Dallas — How does ballet achieve horror? By ripping the pristine mask from its seemingly impeccable form and revealing the sinister nature within. Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet explores the dark side by revisiting legends and drawing on perturbing ballet films for inspiration in Horror Series.
The old, spacious Meadows Hall at the Sammons Center for the Arts in Dallas works both for and against the performance. A proscenium-style stage is set at the same level as the audience, which makes it difficult for anyone beyond the third row to see much. While the right lighting can do wonders to create a creepy atmosphere, the limited facilities only allow overhead lights to dim and brighten, so the company has to rely on other tactics to set the mood. Fortunately, the windows allow the outside lights to cast various shadows inside creating a haunting effect, and the rainy weather adds to the ominous quality.
Dallas voice actor Phil Parsons emcees the program as the horror film legend Vincent Price. Mysterious yet hilarious, his monologues tell the story behind each piece as he engages the audience members with humor and modern references.
Drawing from the German legend about the consequences of meeting one’s evil twin, founding artistic director Emilie Skinner’s Doppelganger opens the evening. Lea Zablocki sweeps across the stage en pointe in a pale yellow dress, acutely aware that something is amiss. Her innocent, classical movements stand in contrast to Felicia McPhee, dressed identically yet barefoot with an earthier quality as she slowly walks downstage. Mirroring movements signal the struggle for dominance, as Zablocki tries to resist McPhee’s attempts to take over her life. As the latter begins to succeed, the other loses composure, trembling under her bourées, before the battle is lost. McPhee’s performance and clawed, un-balletic hands lend a distressing tone.
Company ballet mistress Victoria Tran takes a more classical approach for The Red Shoes, a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Featured in the 1948 film of the same name, the tale finds a young ballerina (Erin Boone) suffering the consequences of coveting a pair of red pointe shoes sold by a demonic shoemaker. The first part of the work has some nice storytelling elements, although the ensemble choreography needs some polishing. The creep-factor enters when the dancers don black capes and white masks, as Boone tries feverishly to rid herself of the dreaded shoes. Knives and realistic fake blood add a nice shock, although the stage setup likely hindered that effect for much of the audience.
Skinner returns to legend for Sepsis, a young Frenchwoman’s trip into the afterlife after meeting her end from the Black Plague. The choreography itself isn’t as sinister and the piece isn’t as memorable as the others. However, eerie music from Igor Wakhevitch, a stellar performance from the sensual Terrance Johnson, and more contemporary choreography than the previous two elevate the dance. It’s more akin to an early modern dance work with a few cabrioles and other beats thrown in.
The most recent ballet thriller Black Swan forms the basis for Last Glimpse in the Mirror. This dance emphasizes the duality of man depicted through the struggle between the black swan and the white, with Whitney Hart as the former and Boone as the latter. Each dancer fully embraces the quality of her character, and Hart shows off her acting chops with a frightening glare.
Tran’s Shade pulls from the Japanese avant-garde dance form butoh for inspiration. Dancers arrive on stage via the audience, slithering through the aisles clad in black shorts leotards with filmy white fabric haphazardly draped across. It’s the least balletic of them all, although based on the description I expected more distorted shapes and eerie qualities than what appeared. However, it’s Tran’s biggest leap from her usual classical style.
Up to this point, the concert as a whole has a distinct unsettling nature, but not enough to tip it in the horror category—until the last piece. DNCB saves the scariest for last with Skinner’s Coven. Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, a movie about the supernatural horrors of a ballet school, serves as the basis for this disturbing piece. Hart returns to her diabolical character as the sinister head of school, dressed in a black and red patterned dress, and Zablocki dances the role of a doomed student. Daniel Skinner mixes a chilling track using music from the original film score by Goblin, in addition to Ennio Morricone, Claudio Gizzi, and Lalo Schifrin.
A number of elements contribute to the success of this piece. Ensemble dancers yank Zablocki by her hair, throw her across the stage, and claw at her form. Towards the end, Zablocki begins several sequences of precise ballet steps only to fall or stop abruptly, as if an invisible force interrupts her. Finally, she claws at herself (with more blood) before meeting her demise.