K is for Kate who was struck with an axe. L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks. M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville who died of ennui” – The Gashlycrum Tinies, Edward Gorey
UNTIMELY DEATH. HOW DELICIOUS.
Choreographer and Artistic Director Heather Maloy simply couldn’t resist. She has, after all, a taste for the peculiar. Her Asheville based Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance is known for its innovative multi-media presentations and somewhat dark humor.
Past programs have included bizarrely beautiful takes on classic literary works such as Through the Looking Glass, Masque of the Red Death, The Turn of the Screw and The Scarlet Letter. Why not Edward Gorey?
The late author and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) has long been a favorite of Heather’s. Most widely known for his animated opening credits for the PBS series Mystery!, his books are filled with drolly-sinister vignettes dealing with all manner of nefarious doings. They are always accompanied by his eccentrically detailed pen and ink drawings, which are Victorian/Edwardian in style and sensibility — chilling yet oddly genteel.
He also had a feel for the stage, designing the sets and Tony Award winning costumes for the Broadway production of Dracula. All of this might have served as sufficient inspiration but, for Heather, the particulars of Mr. Gorey’s life and personae made the concept of a Gorey ballet overwhelmingly enticing.
“Gorey was obsessed with ballet,” observes Heather. “He went to literally every performance of the New York City ballet for 25 years. Every show — matinees, evenings — always dressed in his uniform of a floor-length fur coat, long scarf, jeans and tennis shoes. It seemed that, given his dedication to the form, he deserved to have a ballet dedicated to him.”
To create the score, Maloy enlisted her long-time friend and co-conspirator (and fellow Gorey aficionado), composer Evan Bivins, formerly of the rock band “Jump, Little Children”. Together, they poured over the authors collected works.
The creative team chose a somewhat biographical approach to the project. “There are many idiosyncratic aspects of Gorey’s life; he never dated anyone, he was apparently asexual, he was very reclusive, he often wrote under pseudonyms which were anagrams of his name, and,” Heather adds with a devilish grin, “he wasn’t at all fond of little children — except to draw them and have them meet tragic ends.”
“We began by looking at some of the stereotypical characters in his work and how those characters revealed different facets of Gorey’s personality. We then chose the types to be represented within the ballet to express those aspects — it’s about him and his life rather than the stories, per se.”
Accordingly, Gorey himself will preside over the proceedings in the person of singer Holiday Childress, better known as the front man of The Goodies. “Holiday has this wonderful falsetto voice that is really eerie and a very enigmatic personality,” says Heather. “He seemed like a perfect fit.”
Also omnipresent is Death (Jon Upleger) in full regalia of veiled hat and parasol, and a tuxedoed orchestra positioned on stage “Evan is going a little more traditional than the type of music we usually use,” says Heather, “but it’s still very unconventional.” Expect pump organ, French horns, marimba…and a gong.
A multi-level set has been designed to accommodate the orchestra, provide staging areas for the ‘deaths’ to unfold in four scenes, and to allow Mr. Gorey to either observe or interact with the characters.
And what characters they are — drawn from the author’s own strange entourage: a woeful ballerina (Sadie Harris) who dances herself to death, a pair of androgynous, co-dependant cousins (Emily Gotschal and Christopher Stuart) attired in hoop skirts, bowler hats and neckties, and two children (Jen Cavanaugh and Nathan McGinnis) who perform a precarious pas de deux on an epileptic bicycle. “The bicycle piece is definitely challenging,” says Heather. “They are really gutsy dancers.”
Another challenge is in how to present the deaths theatrically. In most of Gorey’s works, including The Gashlycrum Tinies, (where the gruesome demises of a series of hapless tots are presented alphabetically), you rarely see the actual event. Instead, Gorey captures the moment before or after, giving the viewer a telling clue; an ominous shadow, an umbrella entangled in the bare limbs of a tree or a single discarded shoe.
“It’s no fun in being too literal,” says Heather. “There’s no humor in it.” In this regard, Maloy intends to remain faithful to Gorey’s artful discretion, with her own personal twists. The black and white costumes, atmospheric staging and glowering lighting are also designed to evoke Gorey’s texture intensive renderings without being simply derivative.
With affection and humor, The Many Deaths of Edward Gorey seeks not so much to recreate his quirky, surreal world as to pay homage to its creator and his own delightful choreography of the danse macabre.
Terpsicorps opens their fifth season with The ART of Dance at the Diane Wortham Theatre in Asheville, June 21-23.
The Many Deaths of Edward Gorey will be presented along with Work in Progress, a multi-media performance featuring the real time creation of paintings by Benjamin Betsalel, Senza Fretta and The Waiting Room by choreographer Salvatore Aiello and a reprise performance of the caterpillar scene from Terpiscorps’ Alice.