at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre

November 1 and 2

Momenta is the only group I know of in the Chicago area that is dedicating its energy, imagination, and scarce funds to authentic re-creations of vanished dances by important American choreographers. Stephanie Clemens, Momenta’s artistic director, began the project three years ago to acquaint her students at the Academy of Music and Movement in Oak Park with the style and technique of the great Doris Humphrey, who was an Oak Park native. And last weekend at the Ruth Page Foundation Theatre it presented a fascinating concert of long-lost but seminal works by American dance pioneers.

The original project has been expanded to include balletic works as well as early modern-dance pieces created over the past 70 years or so. No longer simply a student effort, it has attracted a number of professional dancers eager to familiarize themselves with the styles and techniques of Humphrey, Eleanor King, an early member of Humphrey’s company, and Charles Weidman, Humphrey’s longtime artistic associate and partner.

The program last weekend for the most part followed Humphrey’s creative trail, starting with her first professional appearance with Ruth St. Denis in Ishtar of the Seven Gates, the concert’s curtain raiser.

Ishtar was created by St. Denis in 1923 for herself, her husband and partner Ted Shawn, Humphrey, Weidman, and her company. Loosely based on an ancient Babylonian myth about the goddess of love and her lover, the fertility god Tammuz, Ishtar was typical of the ersatz orientalia that brought St. Denis and Shawn international acclaim. Audiences were convinced they were attending exotic rituals. The costumes were stunning–the beringed bare feet daring, the occasional exposed navel dangerously sexy–and the strong male dancers, lavish sets, and scent of incense from braziers were intoxicating. The entire work was permeated with an otherworldly, glamorous atmosphere that must have been well-nigh irresistible to middle-class audiences.

Ishtar was lovingly restored for Momenta by Karoun Tootikian, an associate of St. Denis’s for over 20 years and once the head of the faculty of St. Denis’s school in Los Angeles. The costumes and set, a temple gate, have been authentically reproduced under her watchful eye and are stunning evocations of theatrical history. Every movement gave the illusion that St. Denis and Shawn were actually onstage at the Page auditorium.

Although for modern audiences Ishtar is a theatrical curio, it remains a fascinating example of theatrical excess, and of St. Denis’s and Shawn’s methods of creating a mysterious erotic aura. Even more important, it offers an almost textbook lesson in the theatrical application of Francois Delsarte’s principles. Delsarte, a 19th-century singer, codified a system of gestures allowing each part of the body to express a specific idea or emotion. His theories had a great influence on early modern dancers’ use of gesture and pantomime.

Clemens was a stunning Ishtar, Larry Ippel was Tammuz, Patricia Rothengass was Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Lower World, and Adam Pries was Gilgamesh. The score, by Charles Griffes, was performed by Wilbur Kruse at the piano.

Roads to Hell is a 1941 work by the late Eleanor King, who personally coached the Momenta dancers in the piece before she died. It brilliantly explores, in inventive modern dance movement, bizarre female personalities. It was performed to Genevieve Pitot’s original score, with Clemens as Pride and Sloth and Ilene Evans as Envy and Wrath. They wore loose gray costumes designed by King herself. I hadn’t realized before that Clemens has the physical stamina and uninhibited abandon to portray these personae. Evans brought power and drama to hers. These were two stunning, and oddly funny, evocations of unpleasant qualities.

Ballet then took center stage with Concertino Pour Trois by Ruth Page–an entertaining pastiche of relationships among characters danced by guest artists. Staged by Orrin Kayan (who danced in the original 1961 performance) and Rich Lyle, this flirtatious piece to a score by Marius Constant offered Laura Gallardo-Brand, a charming, accomplished dancer, and Robert Gardner and Matthew Hope, the amusing if confused rivals for the lady, fine opportunities to show off stylishly.

The Call/Breath of Fire, a solo danced with passionate drive, intensity, and technical power by Joanne Barrett, was the only Humphrey work on the program. Reconstructed from silent films of Humphrey by Ernestine Stodelle, who also coached Momenta in the work, Call offers marvelous insights into Humphrey’s distinctive approach, the way she developed choreographic form through her unique use of torso, arms, and legs. The commissioned score was by Dane Rudhyar.

The program concluded with Weidman’s Brahms Waltzes, an exquisitely beautiful suite for eight dancers composed in 1951 and dedicated to Humphrey–“because,” he said, “it is the kind of movement she loved and danced so beautifully.” Each waltz expresses different emotional and movement facets of their art. One is rhapsodic, another deliciously and slyly humorous: Ippel, the only man, tries to ingratiate himself with two women by sidling over to them. One waltz is a technically brilliant exploration of Humphrey’s technique of fall and recovery. Still another is gentle and thoughtful, and another shows Weidman’s wit. Each waltz is so beguilingly beautiful and irresistibly charming that the viewer shares the rhapsodic joy in movement palpably demonstrated by these dancers. Deborah Carr came in to stage the work for Momenta; Judith Chitwood, Evans, Sherry Gilpin, Ippel, Susan Ojala, Sarita Smith, Rothengass, and Gina Wilken were the accomplished dancers; and Margaret Nichols played the demanding, lilting waltzes. Susan Maples’s airy pastel costumes were perfect. Thanks go to Momenta for restoring these remarkable pieces to the repertory.