I've always read Edgar Allan Poe with unabashed envy, his chilling words so slippery in my mouth that I think of silverfish. His opening to "The Masque of the Red Death" is quintessential: "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." You can just taste it.
So when UCI's dance department pays homage to the master of the macabre, it conjures a satisfyingly impenetrable premiere work as gloomy as drawing first blood.
The Dance Visions version of "The Masque of the Red Death" tells the story of Prince Prospero's orgy while the plague rages—and would probably sate Poe's taste for the bizarre and perverse. Dance legend Donald McKayle directs the saga of Prospero, a delusional man who cocoons himself in luxury and wanders seven chambers filled with bizarre entertainers and guests at a Masque Ball in his palace. "We've got a tattooed lady, a snake lady, a woman who has a bridle and rides a man," he says. They also have ballerinas, Peking Opera dancers and an Indian "voluptuary." When a specter approaches Prince Prospero, the Prince tries to kill the unwelcome guest—who is clad in a costume that looks a lot like "Death" in The Seventh Seal—but instead the Prince dies and the assassin's robe melts to the ground, "untenanted by any tangible form," as McKayle likes to say, quoting Poe.
Dance today seems headed for a place filled with pyrotechnics and mixed media, but the multimedia departments at UCI easily sow the entire production with homegrown talent. The full orchestra plays Alan Terricciano's twinkly score, UCI professor Robin Buck sings the baritone role of Prince Prospero, and 42 dancers gyrate in each colored chamber—displaying everything from ballet to Indian dance.
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Layered upon the 30 minutes of music and movement is video shot by John Crawford and blended by resident expert Lisa Naugle. "As he twirls, then you see the step that's twirling," McKayle says, describing it. "Rotary, then the face of Prince Prospero laughing, and [the frame] keeps going narrower and narrower until you just see his larynx bouncing up and down."
Choreography is a joint effort with Michel Gervais producing the Blue and the Green section, Naugle the Purple section, and McKayle the White, Black and Orange sections.
And as I watch one late-night rehearsal—the baritone singing along to a tape of himself in full voice, two dancers writhing next to him, one murine and one feline—I can't help but marvel at what Poe's trippy, halting prose has inspired. Terricciano, who stands next to me watching McKayle and his triumvirate, says he's read a book about Poe that attributed his oddness to a brain tumor. But densely layered creations like this make him seem like someone who dabbled in the dark side—until, somehow, he found himself mired in it.
UCI DANCE VISIONS 2006: THE MASQUE OF RED DEATH, NEW SLEEP, I'VE KNOWN RIVERS AND EXTREME MEMORY, IRVINE BARCLAY THEATER, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646; WWW.THEBARCLAY.ORG. THURS.-FRI., FEB. 9-10, 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. $9-$15.