October 20, 2013

Review: Portland Ballet dances ‘Jack the Ripper’ to perfection

This adults-only piece of Halloween horror is stunning.

By Christopher Hyde

I told you so. The intimate venue of the Portland Ballet Company’s new Studio Theater was sold out for Saturday night’s world premiere of “Jack the Ripper,” and apparently next Saturday’s is too. Maybe there will be a few returns. Or maybe the company will make it a perpetual feature, like the Grand Guignol of Paris.

Nell Shipman’s choreography for this adults-only piece of Halloween horror is stunning, with the lighting and costumes adding significantly to the magical effect. Shipman maintains that she has never seen the work of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. If so, she must be channeling his paintings of enigmatic and sensual women surrounded by indifferent men in bowler hats.

Jack’s two shadows, danced to perfection by Eliana Trenam and Kaleigh Natale, could have served as Delvaux’s models, except that they are too elegantly trim.

The ballet, which lasts approximately one hour, is in five parts, four dealing with murders of London streetwalkers in 1888, and a finale in which Jack receives his just deserts from the spirits of the slain.

The opening and closing scenes are danced to the music of Chopin’s “Funeral March” from the Piano Sonata No. 2. The others are to well-known piano music, which takes on unanticipated drama from the context.

Each scene deals with a specific victim – on one night there were two – and each is highly individualized, in costume, dance steps and seductive style. In the slums of Victorian London, any of the girls would have traded a date with Prince Albert for such sumptuous working clothes.

The final victim, Mary Anne Kelly, danced by Jennifer Jones, is clad in white, reminiscent of a wedding gown and sexier by far than all the red dresses worn by her sisters. Her scene with Jack, which takes place indoors, is longer and more psychologically detailed than the others, revealing Shipman’s well-founded opinion of the culprit’s identity.

The staging of the murders is highly intense without being graphic, taking place under strobe lighting that captures each stage of dramatic and powerful lifts by Joseph Jefferies as Jack.

Jefferies is also excellent in his depiction of Jack’s moods, by turns sinister, passionate, enraged and remorseful. He also shows a certain ironic tenderness, especially in the scene with Kelly.

On stage during much of the action are five detectives, Bobbies in bowler hats, trying to solve the crimes by putting themselves in the place of the victims.

Without reading the program, I thought the male figures were johns, while my wife identified them as pimps. I thought at first that they should have been more recognizable, perhaps with a badge or some other insignia, but then appreciated Shipman’s subtlety. Blatant realism would have detracted from the spiritual quality of what the detectives were trying to do: identify with the victims.

The conclusion, in which the spirits of the dead torment Jack with their shrouds, is strangely satisfying, in the realization that crime always carries with it its own punishment.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.
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