Masqued marvel

“Goths and comic-book fans are not your normal targeted market, but everyone should know and love dance,” says Heather Maloy, artistic director of Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance. Her troupe’s latest offering, a balletic interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, promises to lure just that audience via animated projections, horror elements and bondage gear.

A dark night in Goth(am) City

animation by Eric Knisely
Not a sugar-plum fairy in the mix: Turning Masque of the Red Death into contemporary ballet required cutting-edge (and expensive) animation techniques.

photo by Jeff Cravotta

“I was one of the first people out to see Batman,” Maloy admits. The dancer and choreographer is no stranger to the current trend toward turning comics and graphic novels into film — using real-life characters. Batman Begins and Fantastic Four are only the latest on a long list, including the Spiderman series, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (culled from a video game) and even 1999’s indie sleeper hit Run, Lola, Run, in which the flesh-and-blood heroine is paired with a cartoon double.

“The show will be contemporary ballet, but the dance will be an experience in the way a good Batman movie is,” Maloy explains. Masque‘s backdrops will show cartoon images that interact with the story, “almost like Who Framed Roger Rabbit [in which live actors shared the screen and the script with animated characters] — but Goth and live.”

Poe’s tale tells of a group of privileged elite who lock themselves into a castle, planning to party down while a vicious plague consumes the rest of the country. It’s Gothic already — courtesans, touretted rooms, a ghastly disease sweeping the land. But Maloy chose to recreate that effect not in 12th-century finery, but using postmodern garb with an S&M flair, much like that worn by the Caped Crusader himself.

“The Prince [in Masque] wears red vinyl pants with a fishnet shirt,” says Maloy, further revealing that the dance’s costume concepts were inspired, in part, by the Goth shops of Montreal. Leather, whips, high-spiked hair — and not a sugar-plum fairy in the mix.

Anatomy of a cartoon

Though Maloy has used projections before (in last year’s Alice, for example), the level and interaction of the animation in Red Death is all new. Enter Durham-based graphic artist Eric Knisely.

“The main hurdle to get over is the audience’s resistance to animation … its pigeonholing of animation as a kids’ medium,” says Knisely.

Well, to begin with, it’s a lot more complex than a flip-book — or even the disturbingly hilarious cartoons on Knisely’s own Web site ( “I am producing animation in snippets to be triggered as needed during the show,” the artist explains. “I tried to visualize how a particular piece of animation would look on screen, given the action at that point.”

The technique is more common than some audiences may know. This isn’t the first time Knisely has combined animation with live performance for a local production — his work was part of The Anatomy of Melancholy, a feature-length puppet show for adults that debuted in Asheville two years ago.

“I also did an extensive 11-minute animation used as a rear projection, for a night of Zen Koan performance at Princeton last December,” he notes.

But, though Knisely gives the impression he could craft a Jessica Rabbit for any occasion, he’s quick to point out that for the drama-plus-animation combo to work, a good story must come first.

“The more successful comic-to-screen adaptations have all had solid stories, and are about something more than just some guy in a cape,” he maintains. “The same principle applies to any good novel.

“As it happens, Poe’s story is very well-suited to the larger-than-life treatment it’s getting in the dance piece — it’s big, melodramatic, very visual, and quite lurid.”

Blood and bucks

Maloy agrees Masque has that certain something that lends itself to a dramatic mixed-media treatment. “I’d never want to do projection work just to do projection work,” she says. “But when I found this story, it seemed perfect for it.

“There’s something about the story that hit me as being visual.”

Masque does, after all, revolve around a sumptuous masked ball. Music, dance: It’s all there. Oh, and rivers of blood — got that, too.

“The other exciting outside element is the original [musical] composition by Michael Bellar,” the director says. It was Bellar’s score for Masque, commissioned by the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation, that brought Terpsicorps some of the much-needed funding to pull off this weighty undertaking. (“We might have to take a break from big production pieces, because it’s a major financial strain for us,” Maloy admits, though it’s hard to imagine Terpsicorps stepping back from the cutting-edge standard the company has set in its three seasons.)

Bellar, a North Carolina native, can boast current work on a score for an Off Broadway production about the life of Charles Bukowski.

But that’s another horror story.

As the screw turns

“I have chosen to make our two performances this year focus on two words that few people would associate with dance: humor and horror,” Heather Maloy wrote on her company’s Web site at the beginning of the summer. So, Terpsicorps’ June shows were rib-ticklers.

But now the fun and games are over and it’s time for some gore.

That said, the August show opener — Salvatore Aiello’s adaptation of Henry James’ sexually undertoned The Turn of the Screw — is less about blood and guts, and more about psychological terror. This is the story of a young governess who watches her child charges go insane. But, as issues of sanity tend to do, the tale gradually and ominously questions who’s really losing it.

Turn of the Screw was the only other horror piece I’ve done,” says Maloy — who also performed in a North Carolina Dance Theatre production of Dracula, which she wasn’t interested in repeating. However, in an effort to keep alive the choreography of the late Aiello, Maloy chose Screw as a natural — if not comforting — companion to Masque.

Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance performs The Turn of the Screw and Masque of the Red Death at Diana Wortham Theatre Thursday, Aug. 11 through Saturday, Aug. 13. Performances are at 8 p.m. nightly; tickets run $25/general, $22/seniors and students. For reservations or for more information, call 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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