Thought you all might enjoy an article that was written in “The Chronicle for higher Education” about my ballet “The Myth and the Madness of Edgar Allan Poe”.
Christopher Fleming/The Traveling Ballet Master.
An Unkindness of Ravens
On a Saturday evening in early October, an unkindness settled upon Goucher’s campus. No, it was not the descent of parents and siblings upon the campus for the weekend, but rather the performance of a group of ravens (also known as an unkindness) in faculty member, Christopher Fleming’s ballet, the Myth and the Madness of Edgar Allan Poe. It was an experiment of sorts, as professionals, from Fleming’s new company, BalletFleming, danced the principal roles but the corps de ballet roles went to Goucher students. This mixing of students and professionals is something new for the department, but it afforded some of us the opportunity to glimpse into what is hopefully our future.
Even though seeing how professional dancers interact with each other and the choreographer, for Goucher dancers, it was interesting to see Fleming wear the hat of the choreographer instead of teacher as well. Therefore, I took some time to ask him a few questions about his inspiration and preparation for a ballet that is based on the complicated and tragic life of Edgar Allan Poe. It was actually originally a commissioned work for Dayton Ballet that Fleming has adapted for both Goucher and now Verb Ballets in Cleveland, Ohio. He began by studying Poe and trying to draw out underlying themes in his life in order to create an understandable visual narrative, since “ballet is a non-verbal art form.” Through the course of his research, Fleming found that the raven was an important symbol for Poe. Thus, Fleming decided to create the role of a head raven that was to have a corps de ballet of ravens. The corps de ballet is a French term, meaning the body of the ballet, which works as a backdrop for the principal dancers. I pointed out to Fleming that the term “unkindness” seems particularly fitting since the head, with the help of her corps, antagonize Poe throughout the ballet; “they won’t allow him to have love,” says Fleming.
Next, he drew out four significant figures from Poe’s life that were to become the principals: his mother, his adoptive father, his wife and his love in literature. An interesting feature of Poe’s work is that he used important people in his life as inspiration for his short stories and poems; for example, the Pit and the Pendulum (mother) and The Telltale Heart (John Allan) are two short stories that have clear links to his relationships with these people. Fleming was able to use these stories as inspiration for the pas de deuxs (duets) that occur through the first act between each of the characters and Poe; during this, the ravens play the underlying current that drives the two apart in each scene.
As the restaging of the ballet was occurring, Fleming decided to add another principal dancer- the character of Death. He got his inspiration for this character from another one of Poe’s stories, The Mask of the Red Death. In the story, the people are frightened by the possibility of dying from consumption (today known as tuberculosis) and so the rich shut themselves away in their houses. When the plague has passed, they throw a ball in celebration: however, in a macabre twist of fate, the last guest to arrive is Death, who then claims the rest of his victims. Fleming used this story to help the second act of the ballet unfold.
As an understudy, and from my interview, I was able to hear about these connections and understand where certain parts of the ballet were coming from, as I watched the staging unfold. However, I believe the ballet is abstracted to the point that an audience member seeing it for the first time will get the emotion, but possibly not all the literary references unless he or she is an avid Poe enthusiast. In the end, ballets are about conveying an emotion and Fleming succeeds in this task through his exploration and abstract retelling of Poe’s life.