency. Eight student dancers chosen for the workshop’s public performances check in for dress rehearsal. In now-familiar silks, they bound onstage to run through the light-hearted numbers of the program’s first half, performed to taped Schubert. It takes some courage to do this in public; badly done, vintage dance can appear dated and silly. But the dancers are now moving with the Duncan flow, the trademark buoyancy and lightness. It looks easy, but Sasha Lehrer ’05 says “it takes a lot of stamina.” Coming offstage after a quicksilver solo miming the bouncing and tossing of an imaginary ball, she bends at the waist and pants hard for a few minutes. “These dances look so effortless when done properly,” says Bresciani approvingly.

The second half of the program features a darker side of Duncan, and Bresciani is riveting as she rehearses the two strong solos danced to Scriabin études, followed by a pair of Dionysian group dances of startling, animal rawness.
Performed a few nights later, Isadora’s dance packs the house.How does hundred-year-old dance pull such a crowd? “Duncan is really the core of dancing,” says ballet-trained Rebecca Pristoop ’04. “It’s what we all started dancing for—the feeling that you’re flying.” —BAM


© 2004 Skidmore College