Choreographer embraces drama of Poe, dance of ‘Madness’
Published: Sunday, September 26, 2010, 12:00 AM
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer
Christopher Fleming was 17 when he joined New York City Ballet. Two years later, he choreographed his first work, set to Poulenc’s Sextet, and showed a filmed portion to George Balanchine, the legendary founder of City Ballet.
“Mr. B was actually very helpful,” Fleming said recently between sips of Frappuccino. “He liked that I was a little entrepreneurial – that I didn’t just want to dance, but also choreograph.”
Fleming, a City Ballet dancer for nine years, has spent most of his career being entrepreneurial. He has devised pieces for companies throughout North and South America, including Ohio Ballet and Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels. Last year, he created “The Myth and the Madness of Edgar Allan Poe” for Dayton Ballet.
The genial New Yorker was in town several weeks ago to set his Poe work on Verb Ballets, Cleveland’s national repertory company, which will give the local premiere Friday at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts on a program with new works by Diane Gray and Terence Greene.
Fleming, 49, is a veteran creator of abstract and story ballets. In the latter category, he has choreographed everything from “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet” to “Dracula” and the Poe ballet, for which he wrote the narrative.
The piece traces Poe’s life and descent into insanity through dreamlike encounters with people he loved, including some he incorporated into his mysterious poems and stories. “The Raven” plays a prominent role as danced in the Verb production by new company member Stephanie Krise.
Poe’s mother, wife and surrogate father make appearances, as does the character of Annabel Lee. By the end, Poe — whose death at 40 in Baltimore in 1849 remains a mystery — has become one of the ravens that pervade the ballet.
Fleming immersed himself in Poe lore after he was commissioned by Dayton Ballet. He read a biography and listened to recordings from the Smithsonian Institution featuring Peter Lorre and Bela Lugosi acting out Poe characters. The ballet is set to music by Bizet, Schubert and American composer (and physician) David Goldstein.
The choreographer almost created a ballet about another iconic American writer, Walt Whitman, but it was canceled.
“When Poe came up, I said, ‘I’ve got to,’ ” Fleming said. “For me, Whitman and Poe are it. Like Washington and Jefferson, they’re our founders.”
As one in a long line of Flemings in the business — his father was a dancer and film director; his daughter is on full scholarship at the Ailey School in New York — the choreographer gravitates to projects in which theater and dance intertwine.
Fleming worked closely with two masters of these arts, Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, while at City Ballet. From Robbins, he learned about realistic gestures, which he’s using in the Poe ballet rather than the more traditional mime.
“Before we could speak, we communicated as people,” Fleming said.
He plans to incorporate the technique into another work with Verb, a dance version of the Who’s rock opera, “Tommy.” The piece, part of the company’s year of stories during the 2011-12 season, will be a collaboration with BalletFleming, which the choreographer is putting together in Philadelphia.
Margaret Carlson, director of Verb, invited Fleming to choreograph “Tommy” after watching him work with the troupe’s dancers on the 50-minute Poe ballet.
“What I love about this piece is that it’s making them work in a very different way,” said Carlson. “This is a full-company piece where they have to think, ‘I’m a particular character that I have to create onstage.’ It’s the longest piece we’ve ever done.”
On Friday’s program, the Fleming work will share the stage with Greene’s “Reflections of. . . ,” a duet for the choreographer and Michael Medcalf, and Gray’s “Cleveland Flats Symphony,” which has music by Richard Rinehart, whose day job is manager of computational sciences for DB Consultant Group at NASA Glenn Research Center. Verb performed an excerpt from Gray’s piece last spring at Cleveland Public Theatre (it can been seen at tinyurl.com/3y4bd4q). The work has video projections of scenes of the Flats by Jay Horowitz, a NASA associate, and a score that celebrates Cleveland.
“There’s a lot of great pieces in the world that exist for different cities or entities,” said Rinehart. “Even the solar system has [Holst’s] ‘The Planets.’ “What I really wanted was a piece that Clevelanders could wrap their arms around and call their own. The Flats is such a unique, underrealized asset.”
What: Cleveland’s national repertory company gives the world premieres of Diane Gray’s “Cleveland Flats Symphony” and Terence Greene’s “Reflections of. . . ” and the local premiere of Christopher Fleming’s “Myth and the Madness of Edgar Allan Poe.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Breen Center for the Performing Arts, St. Ignatius High School, 2008 West 30th St., Cleveland.
Tickets: $10-$28. Go to verbballets.org or call 216-397-3757.