Isadora Duncan is captured in ‘Once Wild’


Artist Director Cynthia Word of Word Dance Theater's "Once Wild: Isadora in Russia" dances. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Behind every genius is the figure in the shadows, the lesser light whose stability and sanity let the magic happen. This poor schlub’s story is rarely told.

Yet that is the surprise, the hook and the revelation of “Once Wild: Isadora in Russia,” a memory play, dance retrospective and immersion into the world of Isadora Duncan as told by her adopted daughter Irma.

This richly expressive, multidimensional theater production had its world premiere Friday at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, taking it audience into post-revolutionary Russia of the early 1920s by way of Irma’s recollections, Isadora’s dances, live music by Chopin, Schubert and Scriabin, as well as perfectly unsettling original compositions by Dominik Maican and Jared Mezzocchi’s imaginative projections of period images.

Lenin’s Russia saw in Isadora Duncan a kindred spirit and invited the dance reformer to Moscow to found a school. But “Once Wild” is not Isadora’s story. It is Irma who holds the spotlight here, giving us an emotionally tinted but clear-eyed view of her adoptive mother’s charismatic power, her art, her restlessness and, as with most geniuses, her airtight self-absorption. Frequently abandoned, Irma toiled in the background, spreading Duncan’s teachings, far apart from the woman she adored and resented and to whom she would remain devoted until the end of her days.

This is exactly where this beautifully rendered production begins. Actress Kimberly Schraf, in a wheelchair, portrays the elderly Irma in the last moments of her life, reliving her time with “that frightening American woman” just before, during and after the Moscow years. It should be noted that this is the most mysterious and least chronicled period in Isadora’s life. She never wrote about it, but Irma did. It is from Irma’s memoirs that playwright Norman Allen fashioned his script. For historical reasons alone, “Once Wild” is an important creation.

But its greatest achievement is as a bold new work of art. Woven into a deeply moving experience are Allen’s concise, fragmented and often witty words, which Schraf, in a tour de force performance of great responsiveness and feeling, delivers in a halting, wondering voice, lightly tinged with a German accent. (This is a wonderful touch, as Irma was a German child before Isadora made her one of her “Isadorables,” the six young dance students she adopted.) These words, intriguing as they are, are cues for something equally intriguing: Duncan’s dances — her sweet, gentle waltzes, all softness, as if danced on green grass under open skies, and her emphatic, melodramatic Russian works, such as “Varshavianka,” accompanied by the kind of thrilling, full-throated folksong that urges men into battle; it reverberates in your head long after the play is over.

Dancers thread through “Once Wild’s” tapestry like flashes of gold: Ingrid Zimmer, strong and buoyant, who as the young Irma is onstage nearly the full hour, as a performer and a sympathetic ear for Schraf’s musings; Cynthia Word, founder of Word Dance Theater, who conceived the production and dances the role of Isadora; and ensemble members Alison Crosby, Hannah Goldberg, Dawn Meadows, Elizabeth Naro, Julia Smith and Kathleen Weitz.

Actor Philip Fletcher plays tempestuous Russian poet Sergei Esenin, whom Isadora briefly married, and who came between Irma and her mother. That all of these different kinds of artist harmonize smoothly with one another is a testament to the astute direction of Georgetown University theater professor Derek Goldman.

Schraf is a full partner in the dance, wheeling around the stage in a pas de deux with her doppelganger Zimmer, using her hands as expressively as the dancers do, in a touching evocation of the physical freedom her character once enjoyed.

Yet it is impossible to pick out any one element of this work that is most successful — is it Allen’s lyrical treatment of a deeply personal history that resonates with universal emotions? (“This woman, so proud, so independent, so. . . free,” hisses Schraf with restrained sarcasm, as Word’s Isadora submits to Fletcher’s control.) Or is it Carlos Cesar Rodriguez’s onstage piano playing and singing? Judith Hansen’s light-as-air gowns, Robbie Hayes’ intimate lighting and set, James Garver’s atmospheric sound design?

This is a collaborative work of the highest order, a labor of love that turns on the same devotion to art and excellence that moved Irma herself.

Once Wild

directed by Derek Goldman, written by Norman Allen, with original music by Dominik Maican.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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