Dallas — Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet debuted a stunning if flawed new work Thursday night at the Majestic Theatre with Masque of the Red Death. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about a prince who shuts himself and his companions in his castle in order to avoid the plague devastating the realm, reality has a grim way of encroaching.
To the company’s great credit, it commissioned a score and featured a real orchestra, conductor Hannah Threlkeld and 16 musicians from the SYZYGY Ensemble from Southern Methodist University. An orchestra of that size for a fledgling ballet company is alone remarkable.
Poe would have loved local composer Jordan Kuspa’s musical take on the story—ominous notes of an oboe, menacing percussion, soothing sound of a harp, and everything in between including a lush waltz and the foreboding tick, tick, tick of a clock.
Its second asset was the Majestic Theatre itself with its elaborate, drenched-in-red décor. Not only was it the perfect companion setting for the tale, but it also inspired arresting video projections from visual artists Jeff Gibbons and Gregory Ruppe. Scene after scene displayed shots of the theater from the vantage point of the stage looking out at an empty audience, the upstairs foyer, second floor offices, halls, the lobby—all empty of human life, and therefore all the more chilling.
Its third asset was the cast of elegant and willowy dancers, their faces chalk white and bodies clad in identical silky, fluttering white gowns. But here too was the ballet’s shortcoming: 13 women and only one man, which made it difficult to convey the frenzy of a ball at the brink of disaster. Choreographer and artistic director Emilie Skinner did her best with what she had to work with by having the 12 guests of Prince Prospero flitter and merge and spin away through the many halls and rooms, and at the end, collapse when the specter of the Red Death appears. While there are some dramatic moments, as when everyone freezes at the sound of the clock, there is no drunken frenzy at the end, nor for that matter does the dance often convey a giddy sense of relief.
To compensate for what the ensemble can’t convey, Skinner places the mysterious guest (Lea Zablocki) and Prince Prospero (Ilan Nuñez) at the forefront. In stiff white cloak, the tall, black-haired Nuñez makes an arresting figure, very much in command of the party. He has only to twist his body a quarter angle to signify his dominance. As the mysterious guest, Zablocki is deceptively lithe to suggest danger but as it turns out, she is the Red Death. The two engage in dramatic lifts and silky waltzes, twice ending on the floor with the mysterious guest lying on top of the Prince, the image of a sensual orgy.
While Kusba’s music provides most of the menace, he has help from the video images. Besides the many views of the Majestic’s interior, there are dramatic scenes of ocean waves, forests, shimmering leaves, and—most unsettling of all—close-ups of mouths kissing. With red tongues and lips, the lovers seem to be devouring each other. You have to force yourself not to look, which means that what is going on below can’t compete. Only when the mysterious stranger shows up with distorted face and triumphant grin, and everyone else including the Prince collapses in a heap, do we experience the real horror.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.