Rooted in ballet tradition, Lisa Starry's “A Vampire Tale” infects the Valley with a contemporary take on narrative ensemble work. But the heteronormativity is stuck in the past.
A 14-year Valley dance tradition, Lisa Starry's “A Vampire Tale”, promises narrative drama and virtuosic dance and aerial work in a story-based production that has been referred to as the “'Nutcracker' of Halloween”. Performed by locally based contemporary dance company, Scorpius Dance Theatre, “A Vampire Tale” presents a plot that incorporates tropes that reflect themes prevalent in the famous ballets that dominate public perception of what concert dance has to offer. To me, this reads as a contributing factor to the show's widespread and long-term popularity among audiences. The combination of the clear story line, recognizable motifs, and impressive acrobatic feats creates a comfortable and entertaining performance that can reach populations with varying levels of experience in dance and art.
While I was preparing to see the show, my girlfriend reminded me of the Sapphic undertones of many fictional and folkloric vampire tales. The bodily lust, forbidden desire, and the threat of the spread of such a socially destructive (as defined by dominant society) thirst are tropes found within the vampire genre that can be identified as representative of fears that continue to surround lesbianism. While queerness is broadly vilified by hetero-supremacy for being a threat to stable society, exemplified by anti-queer rhetoric invoking the “think of the children” and “attack on religious freedom” arguments as examples, romantic and sexual relationships between two women are specifically feared because of their inherent rejection of the patriarchal norms of attraction and desire. I watched “A Vampire Tale” with that specific context in mind in order to construct a lens through which to view and analyze the work. This way I was able to reflect upon what I saw and how the content of the show either upholds or challenges the patriarchal, heteronormative social constructs it can be related to.
Eve (Martha Hernandez), acts as the story's angelic and beautiful damsel in distress, referred to as the Innocent, who is led into a world of taboo desire and inhuman power by Strange Man (Louis Farber), the show's narrator/host figure. Hernandez plays the role of Eve with a level of emotional commitment that convinces me of her feelings of both horror and wonder towards the world of the undead. Clothed in a simple white dress throughout the show and a black cardigan that is removed upon her entrance into the vampires' lair, she embodies the typical sympathetic naivete of female protagonists in narratives found in classical ballets. Eve moves through the production's set with curiosity at first, and later fear, all while she shows off the clean, elegant lines of her body as she extends and contorts her limbs, both in the silks and on the stage.
The Vampiric royal family is comprised of two fearsome lovers. Queen Lilith (Nicole Olson) leads the vampires through ritualized ceremony and indulgent celebration as Eve's innocence is slowly eroded by the clan's collective attempted seduction. Olson's character demands fear and admiration from her clan of followers as she stalks around the stage, using nothing but her body language and facial expressions to communicate her expectations for behavior within the clan. Her stage persona is characterized by dominating, explosive movement and a regal, commanding presence that sets her apart from the other vampires. While the Queen is composed and in control of her clan, around Eve, Queen Lilith appears violent and frantic in her attempts to control her desire for Eve's blood. The Queen's initial pursuit of Eve almost results in her biting into the Innocent's neck before she is interrupted by her royal counterpart, King Viktor (Gavin Sisson).
Contrasting the Queen's rabid attraction to the blood of the Innocent, Sisson's character is presented as
more thoughtful and gentle in his actions of pursuit. Though still appearing frustrated and tormented in facing the taboo temptation, King Viktor's interactions with Eve can be described more like romantic gestures compared to the impulsive and threatening movements of the Queen. Duets between Hernandez and the Sisson provide momentary softness to the show, breaking from the thematic sexually charged ferocity. The choreography between the two dancers is tender, with the King often caressing Eve in ways that foreshadow the irreversible action of biting the neck. While the movement that makes use of the stage floor space is enticing in it's emotional and narrative expressiveness, the aerial work the two dancers perform stands out as uniquely captivating . I sat completely awe-struck watching the King and Eve wrap themselves up intimately in the same silk and perform gravity-defying acrobatic maneuvers. A growing romantic connection is established between the King and Eve each time the two of them dance. Ultimately, despite facing jealous anger from Queen Lilith, Eve and the King succumb to their mutual attraction and the King bites into Eve's neck, beginning her transformation into another member of the vampire clan.
While watching the show portray Queen Lilith as a more aggressive and violent pursuer of Eve compared to King Viktor's gentle tenderness, I couldn't help but see the reinforcement of heteronormativity in that choice. When the Queen was depicted as thirsting for Eve's blood, it was predatory and threatening, but the King's expression of his desire for the Innocent was framed as passionate and romantic. This contributes to a societal narrative that elevates heterosexual romantic partnerships as the only acceptable form of attraction while stigmatizing the notion of a woman desiring another woman as dangerous and violent. It would have been both powerful and innovative to see a positive, mutual romantic relationship, like the one observed between Eve and King Viktor, between the two main female characters. In addition to being contextually relevant based on the prevalence of lesbian themes in the vampire genre, it would have shown me a willingness to progress the portrayal of gender, desire, and sexuality beyond the rules of traditional dance that continue to exclude the narratives of those that exist outside the hetero-norm.
I noticed throughout the performance a strict gendering of the show's choreography. The cast of male performers exclusively partnered with the female performers and there were many movements that split the cast into a pattern of the men and women dancing in separated groups. Although I was impressed by the physical difficulty and rigor required by the dancers to accomplish lifts and partner work that stunned the audience, I was disappointed to see that the choreography was structured in a way that enforced the roles of the man as the supporting, strong partner and the woman as the showy, lifted partner. While I was not surprised because the majority of concert dance performances I have seen follow the same rigid gender roles, I specifically question the necessity of enacting such a binary in the context of this show. The Strange Man emphasized in the beginning the close, practically familial, bonds that bind the clan of vampires. Considering that each vampire is intimately connected and transformed into a powerful, supernatural being by the blood of Queen Lilith, like Strange Man says in his narration, the splitting of vampires stringently along gender lines and assigning them only heterosexual partnerships seems unnecessary and rooted more in the long-standing traditions of concert dance than in the context of the production. The cult-like separation of the vampires from humans is an interesting, immersive aspect of the show that could have been further expressed through the rejection of socially constructed gender roles that structure 'normal', human society and I found myself craving choreographic choices that would demonstrate to me the truly supernatural and inhuman nature of the vampire clan.
“A Vampire Tale” is a show that offers unbelievable acrobatic choreography and an engaging, accessible story line and the production quality demonstrates a high level of skill and experience in producing evening length dance works. Despite my critiques of the plot's traditional relationship portrayals and the choreography's structural reinforcement of the gender binary, the passion and virtuosic talent I saw in the show were undeniable. Scorpius Dance Theatre's yearly production invites community members into the realm of concert dance and provides them with a show that delivers an experience sure to excite and entertain. I look forward to the future of this show and what it will continue to offer the Valley art scene while personally hoping for an evolution in the way the work chooses to perform and construct gender.
Dienae Hunter is a recent graduate from Arizona State University where they earned a Bachelor of Fine Art in Dance from the Herberger Institute's School of Film, Dance, and Theatre and a Bachelor of Art in Earth/Environmental Studies from the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Dienae is excited about dance and its potential to build shared spaces and uplift the narratives of marginalized voices.Using their experiences as a queer person of color, Dienae constructs a social lens through which to view dance works and their relation to intersectional identities.