Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Dancing on the Edge" by Theatre Novi Most at the Southern Theater

Theatre Novi Most, whose mission is to "combine the artistic traditions of Russia and America to create performances in which seemingly disparate ideas, languages, cultures and ideologies can clash, commingle and cross-pollinate," has been developing a play about the passionate and tragic romance between American dancer Isadora Duncan and Russian poet Sergei Esenin for over ten years, including the last five years with Playwrights' Center affiliated writer Adam Kraar. It's a fascinating story about two fascinating people, their art, and their turbulent relationship. Dancing on the Edge is an intense and lovely play filled with movement and poetry.

when Isadora met Sergei
(Lisa Channer and Sasha Andreev,
photo by Dan Norman)
Isadora and Sergei's romance is your typical story - boy meets girl, boy and girl fall madly in love, boy accompanies girl on whirlwind tour of Europe and America, boy and girl separate, boy commits suicide and girl dies when her elegant scarf becomes entangled in the wheel of a car (artists, right?). Of course to reduce this short-lived relationship to mere facts doesn't do it justice. The play isn't a mere recitation of facts (although the timeline, photos, quotes, and other factual material in the program are helpful in setting the stage), but rather a series of scenes of the couple together or with others working on their art (Isadora running a children's dance school in Moscow, Sergei writing poetry). It's never entirely clear what brought them together, or what broke them apart, but it is clear that they were intensely connected for a time, despite not speaking a common language. Much of the play is in Russian, untranslated, so that the audience, like Isadora, can hear the beauty and emotion of the words without knowing exactly what they mean.

Katya Stepanov (photo by Dan Norman)
Although the play has many characters, the playwright wisely chose to use just four actors, allowing Isadora and Sergei to be the focus. Lisa Channer, Co-Artistic Director with her Russian husband, director Vladimir Rovinsky (life imitates art imitates life?), gives a lovely and open performance as Isadora, including an emotional dance sequence (choreographed by Duncan expert Jeanne Bresciani). #TCTheater artist Sasha Andreev, who is originally from Russia, gives a no holds barred performance as the volatile Sergei - funny and wild and passionate and charming. Rounding out the cast are two NYC-based artists, Sergey Nagorny and Katya Stepanov, who ably play multiple characters in our couple's lives, making each distinct and full. Even their set moving between scenes is in character and graceful.

Sergey Nagorny (with Sasha Andreev, photo by Dan Norman)
The Southern Theater is a gorgeous space for this kind of movement theater, and looks even more of a faded beauty with the chandelier and hanging lights, vintage furniture, trunks, and suitcases half covered in sheets (scenic and property design by Michael Burden). Image and video projections are used sparingly and wisely to hint at the scenery and the recurring them of horses (projection design by Maxwell Collyard). Completing the look are Andrea M Gross' costumes, ethereal for Isadora with her ever-present scarves foreshadowing the tragedy before her, slightly rumpled multi-piece suits for Sergei, and character defining quick change pieces for the others.

Dancing on the Edge is extensively researched and obviously a labor of love for all involved, and feels authentic because of it. And then at the end of the show a bunch of young dancers come out as Isadora's pupils and steal the show with the sheer joy and beauty of dance. I wish that moment had come a bit earlier; the show felt a bit long at more than two and a half hours. But it's an ambitious new work, telling a true story of brilliant artists, that captures the spirit of its subject. Only two more performance remain of this one-weekend-only run, so act fast (more info here).

Lisa Channer as Isadora with the Isadorables (photo by Dan Norman)