Radicals in movement

Harry Cherkinian

Vaslav Nijinsky came from the classical world of ballet. Isadora Duncan emerged from the outer galaxy of what is now known as modern dance. Together, they revolutionized the dance world and at times scandalized the world around them by promoting ideas and lifestyles far ahead of their time.

Theatre Gigante has created an original performance piece based on the works and ideas of the two iconoclastic dancers in “Isadora and Nijinsky,” which combines dialogue, visual art, music and movement. TG co-founders Mark Anderson and Isabelle Kralj, a couple for 13 years (married for 10), created the 80-minute piece in collaboration with Ed Burgess, professor of dance at UW-Milwaukee, who has performed in a number of the troupe’s works over the years.

In developing the work, Kralj researched Nijinsky while Burgess researched Duncan. Then each took on the role created by the other. Originally, the presentation was to be two separate pieces, but Burgess had the idea of combining them into a single piece.  Anderson acts as an onstage narrator of sorts, guiding the audience through the multi-media spectacle.

Duncan and Nijinsky shocked the dance world with their radical ideas about dance and movement. Duncan rejected traditional ballet moves as too rigid and structured. Instead, she emphasized improvisation and emotion in dance, focusing on the human form through the use of free-flowing costumes, bare feet and loose hair.

Nijinsky was renowned for his technical skills and prowess as a dancer. In fact, he was one of the few males who could dance en pointe. Like Duncan, he pushed the boundaries of classical dance as a choreographer, moving toward modern dance and using what was then considered radically modern music, such as compositions by Stravinsky. He designed movement that focused on the angularity of the body.

As innovators and creators, both dancers are perfect material for a theater that’s aptly named for its “big ideas.”

Theatre Gigante (the name comes from the Grotta Gigante, the world’s largest tourist cavern in Trieste, Italy, where Kralj’s parents live) started out as Milwaukee Dance Theatre when Kralj formed it in 1987. Anderson joined in 1999, and the duo has been creating original pieces ever since.

“The dialogue comes from dialogue they actually said, which was the easy part because the two were very opinionated and in many instances had similar outlooks,” Kralj said.

For Burgess, who is an out gay man, working with TG provides fresh inspiration for his own work. “It’s always a surprise and always an adventure,” he said.

Part of the adventure in this case is visual art that’s literally projected onto the performers. The visual artworks were created by the late Schomer Lichtner, an artist and friend of the performers who created three sets for TG. He was in the process of creating a fourth when he died at the age of 101.

Videographer Iain Court has compiled visual artist Lichtner’s images, which will be projected virtually everywhere: on scenic designer Rick Graham’s backgrounds, hanging materials, the floor, even the performers themselves.

“We want to conjure up a time and conjure up fuller personalities (of Duncan and Nijinsky) than we could just in the language,” said Burgess, adding that the goal is to show that “art is an important aspect and element in our lives.”

For Kralj and Anderson, the chance to work together as a couple and with their good friend continues their own journey as artists who are pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas, just as Isadora and Nijinsky did.

“It’s a journey of our imagination to go back and honor these radical innovators who are our predecessors and changed art in the world, particularly dance,” Kralj said. “It’s a fabulous, playful journey for the three of us.”

“Isadora and Nijinsky” is staged May 5-8 at UWM Kenilworth, Studio 508, 1925 E. Kenilworth Place. For more information, call 414-229-4308 or visit www.theatregigante.org.