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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Dancing on the Edge
Theatre Novi Most
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Lisa Channer
Photo by Dan Norman
When I read that Dancing on the Edge, commissioned by Theatre Novi Most and mounted at the Southern Theater in a world premiere production this past weekend, was a bilingual (English-Russian) play, I anticipated speeches in Russian with translations projected above or at the sides of the performance space. Nope. Rather, the play's two main characters each speak in their native languages—the American-born dancer Isadora Duncan in English, the Russian poet Sergei Esenin in Russian. This, despite the fact that the two were in the grip of a passionate affair and married for three years. On occasion, Esenin's Russian is translated into English by a third character for the benefit of Isadora's understanding. The illusion of understanding between two people, and the consequences of allowing that illusion to rule your life, is at the core of Adam Kraar's gripping play.

The play opens in 1921 Moscow, with Sergei awaiting Isadora's arrival at an artists' party in a freezing art studio. Isadora had arrived in Russia, moved by an invitation from Moscow to bring her liberating instruction to a new generation of Soviet girls. She had already drawn both acclaim and controversy in the U.S. and Europe with her naturalistic, athletic movement that lacked the technical discipline of ballet, and un-structured, flowing costumes modeled on classical Grecian statuary. She held a fervent belief that the recent Bolshevik revolution had given birth to a society able to fully appreciate her liberating dances, and free her of what she considered to be the prostitution of supporting one's artistic expression through ticket sales. At the party, Isadora is immediately enraptured by the poet, calling him a golden-haired angel, and seduced by the force and passion of his poetry, though she understands not a word of it.

Though Sergei and Isadora become a celebrated couple, he increasingly feels diminished by her praise in spite of not understanding its meaning, nor grasping Sergei's rude Russian peasant origins. Vodka becomes his solace. He is a mean and unruly drunk, and Isadora finds herself assuming a role closer to mother than lover—she is 18 years his senior—in bringing him back to the ground and reassuring him of her devotion, which only deepens the spiral of his resentment. Isadora learns that her school, housing 500 girls—freezing and hungry with fuel shortages and scarce food rations—will not be funded by the Soviet state after all.

Desperate to fund her school and to restore Sergei's sanity, Isadora marries him and embarks on a performing tour of Europe and the U.S, determined to keep even a drop of liquor from Sergei's lips. Without words, their understanding is an illusion that grows toxic. Isadora hires an interpreter to travel with them, but to no avail. They return to Moscow with both their marriage and finances in shambles. Isadora's fiery hope of realizing her ideals in Russia is extinguished, but before she leaves, she performs with her students a performance that filled the stage at the Southern Theater with a swarm of swirling girls of all ages. The joy they exuded in their dance made their teacher's failure all the more heartbreaking.

I first became familiar with Isadora Duncan through the beautifully filmed 1968 biography Isadora, the dancer portrayed with overflowing charisma by Vanessa Redgrave. Though I have since viewed some technically crude film clips of the real Duncan dancing, I never was certain how much my fascination with the dancer, her revolutionary technique, and radical lifestyle stemmed from the actual person as opposed to Redgrave's luminous performance. Now that I have seen Lisa Channer's masterful, no holds barred interpretation of Duncan, the dancer has become less mythic, more flawed, and also more human. Like the real Duncan, Ms. Channer does not have the lithe physique associated with dancers, but her movement blazes with grace, conviction and a sense of urgency, as if she were inhabited by feelings that demand to be set free through by dance. Channer created an Isadora who is both naïve and worldly, luxuriating in sensuality while conveying a chaste maternalism that brings to mind Wendy's maternal instincts toward Peter Pan.

Sasha Andreev's performance as poet Sergei Esenin put him head to head as an equal to Duncan in terms of total absorption in his art, fear of constraint, and lethal confidence in his emotions. He recites his poems with the fervor of someone who believes that words alone can change the world. Andreev has a strikingly handsome visage and he projected proud masculinity, well matched to Channer's womanly Duncan. The pair of actors were extraordinary together, creating a combustible union of physical attraction and ego gratification, believing passion for the art is the same as passion for the artist.

There are two other actors in the play. Katya Stepanov was most impressive portraying several female parts, including Irma Duncan, one of Isadora's legally adopted disciples who provides solid ground to counter her mentor's flights of fantasy, and as Lola Kinel, the interpreter able to translate the words but not the meaning that keep Sergei and Isadora apart. Sergey Nagorny effectively played a variety of male parts. The performing cast also included the eighteen girls, who only appear in the play's last scene, making their dance that brings the show—and their idealistic teacher—to an emotionally potent close.

Director Vladimir Rovinsky staged Dancing on the Edge as if the entire play were a dance, gracefully shifting among scenes, having the actors move furniture and steamer trunks to create different settings with balletic energy. The play felts in constant motion. Jeanne Bresciani recreated the essence of Duncan's unique choreography, capturing its rapturous joy, as well as delving into the soul's anguish, especially when Isadora expresses the grief of her two children who died by drowning, a loss that underscores her determination to lose herself in Sergei's arms.

Heidi Eckwall's sensitive use of lighting, and Maxwell Collyar's atmospheric projections greatly enhanced the production. Andrea M. Gross' costume designs adeptly captured Isadora's pursuit of freedom and Sergei's swagger.

Dancing at the Edge is not the full story of Isadora Duncan, nor of Sergei Esenin. Important biographical details of the poet, such as his two marriages prior to meeting Isadora, are completely omitted. What it does capture is the seduction of passion based on physical and emotional desire, a dance that can draw one to the edge and, without a foundation of understanding, can push one over the precipice. This play was several years in development by Theatre Novi Most, including support from the Playwrights' Center, and is clearly a labor of love. In its staging and performance, it is a stunning work. Bravos, all around.

Dancing on the Edge was presented by Theatre Novi Most, played through September 7 through September 10, 2017, as part of the Art Share series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. For information on Art Share go to For information on Theatre Novi Most go to

Writer: Adam Kraar; Director and Russian Translation: Vladimir Rovinsky; Duncan Choreography: Jeanne Bresciani; Non-Duncan Choreography (non-Duncan): Sharon Picasso; Set and Property Design: Michael Burden; Costume Design: Andrea M. Gross; Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Light Design: Heidi Eckwall; Projection Design: Maxwell Collyard; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Stage Manager: Deb Ervin.

Cast: Sasha Andreev (Sergei Esenin), Lisa Channer (Isadora Duncan), Sergey Nagorny (Actor/Manager/Schneider/Lunacharsky/Marchese), Katya Stepanov (Actress/Irma Duncan/Madame Slovinskaya/Lola Kinel).

The "Dunclings", students of the Duncan School in Moscow: Katya Andreyevskiy, Ava Bloifuss, Aida Broshar. Jordan Dean, Elizabeth Dubinchik, Zoe Frayman, Twyla Guenther, Natasha Madan, Emmanuelle Moncrieffe, Olivia Nowlin, Trovelle Reeves, Beatrix Rhone, Ingrid Schjolberg, Nicola Wahl, Lily Wangerin, Paloma Gomez Whitney, Sparrow Gomez Whitney, and Shina Xiong.