When She Danced Credit: Johnny Knight

Isadora Duncan never systematically filmed her dances, though she had the opportunity to do so well before her death in 1927, at age 50. (She was famously killed while riding in a car, when her long scarf got caught in one of the wheels.) Apparently, only a five-second snippet of her performing survives, hardly enough to convey the unique intensity that made her an iconic figure of the early 20th century, as notorious for her revolutionary politics and freewheeling life as for her radical art. As a result, her once-dazzling personal presence has faded from popular culture. Her legacy rests on the subjective responses and selective, highly personal memories of her admirers and disciples.

Martin Sherman’s 1990 play When She Danced addresses that delicate legacy. Set in 1923, it finds the middle-aged American expat in decline, facing not only a struggle to survive but to keep her artistic mission alive for future generations. Living in Paris with her husband, Sergei Esenin, a Russian poet 17 years her junior, the dancer scrounges for financial support to start a dance school in Italy. On the night the play takes place, she’s hosting a dinner for a man she believes to be an Italian diplomat who can help her finance her dream.

Also in attendance are Esenin, who speaks only Russian; the maid, Jeanne, who speaks only French; Alexandros, a 19-year-old gay Greek piano prodigy; Miss Belzer, a prim Russian emigre who has signed on as Duncan’s translator; an American friend, Mary Desti; and Christine, a Swedish teenager steeped in the Duncan dance tradition. The polyglot dinner party proves to be a true tower of babble—a farcical disaster in which no one can understand anyone else and Duncan’s hopes of prying money out of the Italian are dashed.

In its attempt to capture the emotional highs and lows of Duncan’s eccentric lifestyle, When She Danced sometimes comes off as a variation on Auntie Mame, with Duncan, Alexandros, and Belzer substituting for the flamboyant Mame, her adoring nephew Patrick, and her straitlaced but worshipful secretary, Agnes Gooch. It’s entertaining, but it only rarely comes close to conveying Duncan’s greatness. This is in part because of the very problem Sherman is exploring: without seeing Duncan dance, we can’t really appreciate why she’s such a significant figure. Though she’s regarded by many as the mother of modern dance, her real power wasn’t in her technique or innovative choreography—it was in her charismatic expressiveness, her deeply personal connection to the music she was physicalizing.

I have no idea whether Jennifer Engstrom, who plays Duncan, can dance. She doesn’t try here. The closest she comes to re-creating her character’s artistry is a scene in which Duncan “rehearses” a new piece by closing her eyes and gently swaying while Alexandros plays a Chopin etude. What Engstrom does capture is Duncan’s bawdy sense of humor, her restless energy, and her enduring grief over the drowning deaths of her children a decade earlier.

But When She Danced is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle. Director Nick Bowling gets equally vivid performances out of Patrick Mulvey as the boorish but sexy Sergei, Mark Richard as the Italian dinner guest, Jeannie Affelder as Jeanne, Alejandro Cordoba as Alexandros (handling the character’s Greek accent superbly and playing piano quite well), Jessica Steans-Gail as the comically inept student, Mary Williamson as Mary Desti—loyal to Duncan but frustrated by her friend’s disorganized lifestyle—and the always compelling Janet Ulrich Brooks as Belzer, a passionate woman under her prim facade.

In fact, Williamson and Brooks have the play’s two best scenes: monologues in which Desti and Belzer reminisce about how profoundly influenced they were by seeing Duncan onstage. In these passages, as nowhere else in the play, Sherman begins to communicate the magic of Duncan when she danced.