Thursday, April 24, 2014
By CHRISTOPHER HYDE
A ballet about Jack the Ripper? After all, it will soon be Halloween, and Nell Shipman, choreographer and associate artistic director of the Portland Ballet Company, was looking for a new and appropriate subject, after the success of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
She rejected vampires, which have been reduced to the level of a TV sitcom, and decided to interpret a real-life mystery that can still send chills up and down the spine.
Shipman is not telling which suspect she chose as Jack -- there are hundreds, ranging from a member of the royal family to a mortuary assistant subject to fits (an FBI profiler's mundane choice) -- and the mystery will most likely never be solved to everyone's satisfaction.
That leaves a wide range to choose from and Shipman has decided on a Romantic figure, cloak, top hat and all, maybe the artist Walter Sickert, although that's only my guess.
Jack remains the same throughout the one-hour ballet. There is no character development except for the final encounter, which takes place in a room, as if murderer and victim were acquainted, The interlude, which I saw at a preview the Wednesday before last, has a distinctly Romantic atmosphere.
"He knows the victim and their meeting is a sweet moment," said Shipman, "until she has to go back on the street as a prostitute, which enrages Jack and leads to the final killing."
The five prostitutes victimized by the Ripper were not given any special choreography to distinguish one from another. "They're all human beings, and their own distinctive dance styles are enough."
The scene previewed on Wednesday was set to the music of Chopin's "Funeral March" from his Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35. Other scenes are danced to Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude (Op. 28, No. 5), the Schubert "Wanderer" Fantasy in C-major, Op. 15; Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, No 14, and the Chopin Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1 in C-Sharp Minor.
All of these well-known piano pieces would have been ubiquitous in the middle-class London parlor of the time and their banality works in favor of the horror, like the duel scene in "The Tales of Hoffman," which takes place to the music of the Barcarolle. They are also eminently danceable.
The ballet "Jack the Ripper" has what might be considered a just, if not happy, ending. After the death of his fifth victim, Jack is haunted by her ghost and those of the others and realizes that will be his fate for eternity.
There is no blood and gore nor excessive violence in the production, but Shipman advises against bringing anyone under 16, simply because of the theme, which remains disturbing in spite of being an example of "Old, unhappy far-off things, and battles long ago."
The preview and other delightful scenes de ballet took place in the Portland Ballet's new performance space, connected to their studios on Forest Avenue, where the final productions of "Jack the Ripper" will be presented on Oct. 19 and 26. The space is intimate, with good acoustics, and comfortable tiered seating that provides a perfect view.
This is the way that ballet should be seen, but capacity is limited, so it would be advisable to get tickets soon at portlandballet.org or 772-9671. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for students under 18.
Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: