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Dance work celebrates the life of Isadora Duncan

TO DANCE IS TO LIVE:

ISADORA DUNCAN

Choreographed and performed

by Julie Ince Thompson.

Poetry by Ruth Whitman.

Music by Salvatore Macchia.

Kresge Little Theatre, March 23, 8 pm.

By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON

UNUSUAL, STRIKING, INNOVATIVE -- all these words describe poet and visiting writer in the MIT Writing Program Ruth Whitman's and dancer Julie Ince Thompson's collaboration, To Dance is to Live: Isadora Duncan. Originally performed in 1990 at Harvard as a work-in-progress, To Dance is to Live chronicles through poetry and modern dance the life of Isadora Duncan.

Both poet and dancer speak for Duncan: Whitman through her simple, direct language, and Thompson through her graceful movement. Elements of Whitman's text are derived from Duncan's personal diary, giving the narrative the ring of authenticity.

One of the reasons this collaboration works so well is that in 1982, Whitman and Thompson produced a similar project, Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey, a piece which received as much critical acclaim as has To Dance is to Live. Both pieces are intimate portrayals of strong women: Donner crossed the prairies alone in 1846; Duncan created a style of dance that still influences every modern dancer.

To Dance is to Live opened in complete darkness. Gradually, two lights illuminated Thompson, who reclined in a flowing white gown with a purple wrap. She made fluttering hand motions, mimicking the stretches and yawns of an awakening person, and at one point clutching her throat -- possibly a visual metaphor for Duncan's gruesome death by strangulation when her scarf caught in the wheels of her car. As Thompson arose, composer Salvatore Macchia's impressionistic mix of sinuous clarinets and uneasy, slightly discordant interplay between strings and flute resounded in the background.

Thompson used her considerable dancing skills to show us Duncan at several stages in her life, from 10-year old child (a remarkable feat for a woman nearly six feet tall), to young ingenue, to aging Communist. What was not expressed in her dancing was expressed in her words, Whitman's elegant poetry. "To dance, I must first find my center," Thompson recited in her mode as the child Duncan, "Without that center, I cannot move."

Much of To Dance is to Live deals with Duncan's search for independence and spiritual fulfillment through her craft. At one point, depressed over the extended absence of her husband, she tried to drown herself in the sea. Here Thompson chanted a song about the sea as mother as she crawled forward to the water. Eventually, she realized that she must find power within herself, not in others, a theme which Whitman carried through the rest of the piece.

Unfortunately, as one unfamiliar with Duncan's work, I was unable to tell how much of Thompson's choreography was influenced by her subject. Whatever the source, Thompson brought a lissome fluidity to her dancing. Her range and versatility were amazing as she flipped from a calm celebration of nature in Act I to a violent, jittery representation of a nightmare in Act II.

To Dance is to Live succeeded on many levels: as modern dance, as poetry, as biography, as performance art. It is a unique and special work, and it is a shame that the MIT community had only one weekend to enjoy it.