May 2, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Russian adventures

‘Once Wild: Isadora Duncan in Russia’
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Cynthia Word, Isadora Duncan, Once Wild, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Cynthia Word as Isadora Duncan in ‘Once Wild.’ (Photo by Teresa Castracane, courtesy Theo Kossenas, Media 4 Artists)

Isadora Duncan’s spectacular life is often reduced to a cautionary tale: long, flowing scarves and convertibles don’t mix. But there’s much more to the glamorous mother of modern dance than her ungraceful death and Word Dance Theater, a D.C.-based cross disciplinary company dedicated to carrying forth Duncan’s work, is doing its best to make sure that the world knows it.

Word Dance Theater is joining forces with Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center to present “Once Wild: Isadora in Russia,” a compelling slice from Duncan’s groundbreaking legend.

Penned by Norman Allen, who is gay, “Once Wild” reimagines Duncan and her adopted daughter Irma’s time in Russia during the early days of the Bolshevik revolution. It follows the American dancer’s efforts to introduce iconoclastic choreography to young Russian dancers; the challenges they encountered opening a dance school amidst a background of sweeping social changes and Isadora’s tumultuous romance with volatile Russian poet Sergei Esenin (danced by Helen Hayes Award-winning, out actor Philip Fletcher).

The story — an original work based on historic facts — is told from Irma’s point of view. Because the production combines both theater and dance, Allen says, there are two Irmas on stage throughout the show — an older Irma who sits in a wheelchair (Kimberly Schraf) delivering all of the 80-minute work’s dialogue, and company member Ingrid Zimmer who silently dances as the younger Irma, embodying the memories and essence of Duncan’s choreography.

“Once Wild” isn’t Allen’s first foray into the world of dance. Early in his career he scored a big success with “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” a one-man show about the legendary, gravity-defying Russian ballet dancer. He’s also written a libretto for the Washington Ballet. “With ‘Once Wild,’ the dance and words are interwoven and overlap,” Allen says. “As always with any work, the toughest part was finding the structure. How do you make sense of five years of historical tumult and two women doing amazing things? (Director Derek Goldman) and I have tried to make this play a reliving rather than a looking back. Old Irma speaks to young Irma. It’s much more alive this way.”

Cynthia Word, Word Dance Theater’s artistic director and the show’s choreographer, plays Isadora.

“Though I’ve been interested in Duncan for many years, dancing and choreographing her work, this is the first time I’ve ever portrayed her. It’s a big responsibility. Isadora, I think, would only want that I dance my truest self.”

Duncan, who died from a broken neck at 49 in 1927 on the Côte d’Azur after her trademark long scarf became entangled in the spokes of her chauffer-driven Bugatti, was a genius who single handedly altered the entire concept of dance. Unlike classical ballet that left audiences in awe, she preferred organic, relatable movement. Her work incorporated timely issues. She danced to music composed by the great masters and incorporated themes of current issues on stages stripped of unnecessary spectacle. She and her dancers dressed in comfortable, loose-fitting tunics (the theme song for the ‘70s sitcom “Maude” describes Isadora as “the first bra burner”). “I doubt she ever wore a bra to start with,” Word says.

“Once Wild” includes a lot of Duncan’s own choreography. Other than some flickering images, there’s no film of Duncan dancing, Word says. But fortunately for today’s choreographers, Duncan was a star on the between-the-wars Paris art scene, so there are many photographs and paintings of her in dance poses which give important clues about the dance. Archived reviews describing her work have proved very helpful too. “Lineage from dancer to dancer has also become very important,” says Word whose teacher was taught by one of Duncan’s students. “How close you can get to the source is important. Being close to the source makes the work more real.”

Duncan was still performing and very active until the end. “She had premonitions about her death,” Word says. “But it didn’t help. Isadora loved to go fast.”

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