Unhappily ever after

“I’m just a coat rack,” says local dramatist Holiday Childress, best known for fronting carnival-rock band The Goodies.

Choked on a peach? Terpsicorps dancer Sadie Harris embodies the haunting, waifish look you want in an Edward Gorey character. Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Make that “a moving coat rack that sings falsetto, a place for talented people to gather.” This is how Childress describes his most recent turn, playing the late illustrator Edward Gorey.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In The Many Deaths of Edward Gorey & other works, the latest production by Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance, morbidly quirky illustrator Gorey—represented by Childress in floor-length faux fur—chases down a demise worthy of the man who imagined the 26 gruesome ends depicted in the Gashlycrumb Tinies (“E is for Ernest who choked on a peach. F is for Fanny sucked dry by a leech”, etc.).

Curiously, Gorey himself, after a lifetime of cataloguing the horrors suffered by countless fictional beings, succumbed in the most pedestrian of ways. “Edward Gorey died at a Cape Cod, Mass., hospital Saturday after suffering a heart attack earlier in the week. He was 75,” reported online magazine Salon in 2000.

Terpsicorps director Heather Maloy asserts: “He’d have hated that.” And so she set about creating a more suitable finale.

Paint it black

Gorey-ism #1: Despite a style representative of Victorian or Edwardian periods (see the Gorey-created cartoon intro to PBS series Mystery), Edward Gorey lived from 1925 to 2000.

Terpsicorps, now in its fifth season, doesn’t shy away from the morose. Maloy calls last year’s production of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter “the greatest accomplishment of my life thus far.” In 2005, the company staged Masque of the Red Death. Terpsicorps’ Alice (not as morbid, thematically, but no less edgy) in 2004 proved the dance company had found its groove.

Not so very unlike the precocious girl who fell down the rabbit hole, Gorey seems a perfect choice for Terpsicorps: a cult figure shrouded in mystery and inextricably tied to the arts.

But capturing the essence of Gorey was another story. The artist lived his life in seclusion, never having children or marrying, or even having a significant other to later publish a tell-all memoir.

“I’ve talked about doing an Edward Gorey piece for a while,” says Maloy. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do. His stories are so bizarrely abstract that sticking to just one wouldn’t work.”

Gorey’s books include The Unstrung Harp, The Fatal Lozenge and The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas. However, he’s best known for his work as an illustrator, contributing to Cricket magazine, author Florence Parry Heide’s Treehorn trilogy and, more famously, to editions of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Taking a cue from Gorey himself, Maloy turned her dance into a collaboration. She first approached composer Evan Bivins (formerly of Jump, Little Children), explaining, “We were both on the same page from the beginning, wanting it not to be just about [Gorey], but about how his characters were different aspects of him.”

Waifing away

Gorey-ism #2: The artist was obsessed with both opera and ballet, attending nearly every performance of the New York City Ballet for a 17-year period—including ubiquitous holiday Nutcracker shows.

The artist’s 1973 book The Lavender Leotard bore the subtitle Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet, a fact Maloy attributes in part to Gorey’s obsession with certain dancers. Ballerina Allegra Kent figures into that equation, as does Patricia McBride—who, with her husband Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, went on to direct the North Carolina Dance Theatre where Maloy soloed for 13 years.

“Gorey draws his characters like [George] Balanchine ballerinas,” Maloy points out. The former New York City Ballet choreographer was credited by some with creating the expectation that ballerinas be boney.

“Half-dead waifs,” Maloy pronounces. She allows that Terpsicorps dancer Sadie Harris looks much like a Gorey character (not exactly half-dead, but definitely petite of frame and haunting of feature).

Some of Gorey’s lush trappings—his floor-length, faux-fur coat and Grizzly Adams beard—don’t exactly click with the image of wispy, self-denying dancers. But Maloy says Gorey probably related to the Gothic intensity of the classical-ballet world. The black-clad instructor wielding a stick, the manic obsession with form: Both would appeal to a social ascetic who shunned hobnobbing and romance.

And, returning the favor, the dancers of Terpsicorps can relate to Gorey’s eccentricities, his visions and his love of the dark side.

“We were influenced by an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Maloy confesses. Buffy was another of Gorey’s obsessions, so the Terpsicorps choreographer lifted characteristics from a pair of the TV show’s characters.

But as far as actual story line, that’s as elusive as Gorey’s own biographical details. The show’s title, The Many Deaths … , came about from Maloy’s own research into the illustrator’s demise. Deciding that Gorey would never have stood for expiring from a heart attack (after all, in his pornographic classic The Curious Sofa, he executed the line, “Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan”), Maloy crafted the opportunity for Gorey, or rather his specter, to pursue a worthy end.

The final curtain

Gorey-ism #3: Though many fans presume Gorey was a Brit, he was in fact born in Chicago. Though his stories feature otherworldly places, he rarely traveled. And though many of his books are illustration-heavy and feature child characters, he wasn’t fond of kids.

The personification of Gorey on stage is a bit of a triumphant return for the artist. Such was his flair for the dramatic that in 1977 Gorey won a Tony for Best Costume Design in the Broadway production of Dracula.

Childress claims the role is a natural one for him. “The Goodies have been doing that sort of thing for a while,” he says of theatrical productions. While his part doesn’t involve dancing, it does rely on another of Childress’ talents: an eerie falsetto sort of singing style. Not lyrics, per se: Call it ambient noise.

Local portrait artist Ben Betsalel also takes part in Terpsicorps’ production (though not in the Gorey-related movement). He was with Maloy when she first suggested Childress. Everyone agreed it was a perfect match—Maloy goes so far as to suggest that the dance was partly created for him.

The importance of collaborations may well be a page borrowed from Gorey. While he wasn’t much for the networking of cocktail parties, he partnered professionally with Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett, English writer Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, and Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark, among others. Similarly, Many Deaths, along with an original score, features dancers from Asheville and Charleston.

That spirit of collaboration continues with the “other works” mentioned in the production’s title. The AS-IS Ensemble dances while Betsalel contributes live painting to the newly choreographed “Work in Progress,” the evening’s second original offering.

Delivering a departure from the tight lines of Gorey’s sketches, Betsalel describes his work as “gestural.”

“Mine’s a lot of flying paint—movement oriented,” he explains. “A dancer makes a kick, there’s a splash of paint.” He’ll work, in a projection booth, on paper through which the paint bleeds. The images will then be projected, in real time, from the negative side of the paper onto a screen behind the dancers.

Perhaps the eeriest (and therefore most Gorey-esque) aspect of the collaborative works is how they all fell together. Just recently, both Betsalel and Maloy relocated their respective studios to Wedge Gallery in the River District.

A coincidence? Perhaps.

“It’s weird how this town is so small and so many people are doing artistic things,” Childress observes. Meaning one doesn’t necessarily have to seek out creative partners.

“You just wait until you see them on the street,” he says.

Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance performs The Many Deaths of Edward Gorey and other works at Diana Wortham Theatre Thursday, June 21, through Saturday, June 23. 8 p.m. $28/general, $25/students and seniors. 257-4530.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “Unhappily ever after

  1. youbettie

    First off, I wanted to say that the dancers and musicians did a wonderful job on the entire show…that being said; I felt a little misled as to what the show would entail.

    After reading this article, I was really excited and expecting the Gorey piece to be the main meat of the show. Instead, it was only around 20-25 minutes long with the “other works” taking up 2/3rds of the evening’s performance.

    I am not saying that I did not enjoy the night, but rather had the feeling as if I had just sat down to Thanksgiving dinner and somehow managed to leave the table still hungry.

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