Every once in a while you come across a performance that is a standout and worthy of having a wider audience. Great Solos by Great Women of American Modern Dance is such a show. It had only 2 showings last weekend at the Doris Humphrey Memorial Theatre at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, and a shorter version at the Harold Washington Library on Wednesday, January 23rd and was performed by MOMENTA, the resident performing arts company of the Academy.
This was not only a dance concert, but a history lesson on the early development of modern American dance by the pioneers of the movement. For dance lovers it was a treasure trove of historic choreography by Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and a few of their disciples. The program was curated, written, and narrated by Artistic Director Stephanie Clemens, who learned some of the dances directly from these students. (Disclaimer: I occasionally choreograph and perform with MOMENTA; however, I have not been involved with this production.)
A tremendous amount of historical research went into reconstructing the dances on this program. Dance is an art form that must be taught and handed down from one dancer to the next. Before the era of film there was little record of what a dance looked and felt like other than photographs and written notes. With the development of video-and now Youtube-it is much easier to learn, re-create, and preserve dance works. Nevertheless, there is a time honored tradition of passing down not only the technical steps, but also the musical phrasing, emotions, and luminosity of a particular piece to the next generation of dancers in order to preserve the legacy of choreographers and their works. This MOMENTA has lovingly and carefully done, and the works learned by people in a direct line to the original choreographers.
Opening with Le Lys (1896), a Loie Fuller reconstruction based on written reviews, paintings, photographs and sculptures, this creation is a spectacle of stunning beauty. Fuller was a pioneer of both modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques—she created works using fabric, motion and light, and experimented in the use of color, mirrors, sound, and movement. Her works often had a magical, other-worldly effect.
In Le Lys Fuller used voluminous yards of silk, supported by bamboo “wands” as extensions of her arms to create huge flowing waves in ever changing light patterns. Fuller’s work was not so much dance as imaginative movement and she served as an inspiration for many artists including Isadora Duncan. Performed here by Mary Kelly-Kren, Le Lys is a study in swirling images and prodigious arm strength.
Isadora Duncan had a major impact on modern dance through her belief in natural (as opposed to rigid, corseted) movement. A poet, critical thinker and champion of the struggles for women’s rights, Duncan was inspired by ancient Greece, as attested to by her Greek tunic costumes, and saw dance as a sacred art. She reveled in the joyous, youthful movements of skipping, jumping, and leaping, with seeming abandon, all while barefooted, with long wild hair flying.
Striking in these works is the variety of global cultures explored. Whereas the dancer-choreographers were all American born, Fuller lived and performed mostly in France, Duncan toured Europe extensively and combined her love of ancient Greek arts with American athleticism and freedom, while Ruth St. Denis was inspired by Egypt, India and the Orient. Her works and teaching strived to find the spiritual in dance.
Several St. Denis numbers were presented, including the exotic and mesmerizing The Cobras, performed by Cora D. Mitchell with hooded intensity. St. Denis and husband Ted Shawn formed the Denishawn school in 1915, whose students included Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.
Martha Graham, the world’s most renowned modern choreographer and dancer of the last century, had a career that lasted 70 years. Her influence is inestimable and wide-ranging, reaching dancers, choreographers, actors, and artists, and winning her the nation’s highest arts honors. Clemens calls her a “primal artistic force of the 20th century.” Her work plumbed the depths of human emotion and her portrayals of classic women in mythology are laudable and iconic. Lamentation, a deeply expressive work of grieving, was performed by Deborah Goodman, a former member of the Martha Graham Company, seated on a bench, further restricted by her tight, stretchy costume. It is an excellent example (1930) of the Graham technique of “contraction and release”
Doris Humphrey, born in Oak Park, Illinois, began to dance at an early age and opened her own dance school at the age of 18. She then went to Los Angeles to study with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn and continued with them throughout the 1920’s. Together with dance partner Charles Weidman they then developed their own technique, based on the concept of “fall and recovery.” They toured extensively and after Humphrey retired from dancing she served as Artistic Director of the Jose Limon Company until her death in 1958. Merril Doty performed her early work Valse Caprice, also known as the scarf dance.
In preparing these works Clemens brought on board coaches and reconstructors Lori Belilove (Isadora Duncan), Gail Corbin (Doris Humphrey technique), Jessica Lindberg (Loie Fuller) with lighting design by Megan Slater, Karoun Tootikian, who worked directly with Ruth St. Denis for 20 years, and recent graduate with a B.A. in Dance History and Criticism, Merril Doty (Doris Humphrey Foundation). Together, with the 17 MOMENTA dancers and technical staff, they presented a panoply of modern dance, which every student or exponent of dance would enjoy. This fine company deserves greater metropolitan exposure.
Photos: Suggested by MOMENTA Dance Company