‘Once Wild’ explores Isadora Duncan’s varied facets beyond dancing


COLLEGE PARK, MD - APRIL 23: Artist Director Cynthia Word of Word Dance Theater's "Once Wild: Isadora in Russia" dances as she's videotaped for part of the finished product Tuesday April 23, 2013 in College Park, MD. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic April 26, 2013

Isadora Duncan, believer in free love and barefoot dance, had many children.

Some of them are in this room.

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, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

“Bankrupt. Bolsheviks at the door. There is no money for our school,” frets actress Kimberly Schraf, delivering her lines in a deliberate undertone. Sitting in an antique iron wheelchair in the sanctuary of Georgetown’s Dumbarton United Methodist Church, she scans the stained-glass windows as if searching for enemy planes.

But in this recent rehearsal of a ­dance-theater production called “Once Wild: Isadora in Russia,” the dramatic tension doesn’t last long. There’s a pause every few beats, as each scene is discussed and rethought by just about everyone in the room. So many ideas! The dancers should stomp their feet after every line, like rhythmic exclamation points. No, they should bang their suitcases on the ground. Wait, suitcases? Why are they in this scene anyway?

“Once Wild” is an unusual sort of memory play, in which words, dancing, music and scenic projections are interleaved in just about equal measure. Schraf has the only speaking role, but she’s not the narrator. She plays one of Duncan’s six adopted daughters, Irma, who, at the end of her life, is reliving the turbulent years spent with her mother in Moscow in the early 1920s, at the time of the Russian Revolution. Duncan, by then famous around the world for her evangelical promotion of a natural, sensual style of dancing, had gone there at the urging of Lenin’s government. (Yep, Lenin, giant dance fan — who knew?)


From left, Dancer Phillip Fletcher, Associate Director Ingrid Zimmer and Artist Director Cynthia Word of Word Dance Theater's "Once Wild: Isadora in Russia." (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Duncan’s style of dancing looked deceptively simple, based on running, walking and leaping. She performed it in a body-baring, Greek-inspired tunic and accompanied by excellent music, which shocked turn-of-the-century ears used to rubbishy ballet scores. On every level, Duncan’s dancing was the exact opposite of ballet, which was just fine with the Communist reformers. In fact, Duncan’s arrival followed the Ballets Russes’ departure. Their high-art aspirations were better received in Paris, while Moscow embraced Duncan’s earthy humanism.

But a freer form of dancing was not the only thing Duncan brought with her. She also imported her belief in what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art. It was her wish to merge dance, music and theater, as the ancient Greeks did.

This is the idea behind “Once Wild.” The show, which will have its world premiere Friday through Sunday at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, was dreamed up by Cynthia Word, a tall, soft-spoken native Texan with the tilted blue eyes of a cat. Slender, blonde and curvy, she’s a knockout — and a billboard for what Duncan devotion can do for you. (Namely, the gentle demands of its technique won’t wreck your body.)

“I am so in love with Isadora,” Word said in a slight drawl. “I think she was a great genius.” In one of life’s sweet mysteries, she shares a birthday with her idol.

And for a dancer of a certain age — Word, an unbelievable 63, plays Duncan in “Once Wild” — Duncan’s work is the gift that keeps on giving. “You’ll never see a Duncan dancer with her leg up to her ear,” Word said. “She felt that was distorting the human body, and she felt the body was holy.”

Word Dance Theater got its start in 2000. In addition to regular performances, every few years Word mounts a special evening of Duncan works interwoven with narrative. For “Once Wild,” she has brought together playwright Norman Allen, a dance lover who won a Helen Hayes Award for his “Nijinsky’s Last Dance”; theater director Derek Goldman; actress Schraf; Carlos Cesar Rodriguez, the music director; projection artist Jared Mezzocchi, who will add films, maps and photos to the set; Ingrid Zimmer, associate director of Word Dance Theater; and six other dancers for this brave go at storytelling shaped by a whole lot of opinions.

Goldman called it, with a wry laugh, a “radically collaborative” process. No one person is in charge of the overall vision.

This makes for a complicated and inefficient way of working. “We all had to get used to one another’s idea of story,” he said. “But this is why I do theater; I’m seeking that kind of true collaborative exchange.

“We have a lot of theater that’s from the head up, not a lot of body in it,” he said. “But theater is only doing a fraction of what it can when the body isn’t involved.”

Funded by about $70,000 from Word Dance Theater and Georgetown University, the production has been in the works for more than a year. Watching the team in the old church on a cool spring evening, seeing the ideas flow from all quarters (even the ensemble dancers, usually content to keep quiet and do as they’re told, have a say!), it’s easy to see these artists as modern-day children of Duncan.

Schraf considers Word and young redheaded actor Philip Fletcher, who are entwined passionately on the floor. Fletcher plays Sergei Esenin, Duncan’s Russian lover — and, briefly, her husband. He was nearly 20 years her junior. He left her after a year.

Irma hated him.

“While they’re rolling in bed, the country is falling apart,” Schraf says to Allen, the playwright, who’s watching from a pew. “It feels like, for Irma, disaster. Is that right, Norman?”

“That’s absolutely right,” Allen says.

“I feel stuck in storytelling mode here. So maybe just a little bit of a turn?” Schraf suggests, getting a nod from Goldman as she wheels her chair to face the couple so her lines about the closing of Duncan’s school are delivered to them, as bitter accusations.

“Once Wild” tells its story in a roundabout way. The challenge of this play, Schraf said later, is that although she’s the only speaker, she’s not addressing the audience directly, as in a monologue. She’s talking to herself, conjuring up her memories — embodied by the dancers — as death closes in.

“I only want to do work that scares me, and solo text is scary,” Schraf said. “I’m accustomed to doing it with a partner, or in a direct address to the audience — then you have 500 partners. That’s not what I do here. The intention for speaking isn’t outwardly directed; it’s inward.”

“Once Wild” addresses just one slice of Duncan’s life. Born in San Francisco in 1877, Duncan was the original California girl. She not only freed dancing from corsets and satin shoes, establishing a new American art form, she also influenced feminism, fashion, art and notions of celebrity around the world. She loved to shock, baring her breasts onstage, taking up with numerous lovers. She bore three children out of wedlock, lost all to early deaths, and adopted six “Isadorables” from among her dance students.

No films exist of her performing. Jean Cocteau was planning to make one when one of the long scarves she was famous for wearing got tangled in the wheel of a car, breaking her neck. She was 50.

What did Duncan leave behind? This is what Word and Allen have also woven into their story — Duncan’s legacy. Much of the choreography is Duncan’s, passed down by her daughters. Here, the dances are placed in the kind of theatrical context that Word feels certain Duncan would applaud.

The script is largely based on Irma Duncan’s autobiography, “Duncan Dancer.” Of all the daughters, only Irma went with her mother to Moscow in 1921, giving up her dance career in the process. Duncan was in Russia for three years, leaving to tour and raise money for the school she established there. Irma stayed behind to teach and perform. She lost her mother in 1927, and eventually lost the school, too. She moved to California, where her memories were all she had left.

In “Once Wild,” Irma has her chance to shine as a pillar of Duncan’s legacy, and to touch new audiences.

“This is about a deep and complicated woman experiencing a kind of expressive magic,” Goldman said. What’s especially poignant is that “in this moment when Irma’s life is flashing before her eyes, it’s through dance that the meaning of her life presents itself.”

The rehearsal moves on to a scene where, as Duncan is about to dance at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, the power goes out. Someone hands her a lantern, which she carries onstage as the audience — thousands of Russian sailors — sings to her while waiting for the lights to come back on.

Word strides forward, holding the lantern aloft. “Am I remembering it? Or” — she cuts her cat eyes intently to the right and left, as if inspecting for dust in each corner — “am I watching it?”

“I like that it’s upright and there’s a sense of grandeur,” Goldman says, “but I think it’s stronger if you’re watching.”

He waits as Irma circles back to her mark, and as Word prepares for her entrance.

This much is clear: Duncan, 85 years after her death, is an extraordinarily energizing figure still. And her children, as this brave, hopeful production proves, keep multiplying.

Now it’s Goldman’s turn to ask a question:

“So, can we just watch that and see what kind of mess we’ve created?”

Once Wild

directed by Derek Goldman, written by Norman Allen, with original music by Dominik Maican. Friday May 3 and Saturday May 4 at 8 p.m., next Sunday May 12 at 2 p.m. at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center, Gonda Theatre, 37th and O streets NW. $10-$25. Visit performingarts.georgetown.edu or 202-687-2787.

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