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REVIEW: Capturing a Dance Icon in Dancing on the Edge (Theatre Novi Most)

A happier moment in Isadora Duncan (Lisa Channer) and Sergei Esenin (Sasha Andreev)’s turbulent romance in Theatre Novi Most’s Dancing on the Edge.

If you study modern dance, sooner or later you’ll come across the name of Isadora Duncan. Duncan (1877/1878-1927) was one of the most famous dancers of the early 20th century, capturing the attention of the international press in her early 20s and holding it (albeit for varying reasons) for the rest of her life. She pioneered concepts of “natural” dance and movement in Western art, pushing away from the more manicured movements of contemporary ballet. Through a quite unusual combination of events, Duncan was hired by Soviet authorities to start a school for dance for young girls in post-revolutionary Moscow.

A less happy moment between Eisinin (Sergei Andreev) and Duncan (Lisa Channer).

It is this episode of Duncan’s life, an episode including her turbulent marriage to Russian poet Sergei Esenin, that is captured in Adam Kraar’s bilingual play Dancing on the Edge. Duncan (Lisa Channer) famously does not speak Russian, the source of much tenderness, comedy, frustration, and drama when she marries Esenin (Sasha Andreev) – who himself does not speak more than a few words of English. With shortages and shortfalls rampant in 1920s Moscow, there is much tension to be had, as conveyed by an array of assistants, students, and authorities played by Katya Stepanov and Sergey Nagorny.

Novi Most’s production is modest but visually striking, with Channer’s Duncan striding across the stage with all the presence and charisma that made the dancer famous. There is surprisingly little actual dancing – possibly a good thing, because part of the mystery is what her style ultimately does look like – and shockingly few scarves, given her well-known and ultimately hazardous affectation for them. (Duncan died in a car accident where her scarf got caught in a spinning wheel, breaking her neck; Novi Most’s second-stage production of Dancing on the Edge in New York coincides with the 90th anniversary of her death.) Still, a few furniture pieces here and there capture Moscow’s austerity in Michael Burden’s scenic design, notably enhanced by some subtle sound cues by Dan Dukich.

Further discussion of the plot would be needless spoilers, but the narrative in its entirety is a gripping biographical trip through the life of a real and interestingly larger-than-life figure.

Dancing on the Edge plays through September 10 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine