The prolific choreographer Jean Isaacs turned 70 on Friday, and it felt like a giant family reunion inside the Mandell Weiss Theatre as long-time supporters and the “who’s who” of the dance community turned out for the birthday salute.
Ms. Isaacs looked radiant in a flowing white pants suit and remarked, “I am proud of my age.” The adoring audience interrupted her by singing “Happy Birthday.” After the event, County Supervisor Dave Roberts declared it “Jean Isaacs Day,” and a full celebration continued upstairs till midnight.
The program title There the Dance Is, is taken from the line in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “at the still point of the turning world, there the dance is.” That spiraling image coincides with Isaacs’ life and career which includes 25 years of teaching at UC San Diego and taking over San Diego Dance Theater in 1997. “I never looked back,” she explained, “and there have been ups and downs, but this is the ‘up’ tonight!”
Isaacs has had her share of ups and downs. She had knee replacement surgery several years ago but stays strong through Pilates training with her daughter, Liv Isaacs-Nollet, who also dances in the SDDT company. And Isaacs struggles with vision problems requiring extensive treatments and dark sunglasses. Those closest to her are used to seeing her in “Jackie ‘O” shades and pitch in to drive her to appointments, rehearsals, and countless professional and social events.
In the interest of journalistic transparency, I must mention that I’ve known Jean Isaacs as a dance professional for more than a decade. During an interview for a magazine article, we discovered that we were very close neighbors. Resistance was futile. Our families have become intertwined like the wild brambles that grow in our Rancho Penasquitos yards. So this review is wrapped in biased friendship and admiration, yet it’s an honest account of a dance celebration for the veteran dance maker.
The two-part concert that runs through Sunday illuminates two sides of Ms. Isaacs, the dedicated worker-bee and the bawdy entertainer.
Four women bring Olympic energy to “Every Night’s a Show Night,” choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes, a UCSD alumni and frequent guest in Trolley Dances. Dancers Zaquia Mahler Salinas and Jessica Curiel capture Barnes’ expressions and firecracker timing, as performance becomes a marathon. Set to live recordings of Judy Garland, the women punch and kick and dance their hearts out. The comic tragedy is accentuated by sequined trimmed gowns and running shoes, baggy raincoats, and desperate groveling for flowers tossed onto the stage.
Ms. Salinas also brings intensity to “O Magnum Mysterium,” an exhilarating ensemble work by Isaacs in collaboration with company dancers. Fueled by the excellent SACRA/PROFANA chorus, athletic men and women spiral, rise, and fall; viewers will see the music and find the still points very rewarding. Blythe Barton is especially impressive in extensions. Revealing her musicality, she stretches long muscular legs connected to the most gorgeous arced feet, and she takes an extra few seconds to make the image last.
Costumes (by dancer Trystan Loucado ) give dancers individuality and superb fit. Lighting by Kristin Hayes accents the golden fabrics and smooth skin with sunshine and shadow. Hayes also projects subtle, intriguing shadows on the back wall, but makes sure faces and limbs are never lost in darkness.
The wiry Jim Winker brings snobby-professor diction to the role of Emcee in the 10-part Cabaret Dances. Winker is an Emeritus Professor of the UC San Diego Dept. of Theatre and Dance, and is a knockout in deadpan delivery when introducing each bawdy dance. He also lends historical realism to the cabaret style of pre-war Germany. “The sex-tet is an example of social Darwinism…” he explained, before joining a troupe decked out in corsets and ragged fishnet stockings.
Dances are set to music composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. There are fine contributions from the men and women who interpret challenging rhythms and tempos in solos, trios, and groups.
An unexpected and hilarious twist puts John Diaz in a drag role. He excels in heels and a raccoon fur coat, and a big moustache makes it especially campy. Trystan Loucado, who also tours with Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlos, performs a solo on point shoes. He and partner Matt Carney are the showpiece in “Knickerbocker Holiday: September Song,” played by pianist Steve Baker, and sung by vocalist Rachel Drexler. The men showed that dance is a contact sport on Friday. In one of the deliciously slow lifts, they knocked heads. While neither stopped dancing, Carney now sports a stitched up eyebrow.
During her closing speech, Isaacs thanked her generous supporters, dancers, and the many UC San Diego alumni who performed in the show. She is passing more responsibility to her staff, and daughter Liv. County Supervisor Dave Roberts said he hoped he could honor Isaacs on her 80th. Judging by the energy and artistry in this program, one would have to say that’s a good bet.