Kneehigh Theatre's Flying Lovers of Vitebsk recounts a love story for the ages 

Straight Out of the Sky

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Sometimes it feels like a punch to the gut. Sometimes it feels like deja vu, over and over and over again. Other times it's an inexplicable levity, a natural high so sweet you wonder, have I been drugged? It's as impermanent as it is inevitable: love at first sight. For Marc Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld, it felt like all of those shocks to the system, finely tuned — the pounding, piercing reverberations of new love. But mostly, it felt like flying.

Those vaguely familiar with fine art know Chagall, the early modernist pioneer, the Jewish artist mastering cubism, expressionism. He is best known, though, not for his style, but for his subject: Bella Rosenfeld, his dark-haired, deep-eyed muse.

"You feel a sort of responsibilty in portraying a person," says Marc Antolin, one of the stars of Kneehigh Theatre's Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. "But there's a lovely thing about portraying a person in theater — you can reinvent it yourself and put yourself in it." Possessing the same curly mop and forename, Antolin is the modern day reincarnation of the love-sick painter, moving onstage in deliberate poses, creating Chagall masterpieces with his co-star, Daisy Maywood.

"You think what on earth is going on!" laughs Maywood. "But everything has a connection to Bella and Marc and it's so very clever and brilliant to manage to combine all those things."

The hour-and-a-half two-hander has the two leads singing — "we sing in Yiddish, Russian, then sort of 'laaas' and vowels" — dancing, being suspended in Bella and Marc's pulsating love, all while two musicians (Ian Ross and James Gow) positioned off to the side, play everything from Yiddish lullabies to Tchaikovsky.

"We express [their love] so many ways, musically, visually ... we get to explore all of that and it's exciting to watch," says Maywood.

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Bella and Marc's romance, preserved for the ages in oil on canvas, started in 1887, when Chagall was born in a small Hassidic community in Vitebsk, Belarus. Eight years later, Rosenfeld was born in the same city, but they would not encounter each other until 1909 in St. Petersburg. It was, as each would go on to describe, love at first sight.

"When you did catch a glimpse of his eyes, they were as blue as if they'd fallen straight out of the sky. They were strange eyes ... long, almond-shaped ... and each seemed to sail along by itself, like a little boat," Rosenfeld once wrote of her lover. While Chagall found international fame in his medium, Rosenfeld, who was a student in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Moscow, did not have her two larger works, Burning Lights and First Encounter, published until after her death.

"There was a lot of material for us to use, but more for me playing Marc," says Antolin. "Until he [Chagall] released Bella's notebook, the only thing they knew of her was the paintings, even after she died."

We know that Chagall and Rosenfeld bore witness to devastation; the Jewish population of Vitebsk before the second world war was 180,000. When Russian forces liberated the city in 1944, only 180 remained. The couple was not in Belarus at the time, but they had their own harrowing journey before them. In 1920 they moved to Moscow, with their only child Ida in tow, and from there emigrated to Lithuania, then Berlin, eventually relocating to the French countryside. They were arrested in Marseille in 1941, but escaped and fled to Lisbon, and then the United States. And then, the cruel ending: in 1944, after 35 years together, Rosenfeld died from sepsis at age 49.

"Much of the hints are in the script," says Maywood of Bella. "There's an element of strength, and humor." In Bella with a White Collar, Wedding, The Birthday, Over the Town Rosenfeld is the familiar, quietly brilliant presence. That gentle, steadfast equanamity we can feel, even today, is what Chagall needed as an artist, as a man very much in love.

She's more than a muse, though, more than just a lovely face imprisoned by time, this mysterious Bella. We see, in Flying Lovers, that she's an integral part of the whole, the foundation for one of the most famous love stories of the 20th century.

"The set is uneven, so there's lots of leaning and hanging on ropes to create that sense of flying," says Maywood. "People thought we were going to be on harnesses, on wires. His paintings, yes they were flying but it was more how much he loved her and she loved him and their love, it wasn't flying, it was that sensation of flying."

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