The Rapidian

Review: Jack the Ripper

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For weeks I drove past this arresting image: a man in a black cape and top hat, locked in deathly pas de deux with a hollow-eyed ballerina. Bloody light pools around them. Her muscles are taut and her neck is bent at a macabre angle, a knife at her throat.

The billboard supposedly portrays a scene from Jack the Ripper, a non-traditional production by Grand Rapids Ballet Company's Artistic Director Gordon Pierce Schmidt, which debuted Halloween weekend at DeVos Place. The two-act ballet revives the century-old mystery of an unidentified serial killer in London's Whitechapel district, who murdered five women between August and November 1888.

But when the curtains bearing video projections of bloody rain finally part, the stage bears little of the spine-tingling, gut-wrenching tension predicated by the billboard.

Set to Black Sabbath, Act I, Scene I begins with a frenzy of gray clad bodies, running on and off stage through rising mist. Moveable set pieces, designed to look like the outlines of buildings, define Whitechapel's shifty back alleys and create additional movement on the stage.

After this initial flurry of bodies, the energy level drops, and there is no corresponding increase in suspense to keep the audience engaged at the same level. The drab period costuming that visually unified the swarming Whitechapel residents in Scene 1, now makes it difficult to distinguish them, even from my complimentary 14th-row seat on the main floor.

Jack, himself, is difficult to point out. Based on the billboards and "Jack's" automated response to my initial media inquiry, I expected him to be instantly recognizable, a calculating predator in a top hat. In actuality, were it not for a habit of licking arsenic off paper, he would be virtually indistinguishable from the gang of Whitechapel hoodlums.

There is no cat-and-mouse chase culminating in a mortal dance either; the women put up less struggle than lambs headed for slaughter.

Admittedly, these details have notes of historical authenticity. Perhaps Jack, believed by many to be one James Maybrick, was little worse than any other drug-addicted London criminal. And by all accounts 19th century Whitechapel was so thoroughly destitute death may have been a relief, especially for women whose only living came from prostitution.

While potentially accurate, the narrative doesn't really translate into action-packed viewing. Like the "canonical five" facing their impending doom, I began to feel a little apathetic about how and when the characters would be murdered--the ballet's only plotline. When they finally are killed, the ensuing bloodbath, depicted with projections of ghostly dancers and copious amounts of blood, seems a little too cult horror flick to mesh with the characters' period styling.

Ultimately, the piece flatlines, not for lack concept, talent, or innovation, but because no single element is pushed far enough. Rock music, provocative choreography, spectral video projections - all great ideas - could each provide the skeleton for an entire ballet. But combined they diminish each other: The bleak historical accuracy kills the suspense. Black Sabbath's striking satanic verses drown the impact of subtler pieces by Webern and Schonberg. And an admittedly wicked billboard marketing campaign creates a huge differential between what the audience is expecting and what they get.

Like Artprize, Festival, and many of our city's major arts events, Jack the Ripper's overall artistic merit suffers by including something for everyone, instead of committing to one or two truly great ideas. Perhaps the greatest criticism of this ballet came from an audience member who said: "You could tell it was Grand Rapids."

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