Lisa Channer, who grew up in New Paltz in the 1970s in a household that was a sort of hippie arts salon, experienced an epiphany in her mid-teens as a result of reading Isadora Duncan’s autobiography. It changed her path and her life. Now she’s portraying Duncan in Dancing on the Edge, a new drama by much-anthologized playwright Adam Kraar about the brief, stormy marriage of the “mother of modern dance” to Russian Imaginist poet Sergei Esenin in the early 1920s.
Dancing on the Edge had its world premiere on September 7 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, where Lisa heads up the baccalaureate program in Performance, Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota. The show travels back to her hometown the weekend of September 22 and 23 for two performances at McKenna Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus, in a production sponsored by the Unison Arts & Learning Center. Lisa’s husband and co-director at Theatre Novi Most, Vladimir Rovinsky, directs the play, which features text in both English and Russian. The choreography is by Jeanne Bresciani, artistic director of the Isadora Duncan International Institute.
Lisa is the daughter of SUNY-New Paltz Geography professor Harold Hudson Channer, who went on to become a pioneering producer of public access cable TV programming in the early days of portable video, and the late Eileen McLanaghan Channer, an endlessly curious and freethinking Englishwoman who was for many years assistant to the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts at the college. Lisa spent part of her toddlerhood touring South America, where her father was doing geographic research and her mother taught English. Upon landing in New Paltz, the Channers soon turned their home into the epicenter of a circle of artists, crazies and creative types in general, and Eileen went on to found an organization called the Arts Community, which still persists today.
Among the first of the artists giving classes through the Arts Community were Steve and Carole Ford, who taught theater arts, and Deborah Vinton, who taught ballet. Young Lisa Channer studied with both. She loved dance, but with puberty grew into a body that was more sturdy than petite; she was also diagnosed with mild scoliosis. Aside from the physical constraints, ballet’s rigorous formalism felt at odds with Lisa’s mischievous personality and feisty expressive style. Here’s how she tells the story:
“My early life was, like Duncan’s, nurtured by a magical mother who gave me access to pure freedom, an absence of shame, bountiful exposure to nature and a strong community of free spirits and artists. I read Duncan’s memoir, My Life, as a 15-year-old ballet dancer and within a year, I’d taken off my pointe shoes and become a modern dancer committed to become Isadora’s ‘highest intelligence in the freest body.’” She moved on from Vinton’s company to be mentored by Livia Vanaver of the Vanaver Caravan, then went to college to pursue her parallel interest in theater.
Earning a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Massachusetts in 1989, Lisa co-founded a feminist theatrical troupe in Northampton called Sleeveless Theatre. She toured the country with various original productions, studied clowning at the Delle Arte School of Physical Theatre in California, went to Russia to study biomechanics (and met her future husband) at the St. Petersburg Academy of Theatre Arts. Eventually she won a coveted spot in the graduate program in Directing at Yale University, where she earned her MFA in 2001; she went on to teach at UMass, Auburn University in Alabama (where she also produced the Birmingham Fringe Festival one year) and finally the University of Minnesota. Not bad for a SUNY-New Paltz Campus School kid.
With Rovinsky (with whom she has two sons), Lisa founded Theatre Novi Most (“New Bridge”) in Minneapolis in 1998, combining European and American stage techniques and producing plays that can take years to develop and then remain in the company’s repertory indefinitely. A 2011 Fulbright fellowship enabled Lisa to spend time in Russia researching Duncan and Esenin’s time together there, after which Theatre Novi Most commissioned Kraar to write the play. Duncan’s belief that “The day when Russia and America understand each other will mark the dawn of a new epoch for humanity” resonates powerfully with the Theatre’s cross-cultural mission.
“As we enter tech rehearsals, I’m thinking about that 15-year-old who 36 years ago read a book about a free woman in a world that keeps women chained, then stepped her bare foot on a path leading to today,” Lisa wrote last month as her passion project finally neared fruition. Plenty of people in New Paltz who fondly remember that creative local girl are eagerly awaiting her return – and the first stop in Dancing on the Edge’s first tour.
Performances of Theatre Novi Most’s original production of Dancing on the Edge, directed by Vladimir Rovinsky and starring Lisa Channer as Isadora Duncan and Sasha Andreev as Sergei Esenin, will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23 in McKenna Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus. Tickets cost $25 general admission, $20 for Unison members, $10 for students with ID and are free for children under age 10. To order, visit http://unisonarts.org/news/event/dancing-edge-adam-kraar.
Lisa Channer as Isadora Duncan in Theatre Novi Most’s Dancing on the Edge, Friday/Saturday, September 22/23, 7:30 p.m., $25/$20/$10, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz; http://unisonarts.org/news/event/dancing-edge-adam-kraar.