Viviana Durante’s esteem for Isadora Duncan, and her passion for the late, great dancemaker’s legacy, runs deep. After 20-plus years of dazzling the ballet world with her tremendous flair for drama (among other talents), Durante is now the head of her own company, which she set up in 2017 to showcase unsung choreography alongside new work, both classical and contemporary. “Isadora Now” is her latest project, a three-piece tribute to the Mother of Modern Dance that includes a rare revival of 1905’s “Dance of the Furies.” Fresh out of a rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre, where the show will open later this month, Durante sits down with me to discuss why Isadora and why now.
“I wanted to celebrate Isadora—how she put herself out there, how she put out a message about celebrating women, who we are, how we feel,” she says excitedly. “Something that fascinates me is how ballet, if we're not careful, tends to become quite athletic. There is this comparison to how athletes train and what their goals are, and I just wanted to remind audiences that it's art that we do. It’s wonderful to look after our bodies, but dance comes from within. We mustn’t forget why we dance and what it is that drives that expression of movement.”
While directing is a relatively recent pursuit for Durante, her performance resume is as polished as her pointework. The Italian dancer joined the Royal Ballet in 1985, age 17, and swiftly climbed the ladder to become the company’s then-youngest principal. Her 15-year tenure at Covent Garden encompassed starring turns in everything from “Swan Lake” to “Manon” (plus the rest of Kenneth Macmillan’s ballets), and she later took on principal roles with American Ballet Theatre, La Scala Milan and Japan’s K-Ballet. I ask Durante if she’s found it hard to square her classical training with Duncan’s radical embrace of gravity, an element ballet usually seeks to defy.
“In the show the dancers represent different parts of Isadora,” she tells me. “We're trying to incorporate her spirit and her approach to dance, rather than trying to ‘be’ her. For me personally as a classical dancer, it's been difficult to learn the structure of the choreography, and to incorporate that sensation she gave of looking spontaneous and natural, like she was improvising on the spot. Of course, she never did; she spent hours in the studio, which is really difficult to achieve. You work out the structure of a step, but then you take it further.”
We move on to Duncan’s outspoken criticism of ballet, which she resented for its delicate, aerial-bound vocabulary, and her quest for a new language of dance created by and for women. “I think she was very controversial for her time,” Durante notes. “She loved herself, she loved what it felt to be a woman, and she dared to be seen. Others were covering themselves up, and she had bare feet and bare legs. There's a real process for all of us dancers to embody that. A lot of times dancers don't like themselves!
“A lot of people didn't think much of her work,” she continues. “They thought she wasn't trained, that she had no business dancing, that she didn't know what she was doing. She was almost pushed aside because of that. Her life descended into this big drama, and she experienced the biggest pain someone could go through with her children [who tragically died in a car accident]. She was pulled into the darkness. I’m a mother myself, and I can't imagine that terrible pain. You admire the drive that she had through it.
“I just want audiences to understand the freedom and enjoyment of dancing and moving, of telling something through your body and releasing yourself from inhibitions. It's about celebrating the fact that we all have a voice. I want to take them into her world and have that experience with them as they watch it. I hope they'll enjoy it as much as we do.”
“I just want audiences to understand the freedom and enjoyment of dancing and moving, of telling something through your body and releasing yourself from inhibitions. It's about celebrating the fact that we all have a voice.
The programme opens with the Grecian-inspired “Dance of the Furies,” which Duncan created as a solo and later reworked into a group piece. Durante has restaged it with the help of Barbara Kane, a third-generation Duncan dancer and founder of the Isadora Duncan Dance Group.
“It’s quite strong in its emotions,” Durante says of the piece. “In her solo Isadora made ugly movements—not disturbing exactly but ugly, grotesque, dark. What’s fascinating is the femininity that runs through that. The most beautiful women experience anger, drama, the darkest side of the soul that you go to. This is what she meant. People were shocked by it, and that's probably why some thought she was slightly mad.”
Next in the line-up is Frederick Ashton’s 1975 solo “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan,” which Durante is performing herself—her first solo appearance in a decade. “Ashton was very inspired by Isadora, and he created this wonderful piece about how he felt, how he celebrated her. The only thing that would have brought me back on the stage is doing something like this. I think I can meet the Isadora spirit and bring something to it artistically. I think there’s something I can give here that's different than before.”
From here it’s a new work from Joy Alpuerto Ritter, a longstanding member of Akram Khan’s company in London. “She’s made this amazing piece about the woman of today—the Isadora of today and how that's reflected and taken through, underscoring how modern she was for her time.”
The evening’s cast includes ballerinas like former English National Ballet principal Begoña Cao as well as contemporary dancers like Charmene Pang of Iceland Dance Company. “We’ve learned so much from each other,” Durante says. “I love it! We all do class together, we're all warming up the same way, but then the individuality comes out in each piece, and that's absolutely delightful to celebrate. As I work more with contemporary dancers, I find that I’m relaxing. Maybe us classical dancers need to chill out!
“What's great is that we can feed each other and learn from each other. This is what Isadora did—she met fellow artists and worked with the most amazing sculptors, painters, set designers and more to create a message. When people come together, that's what happens.”
“Isadora Now” runs at The Barbican Theatre from 21 February to 29 February 2020