BWW Review: Natalia Osipova as ISADORA at Segerstrom Center For The Arts
Oscar Wilde said in the beginning of the book The Picture of Dorian Gray that "Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital."
August 10, 2018, marked the opening night and World Premiere of ISADORA at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. Natalia Osipova, a former principle dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet, a former guest dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, and a current principle dancer in the Royal Ballet, London, portrayed the revolutionary modern dancer and California native, Isadora Duncan.
It was an awkward show; a hodgepodge of funky contemporary dance, Broadway musical-like performances, and classic ballet performed in a clowning manner, all topped off with some of Isadora Duncan's typical dance movements.
The show is set to tell Duncan's life story from childhood to death, which is a real challenge, considering the fact that a ballerina would have to depict a modern dancer's life. In terms of dance skills and range, Natalia Osipova pulled it off, and proved herself to be an artist who has no peers. Even a retired former Swedish ballerina, who was sitting next to me during the show, gave high praise to Osipova for her capability and dance skills. After all, not all ballerinas have the talent to merge into modern dance naturally. The remaining cast of dancers did an excellent job and showed extreme discipline as well.
Unfortunately, the biographic storyline abruptly lost its priority and highlights. As a result, the first 45 minutes were very confusing and plain. The intro was acceptable, however.
The lighting and stage design perfectly created a poetic ocean vibe to showcase the fact that Duncan was born in the San Francisco Bay area, near the ocean. With the music setting a cinematic mood and suspense building as Duncan stands motionless at the middle of the stage for an extended time, she finally flows in to her dance, as the music intensifies. She then begins to enjoy the "ocean", an enjoyment expressed solely through flowing body movements, as if dancing underwater.
The show then shifts to a Broadway musical route, when the choreographer, Vladimir Varnava, tries to portray how Duncan was abandoned by her father, and how she came to view ballet as chains that restrict the body. The ballet dances were displayed comically, despite the dancers' perfect technique. Duncan's revolutionary thoughts of breaking the chains were not conveyed using an in depth route. It was as simple as having magic powers awaken a doll, which then tried to move her legs and arms and jump out of her doll box.
After that, a series of fast paced montage scenes brought Duncan to Paris to fall in love, have a baby, and lose her baby. The audience never got a chance to breathe or to feel struck by the dance or story. It was more like a Broadway musical without singing, only dancing. It tasted strange.
During the intermission, I took some time to study the choreographer, Vladimir Varnava, whose resume is quite impressive. As a choreographer in the Mariinsky Theatre, one of the top two ballet theaters in Russia, he is an award-winning ballet dancer and choreographer. He even won a competition between young choreographers at a contemporary dance festival in Moscow, in 2013, at the age of twenty five.
His choreography shined brighter in Act II, thanks to its simpler plot, and he is good at using stage props. The large red piece of silk fabric was fully utilized and proved to be very versatile. With it, he managed to create different settings including when the story is about Duncan being in Russia and also when she is developing a sympathy for socialism led by Lenin. The choreography for Duncan marrying the young poet and scoundrel, Sergei Yesenin, was memorable, with the outstanding digital backdrop design, simply showing Russian's birch forest was poetic enough.
The best dance of the show was not by Osipova, but by Vladimir Dorokhin who portrayed Sergei Yesenin. In real life, Yesenin and Duncan were only married for one year. To show how Yesenin fooled around with other women, an energetic contemporary dance was created that was clean, strong, and entertaining.
Compared to her rehearsal videos in the Royal Ballet, London, Osipova's modern dance lacks explosiveness. She seemed unable to reach the same expressive power normally shown in her ballet dance, which left me wondering if her reduced intensity was intentional. Perhaps the fact that Duncan's dance, though revolutionary, was never strong like that of Martha Graham's or Trisha Brown's made it hard to be explosive while remaining true to Duncan's form.
Duncan's rebellion against classic ballet was not highlighted properly. Important questions were left unanswered, such as: How would people react to a woman dancing barefoot during her era? How would people judge a dance which didn't follow the standard rules of ballet; rules that were engrained in the hearts and minds of both dancers and critics for centuries? Was she accepted immediately? How did she become a celebrity? The answers to these important questions are what outline the reason that she became a revolutionary dancer, and explain why we are still remembering her today, more than a century later.
In real life, Duncan created floor work which became a key element of modern and contemporary dance development, and Duncan's dance has a unique, Greek Goddess look. ISADORA highlighted neither of these two important aspects well.
The difference between classic ballet and modern dance is expectation. Classical story ballets always have a plot to follow, sets of movements that you will recognize along the way, and a definitive climax. Meanwhile, modern dance is a type of art for which you need not hold any expectation, just free yourself from daily life, and be submerged in whatever the dance show will give to you.
ISADORA is supposed to be both, yet manages to be neither.
photo credit: Segerstrom Center for the Arts - ISADORA - Natalia Osipova as Isadora Duncan - Photo by Sergei Misenko