THE DEEP, DARK, HYPNOTIC SPELL OF SCORPIUS

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on November 18, 2015 in Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , ,

Lisa Starry’s A Vampire Tale by Scorpius Dance, Sunday 21st October, 2015, Spa Pavilion, Whitby

There are a few, a very few dance companies who can claim to embody a truly convincing and visceral Gothic and vampiric experience realised through the skills of world-class artists and performers. Perhaps Indianapolis-based ‘The Casket Girls: A Modern Gothic Vampire Ballet’ and Northern Ballet’s production of Dracula come close at times. There are also, of course, more intimate and small-scale productions: Gothic burlesque and belly-dancing artists, one-off Halloween shows and Rocky Horror tributes, but Scorpius’s A Vampire Tale is on a different level altogether and emerges head-and-shoulders above the rest. The audience at the Bram Stoker Festival this year was thrilled and riveted by this outstanding performance, many lingering to extend the evening: to talk with and take pictures of the cast long after the curtain came down.

Scorpius Dancers Photo by Jon Dea

 

 

Lisa Starry, director and choreographer for Scorpius, is the recipient of a Dance Organization Award and the first ever ‘Mayor Arts Award’ (2012) of the Phoenix Festival of Arts and I was lucky enough to speak with her before the performance. First, I asked Lisa about the evolution of this new version of her show, and she mentioned her love of the Interview with a Vampire and Queen of the Damned books. She continued: ‘I’m a very visual person so, at first, I see little segments of movies when I envisage the production’. In developing and changing the story, she spoke of her love of freedom to work and tweak the materials and described the way in which the look of the present performance is ‘grittier and more powerful’ than before, with more of a ‘punk/slashed’ aesthetic in design. Kristofer Hill’s score too has acquired a heavier rock sound as the action has evolved, haunting gamelans and an industrial vibe giving an unsettling and dark edge to the action.

 

The opening drama flows naturally from the lumbering and wobbling ‘Strange Man’ clown-figure of Damon Dering, a disturbing presence, who has been stalking the floor and working the crowd for ten minutes before the dancers enter. This gives an initial dark carnivalesque atmosphere to the proceedings. When the vampire klans emerge, the leader of the male vampires, Gavin Sisson is a glowering figure, vigilant and assertive, prowling around. His feral deimatic threat-display and carefully-judged stride, reinstate his muscular dominance as he marks out his ground with every step. Ably supported and challenged by Haydehn Tuipulotu and the other males, Sisson moves between stage, floor and rope dancing with sleek assurance. Nicole Olson as the Queen of the female vampires succeeds in switching between imperious star-like hauteur, the hurt rage of a spurned lover and animalistic tooth-and-claw savagery with great poise, her dance on the lid of a grand piano being a particular highlight. Her vivid, snarling and hissing female klan encroach upon the audience with real allure and menace from the outset.

Some of the early, establishing gestures in, for example, the entry of the male and female klans hold hints of Joel Gray’s transgressive Cabaret: the rhythm, the solid oncoming mass towards the audience, the expansive, arrogant flourishes and raised shoulders, yet the embodied power of the dancers is Starry’s own invention.

The narrative involving an ‘innocent’ girl selected from the audience to attend an evening meal by ‘Strange Man’ is set up entertainingly, and the girl’s registration of her building terror is subtly realised. Most impressive here is the clever pacing of the stages by which the mortal female is drawn deeper and deeper into her own immolation, involved in dramas outside her experience. The emotional confusion created the Strange Man’s thrice-fold warning, alternately vampirically loyal and conniving but also increasingly sympathetic to the victim, to ‘Wait here and someone will come for you!’ is, in context of the hostile darkness whirling around her, masterful.

Anca Mihalcescu, Haydehn Tuipulotu, Kalli Sparish Photo by Nancy Miller

 

Sisson’s signature crawling leap down from and up to the stage is broken later in the production to great effect. Despite, (and indeed because of his mastery of the ropes), his sudden abject lack of power in the face of his Queen’s change in affections, is one of the most shocking moments in the show. Lateral rolls, backflips and ‘under and over’ alternating somersaults are used to reveal the ebbing and flowing of power between the klans and the King and Queen. There are terrific individual set-pieces and dazzling displays of rope-work full of a control and intensity worthy of the present Moulin Rouge dance athletes, two female vampires at one point whirling ever more quickly and curving above and below each other, forming a breath-taking self-enclosed cocoon of light. At times, as the contest for sexual dominance and control of the girl built to a new peak, the whole cast used their outstretched arms, strenuous pulling gestures and rhythmic shouts like spells of power to suggest lines of force spanning the stage. One could almost feel the crackling of energy like a sideways flows of gravity spanning the breadth of the floor at such moments.

Starry understands the need to leaven shock, suspense and fear with humour and the audience laughed uneasily at the ambiguous Strange Man, the innocent girl’s naivete and the outright Sadean and cruel jokes of the vampire packs with their salivation over their oblivious prey. In this production, a good joke often turns to an uncertain chuckle and then to an undermined and querrulous pause. The ‘Vampire Feast’ section thrives on such uncertainties, a mock-real inverted Last Supper scenario turning on the funny, poignant and grimacing rejection of the bread of life in favour of the lingering delectation over a living virgin’s blood. This is a brooding humour brimming with threat and hunger.

 

 

Gavin Sisson and Nicole Olson / Photographer: Nancy Miller

The look of the production is ravishing throughout, George Johnson and A.K. Klovenas’s design enhancing a sense of characters through primeval contrasts, raw textures and cutaway costume detail. Act 2 Scene 2 presents an alluring vista of seemingly disembodied pale wrists and hands swirling out of opened coffins like tendrils. It is an oneiric and beautiful movement, the audience caught up in this strangely surreal display as if confronted by images from Odilon Redon’s paintings, the wrists moving singly then in unison as if in a circadian rhythm with the moon. There’s also highly effective use periodically of a haze machine and light strobing.

Tables are turned more than once in this vampiric strife of passions and the innocent girl finally exerts her own spell of attraction over the vampire King, a strategy which then involves the Queen intimately, (yet, in sympathy for future viewers both of the production itself and a promised DVD of the performance, I’ll not give spoilers of the ending here.) Suffice to say that, the final array of coffins serving as a ritual processional, almost like an avenue of funerary standing-stones, and the victor’s turning of the obeisant girl’s now dark head towards a shared existence of living death is a magnificent tableau on which to finish.

The Bram Stoker International Film Festival’s audience of film-buffs and film-directors, curious visitors, life-long Goths, local and far-flung Dracula-philes, literature and costume enthusiasts, horror fans and academics is not an easy one to please. Before the performance, I asked one of the Scorpius dancers about their aims in the show. He replied quite bluntly: ‘We want to hypnotise you.’ From the response of the captivated audience, myself included, I know that we were hooked from start to finish and Scorpius succeeded in putting us deeply under their hypnotic spell.

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