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Can Milwaukee Follow Paris as a Laboratory for the Arts?

Theatre Gigante continues its work in that spirit with 'Isadora and Nijinsky'

May. 4, 2011
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Can Milwaukee stand beside the Paris of 100 years ago as a laboratory for the art of a new century? Since Milwaukeeans are not given to self-aggrandizement, the question will likely be met with pained laughter. But we are an exceptionally creative city, despite the efforts of Republicans in Madison to dissolve the Wisconsin Arts Board. Witness the masterful study recently released by the Creative Alliance (formerly the Cultural Alliance) showing that the fine and applied arts play an unexpectedly large role in our region's economy—more so than in most areas of the country.

Milwaukee's Isabelle Kralj, Mark Anderson, Ed Burgess and Rick Graham have devoted their substantial careers to creating original performances in our town. Kralj and Anderson are the founders, directors, writers and main performers of Theatre Gigante. Burgess, the chair of the UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts dance program, and Graham, a long-standing member of the university's theater program, are among the city's most respected artists in their fields. This group of four is about to present Isadora and Nijinsky, a new work about the lives, times, ideas and legends of a pair of iconic experimentalists from the Paris of a century ago. Vaslav Nijinsky (1888-1959) was diagnosed with schizophrenia and retired from dance at the age of 29. Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), inventor of modern dance, today could well be dancing her protest on the Capitol steps alongside Nijinsky. She eventually fled America for a Europe more hospitable to artists. Her free dance and his bold ballets continue to inspire theater, film, music, literary and visual artists. In dance, their influence is inescapable.

Isadora and Nijinsky
is written, directed and performed by Kralj (Isadora), Burgess (Nijinsky) and Anderson (M.C.) and designed by Graham. The late Milwaukee painter Schomer Lichtner (1905-2006) is involved posthumously. A dear friend of Kralj and Anderson, Lichtner created sets for three of their works—Petrushka, Piaf and My Dear Othello. Two weeks before his death, he told them he was working on a new idea for a set for them. We'll never know what it was. He gave a number of paintings as gifts to Theatre Gigante, and these will appear in the new show as projections by media artists Iain Court and Bethany Armstrong.

“We're trying to saturate the stage with art the way the Ballets Russes did,” Kralj said. Nijinsky was a member of that legendary Paris company. Sergei Diaghilev, its founder and impresario and Nijinsky's lover for some years, commissioned local artists—Picasso, Matisse, Miro and Chanel, among many—to create sets and costumes for such revolutionary ballets as The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Afternoon of a Faun. The riots that accompanied their premieres were spurred by the combination of radical music, dancing and design.

“I have always felt an affinity for the Ballets Russes' principles,” Kralj says. “Their holistic approach; their experimentation, freedom, fearlessness, refusal to be hypocritical; their determination to create what the art world needed.” Nijinsky choreographed Rite of Spring (1913) and Faun (1912).

“Isadora stands on her own as a trailblazer,” Anderson says. “She also created scandals in terms of getting rid of corsets and stockings, living openly with men and having babies out of wedlock.”

“Her dancing was non-technique based; it came from natural movement,” Kralj adds. “But she brought so much truth to the stage. We're not trying to become them in the performance. We play them by their influence on us. We see them as ghostlike presences in all our lives as artists now.”

Isadora and Nijinsky
will be performed May 5-8 at UWM's Studio 508 in the Kenilworth building, 1925 E. Kenilworth Place. Call 414-229-4308 for more information. Works by Schomer Lichtner and his wife, Ruth Grotenrath (1912-1988), are on exhibit at Elaine Erickson Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 120.

John Schneider made many original performances with Theatre X. He teaches theater and dance at Marquette University.


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