Death and beauty, art’s timeless pair, are brought together on the Sottile stage just in time for the spookiest season of the year. Ballet Evolution’s Dance Macabre, choreographed by artistic director Jonathan Tabbert, is divided into three parts, each with its own haunting selection of music and narrative.
The concept of Dance Macabre (or Danse Macabre in the original French) was originally an allegory developed in the Middle Ages before it later evolved into the musical score of the same title composed by Camille Saint-Saëns. The story held that, once a year, Death would revive the deceased from their slumber with the wailings of his fiddle. The myth was meant to convey death as the great equalizer. All beings, no matter their social standing or circumstances in their corporeal life, are subject to the same fate.
Tabbert’s rendition gives tribute to this original concept. At the opening of the performance, 12 beats signal the approach of midnight when Death personified appears. The sound of strings echo throughout the space, and an eruption of dancing spirits appear to answer the call. The resurrected specters twirl across the Sottile stage to Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre, Op. 40.” The score has served as inspiration for numerous animations and performances depicting a night of ghostly revelry before sunrise signals a retreat back to the earth.
An original “whodunnit” story follows in the next component of the performance, a tale Tabbert crafted specifically to pair with a Felix Mendelssohn piano trio. In this portion, a quartet of dancers depict the antics of an affluent local family caught up in a love affair gone horribly wrong. You’ll have to catch the show to see what happens, but Tabbert assures that “shenanigans ensue.”
Dance Macabre concludes with the revival of three of Charleston’s most notorious ghosts: Madame Talvande, who ran a school for girls at the Sword Gates House on 32 Legare; the tragic unrequited love story of Anna Ravenel; and Lavinia Fisher, an infamous accused serial killer and the first woman to be sentenced to death in Charleston for her crimes. Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” serves as the musical backdrop to this chilling ode to Charleston’s dark history.
“It was hard to choose which stories to use. There are so many great ones,” says Tabbert. “We’re steeped in history here. Those really stood out to me, and I felt they paired so well with the musical selection.” Tabbert has worked especially closely with Sandra Nikolajevs, artistic director of Chamber Music Charleston, who helped him narrow down the musical selections for the performance. “We’ve been working together for a few years, she innately knows my loves,” says Tabbert. “She has such a knack for finding things. We go back and forth constantly, and the more we talk and communicate, the more she knows what pulls at me creatively.”
The music was Tabbert’s initial inspiration for the performance, but the dancers sustain this creative energy. He describes Ballet Evolution as an intimate group of artists who embrace camaraderie and freedom of expression. While he provides direction, he allows the dancers to bring their own interpretations to the performance. He’s especially enjoyed watching as the characters develop within the dancers: “There’s nothing like having that person in front of you to bring what you see in your head to life. Figuring out what their strengths are and incorporating that into the choreography for whatever character they’re portraying is so delightful. It really makes my job crazy exciting and very inspiring. The performance wouldn’t be the same without their interpretation,” says Tabbert. “They aren’t just dancers. They’re artists. They take what I give them and make it their own.” A total of eight dancers will take the stage for this performance.
While the show will be spooky, it will be accessible to a diverse audience of many ages and artistic backgrounds. “It’s going to be a really fun show whether you’re a ballet fan or just an art lover,” says Tabbert. “It’s a great program to introduce yourself to ballet. It’s not tutus and tiaras. It’s a lot more than that.” And as a historic theater, the Sottile is an excellent venue for a performance steeped in an appreciation for Charleston’s history. “It’s a nice grand space that still has that Charleston feel and intimacy to it,” says Tabbert. “You get the best of both worlds. Who knows? Maybe we’ll conjure some Sottile spirits while we’re there.”