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U.S. avant-garde's classic roots examined

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP

NEW YORK, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Western civilization's cultural debt to classic Greece has never been questioned, but the classic roots of the 20th century American avant-garde, avid tourists to the past, have been generally overlooked by scholars and the public.

This oversight is being corrected by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with a multimedia exhibition titled "Mirrors of the Past: Ancient Greece and Avant-Garde America that will run through Jan. 8. It is the centerpiece of the library's Hellenic Festival paying homage to Greek culture through a variety of exhibitions, lectures, dance, theater, and musical performances throughout the city for six months.

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The exhibit at Lincoln Center documents the use of liberating Greek aesthetics in breaking new ground in almost every artistic discipline with photographs, musical scores, theatrical programs, books, letters and a wide range of ephemera. Included are Greek-style drapes and tunics woven and hand-decorated by Raymond Duncan, an almost forgotten cutting-edge artist and eccentric.

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Duncan, son of a San Francisco banker and brother of renowned interpretive dancer Isadora Duncan, adopted the tunic of ancient Greece and sandals for everyday wear, bound his long hair back with a fillet, and pioneered informal dress for men at the turn of the last century. He set up an atelier for textiles and other artwork in Paris, but there is a photograph in the show of him visiting his father's bank in his proto-hippie garb.

Duncan's other sisters -- Irma who founded a children's school in Moscow and

Elizabeth who did the same in Salzburg -- also are spotlighted in the show. Isadora Duncan attempted to translate the plastic poses of Greek statues and sculptural reliefs into a new form of free-form dance, universal in meaning and natural in gesture. Like Raymond, she didn't care if some people laughed at her behind her back.

There is a wonderful photograph of Isadora, looking a little plump, dancing in a gauzy Greek gown and sandals at the Parthenon in 1904 and another of her with Irma's pupils in 1921, all wearing Greek chitons. Edward Steichen's beautiful photographic portraits of Isadora from the 1920s rank as art works in their own right, documenting how serious she was in her effort to strip away the bourgeois conventions of modern culture.

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The irony of rooting a counter-culture in what is generally considered the nurturing source of Western civilization, seems not to have deterred the Duncans and their contemporaries, such as sculptor-dancer Paul Swan, shown in 1920 photos posing as Narcissus and Hermes. Swan lived long enough to be the subject of a film by Andy Warhol in which he said "Art is nothing but an effort to disentangle oneself from the chaos of civilization."

Another Grecophile featured in the exhibition, poet-playwright George Cram Cook, gave up an Ivy League academic life to take up farming in Iowa, then founded the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts, a company that premiered the Greek-influenced plays of Eugene O'Neill, notably "Mourning Becomes Electra." Cook later settled in Delphi, Greece, adopted peasant costume and claimed contact with the Delphic oracle.

Cook's best-known play, "The Athenian Women," has the same anti-war theme Aristophanes treated in "Lysistrata," one of the many Greek plays revived by the avant-gardists. Gilbert Murray, a professor of classics at Oxford University, claimed the dramas inspired liberal political values, and Isadora Duncan's copies of Murray's translations of "The Trojan Women" and "Electra," which had influenced her profoundly, are on display.

Ted Shawn's all-male dance company performed Greek warrior dances, and dancer-choreographer Martha Graham also found inspiration in the classics, building a repertory around tragic heroines such as Antigone, Electra, and Medusa. There is a video of her 1947 "Night Journey," based on the Oedipus legend that also inspired Igor Stravinsky's oratorio, "Oedipus Rex," noted in the show by a photograph of its 1931 New York premiere.

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Other names that crop up in the show are actress Margaret Anglin, pictured in her "Medea" costume, knife in hand, and composers John Cage and Harry Partch who experimented with Greek tonalities and even Greek instruments. Euripides' "TheTrojan Women" gets special attention with displays concerning the updated version stated by the Federal Theater Project in 1938, an Off-Broadway drag version in 1972.

The most recent material in the show is a poster for a reading of "Electra" at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts during the 2004 Republican National Convention. The classic play is advertised as "a condemnation of the never-ending cycle of violence," obviously chosen for its anti-war message.

It and most of the other artifacts in the show were culled from the library's Billy Rose Theater Collection, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the Music Division, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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