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The Masque of the Red Death

masque-1A multi-sensory art experience

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

So begins Edgar Allen Poe’s 1842 short story The Masque of the Red Death, the tale of wealthy Prince Prospero’s attempt to stave off a devastating plague by locking himself and one thousand elites in a castle while the pandemic ravages the general population. After months of seclusion the prince hosts a decadent masked ball in an imperial suite comprised of seven colored rooms that range from vivid blue to scarlet, each feeding into the next.  During the course of the party the guests come to realize that the plague has infiltrated their revelry in the form of a skeletal figure, and the entirety of the privileged succumb to the disease in the blood-hued room.

 Jordan Kuspa. Photo courtesy the artist.
Jordan Kuspa.
Photo courtesy the artist.

Clocking in at only a smattering of pages, Masque of the Red Death is short on action but long on exposition, with ample space dedicated to descriptions of the various colored chambers and the growing physical unrest amongst the revelers as the night progresses. A fan of Poe’s work, composer Jordan Kuspa chose this story specifically because it allows room for interpretation, the messages of wealth, disease, and class structures reflecting much of what is happening in contemporary society. “Music works best on an emotional level, and Poe’s story is similarly evocative, focusing on mood, color, and effect. It also seemed to me that while ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is a timeless story, set in some undefined past, it is also a timely story, showing us the deadly consequences of ignoring the real problems that confront us every day,” he says. Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet director Emilie Skinner echoes the sentiment, stating, “Reading Poe’s story, it almost seems like it was written to be a ballet. You have some pretty typical aspects that could apply to many storybook ballets such as the characters; the different rooms all lit with different colors; and of course, all of the dying. What good ballet doesn’t end in death?”

Emilie Skinner. Photo courtesy the artist.
Emilie Skinner.
Photo courtesy the artist.

Having previously worked together, Kuspa and Skinner decided to turn Poe’s tale into a full audio/visual production, enlisting the help of Skinner’s brother, artist Greg Ruppe, and Ruppe’s studio mate and oft collaborator, artist Jeff Gibbons. Bringing the story to the stage proved a natural undertaking for the four principles, as each was already experienced in large-scale, multi-sensory, experimental projects. With Kuspa taking the compositional lead, Skinner developing the choreography, and Ruppe and Gibbons providing the visuals, the production developed organically, each component simultaneously influencing and feeding off the others.

Greg Ruppe. Photo courtesy the artist.
Greg Ruppe.
Photo courtesy the artist.

For Ruppe and Gibbons, serving as artistic coordinators allowed them to expand upon previous forays into filmmaking and create an hour-long movie that serves as a psychological backdrop to the performance. Wanting to make the audience aware of their own relationship to the physical space of the Majestic Theatre, the duo shot much of the film in the actual space, melding images of the maze-like derelict rooms on the upper floor with shots of the stage to create a psychosexual exploration of the dystopian politics of Poe’s story. The overall effect a pushing-and-pulling with the music and choreography.“Since a ballet dancer’s usual mode is often to move gracefully across expansive space, we were interested in constricting that space in various ways. We wanted to make it a bit hard for them and use the resulting actions to further a sort of claustrophobia inherent to the story,” says Gibbons.

Jeff Gibbons. Photo courtesy the artist.
Jeff Gibbons.
Photo courtesy the artist.

All four agree that the collaboration was a success, and the final product will be one that has a dynamic impact in the Dallas art community. Says Skinner, “We hope to leave a lasting impression on our audience and show them that ballet is – for lack of a better word – pretty badass.”

See The Masque of the Red Death this Thursday, April 7, at Dallas’ Majestic Theatre. Tickets are available online at dallasneo-classicalballet.com.

—DANIELLE AVRAM