A Russian Ballet Dreams of Isadora Duncan

Los Angeles is famous for its movie premieres. In recent years, the vitality of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Opera Company have also attracted their share of premieres. Still, I was excited to attend the world premiere of a ballet, Isadora, inspired by the life of Isadora Duncan, choreographed by Vladmir Varnava with Royal Ballet Principal dancer Natalia Osipova in the lead role, as performed a few weekends ago at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

Sergei Danilian, the Sol-Hurok-like impresario who brought Russian dance and Russian dancers to the Segerstrom in past seasons, was instrumental in developing this ballet for its premiere at the Segerstrom. Danilian had worked with Varnava and the Mikhailovsky Theater in the past, and Varnava had appeared at Segerstrom as a dancer in one of Danilian’s productions. Danilian encouraged Varnava to develop as a choreographer and create an original full ballet with supported from Segerstrom donors and other like-minded balletomanes.

Natalia Osipova, formerly of the Bolshoi, and known for her emotive performances as Giselle, had wanted Varnava to create a work for her. When Osipova and Varnava discussed creating a new ballet, Osipova spoke of her love for Profikiev’s Cinderalla score. Varnava was interested in the story of American modern dance icon Isadora Duncan, particularly her connection to Russia. So Varnava decided to choreograph what he calls, his dream of Isadora, to Cinderella.
Osipova has said that Cinderella, the theme of transformation is “not unlike that of Duncan and magic she performed on the world of dance” and that they are both stories about “a young woman who searches for beauty and sense of individuality amid tremendous tragedy.”

Osipova is right to recognize in Duncan’s life a maverick independence as well as great tragedy. Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was born in California. Her father lost all the family’s wealth and then left the family itself. Isadora, already rebelling against the strictures of classical ballet supported the family by offering dance classes. Duncan found expression in classical Greek poses, adopting the flowing robes of the ancients instead of the corsets and tutus of ballet. Personal expression and personal freedom was central to Duncan. She danced barefoot and searched in her movement to create a modern dance idiom from more natural movement. Duncan was unconventional in dance and in her personal life. By the time she was 20 she had traveled to Europe been acclaimed and inspired followers and admirers. Among the admirers was the sewing machine heir Paul Singer, with whom she had two children out of wedlock. Tragically, the children were in a car with their nanny when the driver lost control and plunged the car into the Seine drowning them.

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