Choreographer Nell Shipman believes that “the human spirit wakes up a little” around the time of Halloween. Inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, whose work often suggests that being awake is not always a pleasant thing, Shipman decided to begin the Portland Ballet’s season on a haunting note with her “Three Tales By Poe.”

Both ballet, as we know it today, and the writings of Poe are deeply rooted in the darker themes of 19th-century Romanticism, where ideas of beauty and strangeness became somehow intertwined. Shipman has captured that connection well, combining refined movement with terrifying tales to create an engrossing program of dance.

The pieces which bookends the production combine two of Poe’s better-known tales, with movement that traverses the gap between en pointe ballet and expressive modern dance.

“The Tell Tale Heart” is set to strident chamber music by Dimitri Shostakovich and features Kaitlyn Hayes as the Narrator and Jennifer Jones as the Old Man, antagonists in a story of obsession and guilt that can still bring a chill. Dressed in modern, sort of Star Trek-ish costumes, the two circle each other as the action intensifies. Amelia Bielen and Deborah Grammatic enter, dressed in red, as the personification of the thumping heartbeat on the soundtrack. In white costumes, Morgan Brown Sanborn, Erica Diesl, Annie Moore and Kaleigh Natale arrive, after the Narrator has fatally attacked the Old Man, and engage in some tight unison work that conveys their roles as Investigators.

In this and later pieces, hand and arm movements play a key role in choreographer Shipman’s portrayal of madness, breaking the rhythm of the pieces in an unsettling manner that gets at the palpable unease within Poe’s prose.

“Masque of the Red Death” is given the grandest production, with ten dancers in costumes by Amy Baxter that imaginatively elaborate on their roles performing to ominous pulses of music by Philip Glass.

As they hope to avoid the red death, the white-wigged prince and nobles move in increasingly frantic ways as Apparitions of Death menace their revelry. Erica Diesl as the Masked Stranger, dressed in black, rises to prominence among the hanging colored curtains that define the space. Her solo, both very graceful in its line and appropriately bizarre in its angular expressiveness, was a brief but riveting highlight on Friday night.

Sandwiched between the two larger-cast and larger-themed works was a three-performer take on Poe’s lesser-known “Berenice.” Shipman gave this very creepy story of love between a strangely distracted man, played by James Kramlich, and a woman split into two characters, a decidedly more formal feel.

Performed to somber music by Camille Saint Saens, this piece, though burdened with a too-literal conclusion, fit both the intimate performance space and the romantic ideal of exploring depths of emotion well. The long-skirted female dancers, Kelsey Harrison, in white, and Eliana Trenam, in black, contributed a graceful lyricism that made their fate seem doubly poignant.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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