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04 July 2007

Terpsicorps' Many Deaths of Edward Gorey

Let me begin by admitting that I know next to nothing about dance. I never took classes, I don't see much of it, and I have only recently begun to read reviews of it. Oh well. Heather Malloy's The Many Deaths of Edward Gorey, presented by Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance a couple of weeks ago needs to be written about, and trained or not, I am rather keen to be the one to start.

Because it was fabulous. That much was clear even to me.

The evening actually included three other pieces, in addition to the Edward Gorey, and I think I'll work backwards.

The last piece was inspired in concept, if not as much in execution. Local artist Ben Betsalel created an original painting each night during, and presumably inspired by or in some sort of relation to, the performance on stage. The painting in progress was projected digitally, thanks to G. Craig Hobbs, as a much larger than life backdrop for the dancers. I thought this was a terrific idea, but over all the dance was my least favorite. The piece, called Work in Progress, was choreographed by Ms. Malloy, and I’m sure it was very well done, it just didn’t happen to be to my particular taste. The original score, by Michael Bellar was probably very good, I just did not happen to like the sort of latin-jazzy style of music. The painting itself was a splattered canvas reminiscent of, say Jackson Pollock, and I just don’t happen to know that much about that particular style, and am not super interested in it. The look of the show was very light and colorful, but it did not grab my attention as much as some of the other pieces. And while the intersection between painter and dancers seemed very interesting in theory, I could not quite catch the relation in actuality. I found myself craning my neck to watch the artist at work on the balcony, as often as I was watching the stage. And I had a hard time sitting back and trusting that there was some “story” relating the painting and the dancing, because I just didn’t see it.

But that points to my inexperience with dance as much as anything, perhaps. What seemed clear to me at some point, was that watching ballet is, for me, a lot like conversing in a foreign language. If I try and translate everything word by word, I will not only be constantly behind, but I will lose the overall sense in favor of a few isolated moments of clarity. If however I don’t worry so much about the details, I will understand more than I expect, and will feel much more a part of the conversation. The ballet was the same: If I tried to make logical sense of every move, I was frustrated and confused, and felt like I was missing something. But when I just sat back and let the dance wash over me, it was satisfying on a much more visceral level.

This was very much true of the middle pieces, The Waiting Room and Senza Fretta (Without Worry), both choreographed by the late Salvatore Aiello and staged here by Timothy Rineheart-Yeager, Terpsicorps’ Ballet Master (and, for Waiting Room, by Ms. Malloy as well). In both pieces, I was impressed by the dancers’ skill, grace, humor, and passion, and for both pieces, I had to stop trying to create a narrative in my head. Part of the problem, especially for The Waiting Room, was that I had not looked to see what the title of the piece was, and just that would have helped me feel at ease, knowing that I was at least on the same page as the dancers. After the performance, we got to hear a little about Mr. Aiello, and how he composed the ballet after receiving some very bad medical news. I could not help but wonder if the piece would have worked even better if we had known that up front. None of this kept me from enjoying the dance, however. Written for three women, Jennifer Cavanaugh, Emily Gotschall, and Sadie Harris, and staged and lit with beautiful simplicity, the piece was wonderfully uncluttered, and moved forward with the quiet drive and peculiarly intense boredom that can only come while waiting endlessly for something of life-shattering importance.

In Senza Fretta, a cocky young man (Christopher Stuart) struts across the stage, only to be ousted by another brash young fellow (Nathan McGinnis) and there begins a very fun romp through playful competition and bold masculinity. The dance is so energetic and fast paced that it was hard even for me to care too much what the “story” was; it was easy to get caught up in the dancers themselves. The story was incidental to the event, and both dancers were both impressive and fun to watch.

The jewel in the evening’s crown was of course, The Many Deaths of Edward Gorey, which had as much beauty and intrigue as The Waiting Room, as much fun and energy as Senza Fretta, and at least as much spectacle as Work In Progress.

Dear me. I seem to have neglected a piece. I suppose I should go back and edit this document, rather than interrupt it, but I kind of think the interruption is appropriate. I have to admit, I completely forgot about That Caterpillar’s Trippin’ Again, an excerpt from Terpsicorps’ adaptation of Alice in Wonderland a few years back. It’s not that it was not memorable; it certainly was. But it was maybe a little spectacle heavy for my tastes. Very psychedelic, very flashy. The great fuzzy orange costumes were very showy and cool, but distracted me. I guess whatever I’ve been saying about not over-thinking a dance, I wish this had had more of a resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s story. The G. Craig Hobbs projections were kind of cool, but as usual I thought they mostly distracted from the performers, rather than enhancing the experience of watching them. But what if this had been an opportunity to…I don’t know, let Alice and the Caterpillar recite “You Are Old, Father Williams” in some clever, funky, ballet way? But maybe it worked better as part of the full ballet, and maybe I was just spoiled by the clever, funky, ballet adaptation of the work of Edward Gorey that I had just seen.

Ok, back on track.

To really present the look, much less the spirit, of Edward Gorey on stage seems daunting to the point of hopeless. Fortunately, no one asked me, and the Terpsicorps team delivers a piece that is just about perfect in every conceivable way (except its length, but more on that later). The look of the show is incredible. Conceptualized by Ms. Malloy and Evan Bivins (a versatile performer who plays with Jump Little Children, among others, and provided musical direction for Gorey), every detail was taken into account, but not slavishly adhered to: the show breathes equal parts homage and originality, and is inspired at every turn. The whole thing is done in a stark black and white palate, which fits Mr. Gorey’s dark, crosshatched drawings and delightfully macabre spirit very well indeed. Even the dancers’ faces are exceptionally pale, with darkened eye sockets and the occasional accent of a handlebar moustache.

The costumes (Malloy again, on design, and brought to life by Leslie Lambrecht) are key to this wonderfully expressive black and white scheme, and they could not be more appropriate or delightful. They look old fashioned, even stodgy, but actually help the dancers create a very particular world in which such seeming limitations instead elevate them to astoundingly complex heights. Height actually features heavily in the look of the show, from the almost dangerous-looking stabs of lights by designer Erik McDaniel to the high platform erected at the far upstage end of things, which serves as home for the delightfully odd, dark, and whimsical band, and also allows Edward Gorey himself (Holiday Childress in the requisite full length fur coat and sneakers) to watch/create the action from above when not actively participating in it.

The first image of the evening is also one of the most enduring and exciting: a faithful recreation the figure of Death on the cover of Gorey’s 1963 mini-masterwork The Gashlycrumb Tinies. This top hat-ed, black clad figure with skull face and ominous black umbrella appears from the copious (but not overdone) fog in a delightfully eerie musical stillness, and then the mask and umbrella swoop up into the vast black depths of the air, never to be seen again. Brilliant.

From there, the ballet uses characters from Gorey’s books as well as just a general Gorey influence to introduce a bizarre and wonderful collection of characters including a waifish, jerky and of course doomed ballerina (Sadie Harris), a pair of androgynous and macabre Odd Cousins (Emily Goschall and Christopher Stuart), the mysteriously gloomy Veiled Lady (David Tlaiye), and two children (Jennifer Cavanaugh and Nathan McGinnis) who have a spectacular pas de deux (if I’m using my ballet terms correctly) with an epileptic bicycle. Each of these has spectacular moments of their own, as well as collectively, and that does not even take into account the peculiar ballet instructor (Allison Heryzberg) and her wards (Sarah Margaret Qualley and Emily Williams). Frankly, I cannot even remember all that I liked about the dancers and the piece itself, but it left a powerful and lasting desire for more. It was engaging, highly creative, very theatrical, very fun, and even the most faithful Gorey interpretations were still full of their own originality, life, and surprise.

It was revealed after the performance that there is a possibility of expanding and re-mounting the Gorey piece and the audience cheered the idea wholeheartedly. In the meantime, Malloy is resurrecting her neo-puritan, post-apocalyptic, Appalachian-punk version of The Scarlet Letter in August, and I am already lamenting the sad fact that my work will keep me away from that show.

Heather Malloy and Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance are not only raising but re-imagining the bar for the local performing arts scene. Even if I don’t agree with every choice they make, it is clear that their creativity, intensity, passion, and exceedingly high artistic standards are helping to move the discussion of the performing arts in Asheville to a new level of professionalism. They are not alone in this, but they are among the leaders of the pack, and I’m pleased to say that it is becoming increasingly difficult for some of us to keep up. And there is not much that is more exciting than that.

--Willie Repoley

The Epic of Gilgamesh

thanks to the C-T, again...

THEATER REVIEW: 1-man ‘Gilgamesh’ is sparse yet lush
published June 28, 2007 12:15 am

ASHEVILLE — David Novak is simply an exceptional storyteller, and his production of the renowned “Gilgamesh,” at North Carolina Stage Company is well worth seeing. The material is legendary, with elements from early mythology. But, it’s the presentation that distinguishes this tale-well told.

The world’s oldest known novel or ancient piece of quality literature, “Gilgamesh” was regarded as among the greatest literary creations for at least a couple of millennia, then was lost for another two or more millennia before being rediscovered in the 18th century.

Now, Novak is giving the classic a narrative telling in his usual exceptional way. This pared-down “Gilgamesh” is a single-voice piece.

The show features one actor-narrator, 29 bamboo poles in assorted assembly and a few clay shards in three piles across the front of the stage — no costumes or clutter, but discerning use of well-chosen music and light cues. Those light and music cues are especially remarkable given that actor Novak’s work is not scripted, and the technical staff must simply listen carefully and sense when the changes are ripe.

Gilgamesh is a harsh monarch over the city of Uruk, in Babylonia, present-day Iraq. His exploits send him to meet a wild super-masculine figure, Enkidu, who joins the monarch in heroic endeavors leading to a strong emotional relationship between them. Enkidu’s tragic death changes the course of the narrative, sending Gilgamesh into deep despair and ongoing grief.

There are graphic erotic descriptions of sensuality, poetic but pointed and extraordinarily eloquent.

The second half of the story reflects on human immortality. Gilgamesh still mourns for Enkidu. Poetic construct, and awesome meter and cadence, coupled with this moving tale of lost love make for powerful theater.

Great theater needs something to see as well as to hear. Though simple, the choreography of Novak’s body propelled across the stage, coupled with the light and music cues as well as the use of bamboo and reed mats, is varied enough to rivet the attention both of sight and sound.

Jim Cavener writes about theater for the Citizen-Times. E-mail him at JimCavener@aya.Yale.edu.