"She was able to really find a vocabulary that clearly communicated her ideas." FIU dance professor Andrea Mantell-Seidel is talking about American dance enfant terrible Isadora Duncan. "She believed in the Greek ideal of developing the body, spirit, mind, and emotions -- one not sacrificed to the other. The spirit and the values of the soul were really at the core of her art."
Touched by what she calls "the profound simplicity" of Duncan's work, Mantell-Seidel founded the Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble in 1991. "There's a real humanism in the work," Mantell-Seidel explains. "Over the past 50 years modern dance has moved away from humanism. Duncan's work inspires and uplifts people. That's the mark of a great work of art -- something that can survive the artist and her time and still speak to very human concerns."
Duncan always dared to be different. Born in 1878, she was a free spirit who defied convention in almost every aspect of her life. An early feminist, she had a slew of lovers and bore two children out of wedlock. Self-taught and completely committed to her craft, she invented her own style of movement, creating flowing yet spare pieces inspired by the classical ideal of beauty and organic forms in nature. Her company consisted of young girls known as the Isadorables, who pranced about outfitted in diaphanous tunics, barefoot or in flat sandals, with wreaths of grape leaves nestled in their hair.
While Duncan enjoyed great acclaim in Europe and Russia and established dance schools for girls (five of whom she adopted after her own children were killed in an accident), she was regarded as a rebellious eccentric in her own country. She died in 1927 when her scarf became entangled in the wheels of a car in which she was riding. Perhaps because of the scandalous way Duncan lived and the ghastly way she died, myths persisted about her for decades. Professionally, many considered her a lightweight who lacked a fixed repertory and a transmittable technique. Her reputation suffered and her work was nearly forgotten.
Mantell-Seidel and her troupe are on a mission to shatter the myths about Duncan. When it was first established, the Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble consisted of seven teenage girls whom Mantell-Seidel taught at South Miami Middle School. The adolescents began performing Duncan's early lyrical works, which were geared perfectly to their age group. "Compared to contemporary work, the use of gesture is minimal, but there is an incredible musicality and a flow to the early lyrical works, so that they have a balletic sensibility," Mantell-Seidel notes. "When people see it now, it looks very classical. She was rebelling against the ballet, trying to create something totally new. The irony of it is the costumes, the way the music is used, the sense of line and proportion all has some relationship to the ballet, but with much more release and breath and use of weight."
The company now comprises ten young women who range in age from 18 to 23. Many of them have been members since the troupe's inception, including Stephanie Bastos, who lost her right foot in a 1995 car accident and dances with a special prosthesis. The ensemble has enjoyed stints at the Internationales Tanzfestival in Germany, the D.C.-based Kennedy Center's 25th anniversary, and New York City's Lincoln Center Festival Out of Doors.
This weekend the troupe performs a two-part program featuring some of Duncan's more melodic works and a monumental 45-minute piece set to Schubert's Symphony in C major. "It's modeled on Greek mythology, but it's particularly an homage to the strength and the power of women," says Mantell-Seidel, referring to the Schubert. "It's very energetic and exuberant."
The Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble performs at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25, at the Wertheim Performing Arts Center at FIU University Park Campus, SW 8th Street and 107th Avenue. A half-hour before each show, Julia Levien, a Duncan authority, delivers a slide lecture about the dancer. Tickets range from $8 to $25. Call 861-3178.