Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY Brings the ‘Red Death’ to The Joyce Theater’s Ballet Festival

“The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country.

No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’”

—From “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe

Photo courtesy of Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY.

Next week, on June 28th and 29th, Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY will premiere The Masque of the Red Death at The Joyce Theater as part of the annual Ballet Festival. The new evening-length, contemporary dance work, inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe short story of the same name, will feature seven dancers and narration by Metropolitan Opera singer Jessye Norman. We caught up with Beamish by phone and talked with him about the aesthetics and social commentary that are embedded in the story, and now, this dance.


{ DIYdancer }, Candice Thompson: What inspired you to use this story as source material?

Joshua Beamish: The funny thing about this source material is that before I read the story, Phil Chan (who I met when we were both working on a piece for the Ashley Bouder Project) told me, ‘there is this Poe story that is perfect for your work.’ I didn’t read it then, but soon after I was on tour in Tulsa with Wendy [Whelan] and someone said to me that they wanted to see this same story turned into a ballet. I still didn’t read it. But when I got home, my roommate had it on the shelf. I took it as the third sign, so I finally read it. I immediately got the story, and saw it as a radical departure but also an opportunity to explore social commentary in a way I hadn’t before. There is a distinct parallel between the period of the plague that the story describes and the current state of America relative to healthcare, economic inequality, and general division.

CT: What was it about the story that made Phil think that it would be perfect for you?

JB: Well, my work is quite gestural and formal, so he thought I could evoke the masquerade ball, that my choreographic language would suit it. And I think he also saw a propensity for darkness that I hadn’t really explored—he thought I could find the forbidding and dread in the story….

Photo courtesy of Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY.

CT: Is the dance dark?

JB: Very. Because it is basically about the inevitable demise of everything. A plague devours anyone not wealthy enough to lock themselves away, and even when the wealthy people go away to have parties, the plague eventually gets there. The message is that you can’t stop death with money, and if you leave everyone else to die, the plague will still spread into your world.

CT: Was it hard on you to make a dance about such a dark subject?

JB: Strangely, I felt really removed from it all because it is my role to create something that is objective to the narrative and it is for the audience to draw feeling. I am looking at a global issue [inequity in healthcare] that hasn’t really touched me specifically. I am Canadian, so I have healthcare. But if a plague did break out, I would definitely be on outside, so I can relate to that aspect, but really this is the least personal thing I have made. Making this work actually felt pragmatic, and nice, because last piece I made was so personal, it was almost hard to watch.

CT: Was it a challenge to create the feeling of a masquerade ball with only seven dancers?

JB: Yes, well originally there were eight, and that created an even clockwork feeling. But seven has allowed me this interruption, creating a sense of foreboding that someone has infiltrated the party, otherwise they would be there with a partner. It has also created this feeling that the gathering is more exclusive which is great because it also makes that exclusivity feel lonely.

Photo courtesy of Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY.

CT: So this is definitely the 1%?

JB: Maybe even the .03%. Being a Canadian who now lives and works in America, the most shocking thing to me is how the healthcare system operates and functions. Who is left behind…these were all things I had never dealt with before.

CT: Do your dancers have healthcare?

JB: I don’t know if they all do, but I think so. I once spent $500 in NYC trying to figure out why I had this terrible headache. I finally got on a bus to Montreal and had it cured for nothin. I went through six weeks of not being to sleep or balance and it was immediately fixed crossing the border. That is the one brush I have had, but I have chosen not to become an American citizen in order to keep my healthcare.

CT: Poe makes mention of seven rooms with these intense color schemes…

JB: The thing most interesting to me creatively is that Poe speaks about these seven rooms, but doesn’t tell you what happens in five of them. No scenes occur in them, so I have created other narratives. I also did research on how colors have been used in power structures, governments, empires, marketing: blue was seen in the Egyptian empire and then gone, purple was the leading color of Byzantine era and babies were born into royal colors in wine-colored rooms, orange is an alert color to note disasters and terrorism…so I used this research as my intent for the relationships and movement in each room. The audience might not pick that up but it inspired me.

CT: Will this show have a life after The Joyce premiere?

JB: We will put it on the shelf for a year and then the plan is to begin a tour in 2019. This piece should be good for that because of the known source material, and the fact that combining a gothic ballet with contemporary dance is rare.


The Joyce Theater’s Ballet Festival runs June 26th-July 7th. Click here for tickets to The Masque of the Red Death on June 28th and 29th at 8 p.m.

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