CUTTING THROUGH Jack the Ripper embraces the powerful legend.
Five prostitutes murdered in London in 1888 fell victim to a man who, in his folk persona, has become one of the most storied killers of all time. The legendary spook of Whitechapel inspired popular-culture makers almost immediately and has continued to do so, appearing in everything from Punch political cartoons to Star Trek, not to mention the 2001 Johnny Depp vehicle From Hell, and he has even spawned the crypto-study known as “Ripperology.” Speculations on the real identity of Jack the Ripper have numbered into the hundreds, and in a recent exposé, a former English policeman has reported that the folkloric figure, as we rhapsodize him, in upper-crust cape and top hat, never existed at all.
Jack’s ambiguities as well as his horrors have given him quite a run as an icon, and now, just in time for Halloween, Portlanders can catch a new ballet iteration of the serial killer’s acts, in a world-premiere production from Portland Ballet Company. Choreographed by Nell Shipman, Jack the Ripper appears in the company’s brand new Studio Theater, an intimate 73-seat house that will host not just PBC ballets, but also performances by other local arts organizations (notably the promising collaboration of Dramatic Repertory Company and Fenix Theater Company on A Bright New Boise in November).
In the Victorian London of the killings, industrialization had brought and crammed ever more people into slums like Whitechapel, where poverty, disease, and prostitution ran rampant. At the same time, literacy rates were up across a broader class spectrum than ever before, and readers were both hungry for entertainment and wary of the modern city. And so the news industry, craven for sensationalist copy to sell, threw gasoline on the flames of public interest in the murders. In fact, a reporter is widely believed to have been the author of the first, name- and legend-making letter to police signed “Jack the Ripper.”
The murders continued unsolved through the fall, and readers were especially fascinated by reports of the grisly details, which included disembowelment and organ removal. Because the women’s innards were extracted with such expert precision, some suspected the criminal was actually a surgeon. More generally, the killer of impoverished prostitutes was believed to be a member of the upper crust, a speculation that reflected wide unease about class issues; and in fact, in some corners the murders became symbolic of and occasion for a new spotlight on social neglect and iniquity.
Portland Ballet’s rendering of these killings is at once sensuous, lurid, and spare, with the red satin of gowns and the restrained use of strobe light set against a Whitechapel represented by five bare, rough-hewn doors. Choreographer Shipman’s envisioning takes some interesting license, including stylizing the very shadows of London’s slums, as figures in black, and the new science of forensics itself, as a figurative dance between the detectives and the dead women whose lives are momentarily restored by Scotland Yard’s scrutiny.
An overture danced to Chopin’s dirge-like Piano Sonata #2 in B-flat Minor introduces the five women (Amelia Bielen, Megan Buckley, Deborah Grammatic, Kaitlyn Hayes, and Jennifer Jones), along with five Detectives (Erica Diesl, Kelsey Harrison, Colleen Edwards, Lindsay Creiger, and Lexa Daniels), the ominous Shadows (Eliana Trenam and Kaleigh Natale), and of course Jack (Joseph Jeffries). The killings of the women take place over the course of four variations, each danced by the victim(s), the killer, the detectives, and the shadows that seem to enable such dark acts.