"A meal was brought/With blood, and each sate sullenly apart/Gorging himself in gloom: No love was left;/All Earth was but one thought -- and that was death." -- George Gordon, Lord Byron from "Darkness"
In Unsheathed: A Gothic Tale, an original story and work by choreographer Esaias Johnson, it's not tainted blood but the boiling blood of rage that transforms a slave woman into a vampire. She leads a thirsty band, including her former master turned minion, throughout centuries of tragedy. "And they dance up a storm," Johnson says proudly.
Although it sounds bleak, this postmodern fairy tale, a kind of Romeo and Juliet with, er, bite, is about how light can (and must) be culled from darkness. Back in the real world, Unsheathed, most appropriately, almost didn't see the light of day. "One studio wouldn't permit me to rehearse there because it was about vampires," Johnson explains. Two others turned her down as well. She eventually obtained space in Broward and at Miami City Ballet headquarters. Then there was the Dracula downer: "Forty-five ballet companies are doing Dracula this year," Johnson laments.
Yes, Unsheathed is a vampire story. No, it's not about Dracula. "It's urban. It's not an ancient tale, so the drugs, alcohol, chaos, war, rape, are the vampires, the metaphor. There really are things more terrifying than Dracula," she notes, also citing racism and sexism. As Unsheathed's press release taunts: "These modern-day vampires would have Dracula running down a back alley."
Using a balletlike story line is new to Johnson, but she hopes the production by her troupe Dance Esaias is abstract enough for everyone to perceive something different. With no curtain or wings onstage, all the dancers will be visible to the audience during the hourlong performance. In addition the multimedia collaboration includes an original score by New York's techno-Gothic ensemble Emboznik and slide and motion-picture images projected throughout the theater.
For Unsheathed Johnson deliberately mixes professional ballet, modern, and break dancers, all of whom she has coached daily since March in her trademark PoMoFunk style: a blend of her eclectic movement background inspired by classical ballet, modern masters such as José Limon and Merce Cunningham, and hip-hop dance. "What I'm doing is not being done anywhere else," she says. That may partly explain why, since her 1996 Miami debut with Angels followed by Savage Inequalities, Johnson, who trained at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and SUNY- Purchase in New York, has been able to extract uncommon beauty from her pieces and employ top-shelf dancers, such as Nancy Raffa and Paulo Manso de Sousa, from hot companies like Alvin Ailey II and Miami City Ballet.
As with Unsheathed Johnson says most of her art addresses the struggle between good and evil. And in Johnson's creative universe, the master herself reveals, "Good always wins."