James Sewell Ballet proves that the dead can dance -- sometimes with the living -- in a decidedly dark show just in time for Halloween. "Dance Macabre," which opened Friday night at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis, delves into lethal impulses, ghostly encounters and the pending zombie apocalypse with morbid wit. But while the premiere of "Takes on Poe" won't have you crying out "Nevermore!" it does pack in too many tales from the famed Gothic writer's collection.
The work starts out promisingly with "The Raven" set to a recorded reading of the iconic poem by underground rocker Lou Reed. Choreographer Sewell plays with shadow and uses the rhythms of the ornate wordplay to drive the movement. "The Cask of Amontillado" gives Nicky Coelho and Eve Schulte a juicy revenge plot to slash through. Nic Lincoln and Leah Gallas infuse "Annabel Lee" with the lingering despair of doomed lovers. And Sally Rousse appears throughout as Poe's murderous bird, wreaking havoc in pointe shoes and wearing a trench coat seemingly nicked from "The Matrix."
But the work stumbles in the final two sections inspired by "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Bells," perhaps because any of the Poe sources could become stand-alone dance works, given their rich imagery and melancholic themes. It races through the former (although the use of animation by Elsie Ibis for the dismemberment scene is a clever touch) and then loses focus with the latter, failing to fully key into the creeping insanity Poe evokes in his poem about unchecked grief.
Speaking of loss, the program also features the "Giselle Pas de Deux" with choreography restaged by Sewell after Marius Petipa. Gallas is the heroine who dies of a broken heart. Love interest Albrecht (Lincoln) visits her spirit in the graveyard. While the duo interprets the work ably enough, each performer is tentative in approach, dancing more with the head than the heart. Rousse and Cory Goei will assume the roles for some shows.
2011's "Grave Matters" closes the program, and it remains a gory gem. I'm not sure if Sewell is the first or only choreographer to make a zombie ballet, but it surely ranks among the best. His dancers lurch, twitch and toss off "Thriller" references with undead charm in their quest for brains. Rousse shines as their unwitting, still-alive dance partner -- and lunch.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.