HeadSpaceDance – the company formed by Christopher Akrill and Charlotte Broom, in 2012 –already has a reputation as a beacon for challenging, thought-provoking work; and Arthur Pita is a director/choreographer with an unerring flair for creating vivid and imaginative narratives, full of extravagant, fanciful whimsy. Together, they bring all these talents to bear upon a fantasy double bill of the macabre in dance theatre that provides a veritable house of horrors.

Though these are two separate works, with the latter a reimagining of a piece originally commissioned for CandoCo, back in 2007, they are connected by a very thin narrative thread and a very big idea.

© Ambre Vernuccio
© Ambre Vernuccio

Wicked stepmothers are the ubiquitous fare of fairy tales; a notion that Pita uses to connect a bunch of gruesome stories, some recognisable, others not. He starts – as the audience arrives –with Snow White in her casket, while saccharine Disney melodies waft through the theatre. Later, we might recognise a snippet of Rapunzel, a soupçon of Hansel & Gretel or a modicum of Red Riding Hood. But, in every tale there’s a grotesque twist. Vulnerable, tiny tots – all played with wide-eyed innocence by Corey Claire Annand – are terrorised by monstrous stepmothers. Those wide eyes don’t last for long as they’re soon gouged out and eaten! And, not only eyes, but also bloody hearts that are plucked from chests and hair that is ruthlessly shorn. 

Pita’s trademark penchant for vivid colours is vibrantly implemented in Yann Seabra’s costumes with rich blood-red much to the fore! The choice of Fauré’s Requiem as the musical accompaniment is deliciously counter-intuitive to the onstage wickedness. Stepmother is necessarily episodic and it doesn’t always work convincingly. The final section in which the stepmother played by Akrill is disrobed and eventually laid to rest in Snow White’s glass coffin is overlong and somewhat obtuse; although it effectively continues the dirtying Disney theme. Somewhere in the midst of all this gore, a man – played by Karl Fagerlund Brekke - appears to rescue three tiny babies from the swirling abuse that surrounds them; this being the contextual link into the second work.

Stepfather brings a striking change of pace in the clarity of narrative with a story literally rewound to show the events leading to an afterlife duet between a drowned girl and a hanged man. Brekke is the title character, named Eugene; his three girls having grown into "stage school" darlings, kitted out in colourful dresses; frilly knickers; with a red tinsel curtain for their performances; and a pushy mother to boot. Priscilla (Nadia Adame) is the mother to be obeyed in this twisted household, with the stepfather cutting a forlorn and pathetic figure, mostly alone in his barn.

© Ambra Vernuccio
© Ambra Vernuccio

The dark doings of this tale, set in the rural backwaters of Midwestern America, are driven along by an evocative composite score, led by Country Death Song, a recording from the folk-punk cult band Violent Femmes, which contains the foreboding lyric, ‘Just take your lovely daughter and push her in the well’. Other great classic American songs include Ukelele Lady by Gus Kahn and Richard A. Whiting. Simon Daw’s cloth, illustrated with naïve drawings, stretches across the stage complete with peepholes, providing a quick means of exit and entrance underneath the fabric.   

I saw this show initially as a preview at DanceEast in Ipswich, late last year, in which Eugene was played by the outstanding contemporary dancer of this generation, Jonathan Goddard. His are hard shoes to fill but Brekke does it superbly in a forlorn, frustrated, vacant portrayal that presented a dramatic performance of considerable depth. Nathan Goodman brought welcome light relief to the gruesome tale as a dancing barman, attempting to ease the tension, not unlike the character of Bratfisch in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.  

Events in the fragile household begin to break down when the youngest daughter, Mary Lou (played by Clemmie Sveaas) finds her sexual awakening in the lap of her hapless and frustrated stepdad. Their uncontrolled fumbling is discovered by Priscilla and the other two sisters (Annand and Valentina Golfieri), leading to Mary Lou’s fatal descent down that well and Eugene’s suicide, hanging from a noose in the nearest barn. We know of this outcome early on, before the narrative reverses (in hilarious rewind movement), and because later scenes are dogged by the palefaced ghost of the stepdad (a chilling portrayal by Akrill).  

Mary Lou and Eugene are reunited in a final pas de deux against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains that outdoes any other duet for mawkish morbidity: a dripping wet dead girl dancing with a hanging corpse! It’s a final image that perfectly sums up this grotesque, macabre double bill.