The dark work of one of America's best writers runs all through Poe, this weekend's Art.if.Act Dance Project concert.
A trio of Edgar Allan Poe's most horrifying tales—"The Oval Portrait," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher"—inspired three contemporary dance works, all performed to live music.
"We wanted to do something dark and narrative" to kick off the troupe's second season, says Ashley Bowman, who co-founded Art.if.Act with Claire Hancock last year.
The two artistic directors were considering doing a mix of Grimm fairy tales and Poe short stories, but, on a suggestion from composer Dan Coleman, they settled on an all-Poe show.
"Grimm takes you into fantasy," Bowman notes, but Poe goes into real-life terror, exploring the recesses of the human soul. "A lot of his characters have illnesses—schizophrenia or neuroses."
The company was already committed to presenting multiple art forms in all of its shows: dance, provided mostly by performers with a connection to UA Dance, past or present; live music, played mostly by musicians with Tucson Symphony Orchestra; and films created by Hancock and Bowman. For this show, one mime, seven dancers and six musicians will take to the stage, and each piece gets its own string quartet.
Now Art.if.Act has added literature to the media mix. At the beginning of each dance, local actor Paul Fisher will read the opening paragraphs of the relevant Poe story. (His narration is recorded.) The language sets the tone of the work. Consider Poe's opening to "The Fall of the House of Usher": "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ..."
Once the performers get going, they'll dance the stories without spoken word. Dancers and musicians alike will be dressed in costumes evoking Poe's era (1809 to 1849).
"The Oval Portrait," choreographed by Hancock, is a "tragic love story," Bowman says. Bryan Wong dances the part of a painter making a portrait of his wife (Hancock). Gradually, he becomes so obsessed with the painting that he all but forgets about the flesh-and-blood woman, with disastrous consequences.
The dance is staged as a tale within a tale, with travelers Bowman and Cory Gramm coming upon the couple's dilapidated chateau many years later. All the dances are amplified, but sparingly, with movie footage on backdrop screens.
"It's mostly graphic animation," Bowman says. "We won't blast the projections all the time. We don't want to overwhelm the dance."
Coleman, composer in residence with the TSO, contributed one of his own musical works for "The Oval Portrait." A piece for two violins, viola and cello, the "music is stunning, beautiful," Bowman says. "His music was perfect for this story."
The quartet musicians will be violinists Carla Ecker, associate concertmaster for the TSO, and Ellen Chamberlain; violist Emma Noel Votapek; and cellist Robert Chamberlain.
Composer Vincent Calianno wrote a new work for "The Fall of the House of Usher," the tale of a deteriorating family made famous by the 1960 Vincent Price movie.
Calianno's "music is like the movie-horror soundtrack," Bowman says. "It's haunting and dissident, like in a silent movie."
Musicians are Benjamin Nisbet—TSO assistant concertmaster and Bowman's husband—and Ecker. (The two violinists serve as music directors for Art.if.Act.) Votapek plays viola, and Anne Gratz is on cello.
"This one was a tricky one; it's a simple story, but complicated to interpret as dance." Bowman directed, but shares choreography credit with Hancock, Gramm and mime Grant Bashore.
A performer with Tucson's Theatrical Mime Theatre, Bashore plays the crazed brother Roderick, who thinks he and his sister Madeline (Bowman) should die in the ruins of the family home. Roderick has summoned a childhood friend (Gramm) to witness the devastation.
"Grant's mime work is the highlight of the piece," Bowman says. "We have mime and dance together."
Clark Hoffman's lighting design conveys the eeriness of the wreck of the family house.
"The house changes all the time. Ghosts move the sets. It looks like things are floating in the house." The piece is so creepy-scary, she jokes, that "you'll need a shot of tequila after."
For "The Tell-Tale Heart" dance, "My husband, Ben, and I knew that the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 was meant to be the music of this story. It's the perfect score."
Marquez Johnson plays a misfit obsessed with an old man with a glass eye (John Dahlstrand, tech director at UA School of Dance). "He thinks the eye is trying to get him. He's so crazy."
Hancock and Bowman dance the troubled man's demons, portraying "his demented mind." Shaun Repetto and Bowman also play a pair of cops who provide a little comic relief by bursting in on the scene. There's a surprise ending typical of Poe, interpreted here with a bit of stagecraft.
The young troupe is "coming along really well" despite the recession, Bowman says. "We have a very low budget. Claire and I save a lot of money by doing things ourselves: We do the film work, the costumes, the website. We're not making any money, but all the dancers and musicians are paid. That's a priority of ours."
Both co-artistic directors are hanging on to their day jobs. Bowman does admin work for Ballet Tucson and designs websites and jewelry, and Hancock teaches dance at Pima Community College and Pilates at a private studio.
"We have so many skills. We bring all that to the table. As long as we can make choreography and music at a high level of creativity, the key to success is putting on low-budget shows," Bowman says.
"We've come a long way since that first concert last year."