If a Virginia Woolf novel enrolled in a beginner’s dance class, it might resemble this Word Dance Theater’s production. Stepping into the cedar-soaked Forum of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Center, one enters a sanctuary of sylphs in silk where piano études offer invitations to Europe’s early flirtations with modern dance. But hold onto your seat before you genuflect.
An aloof Ms. Duncan, played by Sarah Pleydell, narrates the piece while lounging on a day bed, reveling in her free-spirited philosophies. As if she were a guest on an Oprah Winfrey chiton-special, Ms. Pleydell, who is also responsible for having conceived and adapted the script from Duncan’s own writings, guides the audience with a self-important graciousness through Duncan’s life as a dancer-choreographer-teacher at the turn of the twentieth century.
Ten dances, which Lori Belilove and Jeanne Brescianni have transcribed and reconstructed from Duncan originals and divided amongst three performers, give pause to her monologue, and reinforce her literary biography with its kinesthetic counterparts. As the story progresses through memories of dance schools and Hellenistic inspiration, it is clear that in Duncan’s revolutionary curriculum, the Isadora alphabet begins with a capital-A Art and concludes z-zephyr. What is up for speculation, however, is whether such ethereal musings can exist in a functionally artistic world.
Though Ms. Pleydell balances poetic objectives like “I am seeking the central spring of all movement” with fiercely charismatic and realistic confessions such as “I need a millionaire!” her company of dancers struggles to achieve such dynamism. Only in the stunning finale of “Butterfly,” performed in the July 12th matinee by Valerie Durham, is the movement ever nuanced with enough electricity to scale the wall between performer and audience. The piece celebrates the “Look Mom, I’ve learned to liberate my soul!” enthusiasm that one could observe in a yoga class, but lacks the sophisticated conflict required for a strong dramatic performance.
Nonetheless, newcomers to the dance world will hopefully leave the Forum with a better understanding of Duncan’s implacable contributions to modern dance and her deep commitment to her work. And on a muggy afternoon almost anyone can appreciate the breath of cool air that the exquisite silk costumes release. Just be prepared to approach the piece like a parent watching a school showcase. (No need to bring the video camera.)
Running time: 60 minutes
Remaining Shows: Sun, July 13 at 5:30 . Sun, July 20 at 6 . Thurs, July 24 at 7 . Sat, July 26 at 1
Where: Harman Center, 610 F Street NW