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The Charleston Ballet Theatre's Seven Deadly Sins

The Devil Inside

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Seven Deadly Sins
Presented by the Charleston Ballet Theatre
Nov. 16-17, 7:30 p.m.
$35
CBT Studios
477 King St.
(843) 723-7334
www.charlestonballet.com

Jill Eathorne-Bahr is a control freak.

Just ask her.

As the resident choreographer of the Charleston Ballet Theatre, she has, since the organization's founding in 1987, worn about as many hats as one can wear: that of leader, manager, fund-raiser, teacher, visionary, and more.

On one recent afternoon, I paid a visit to her dance studios on Upper King Street. We talked after a rehearsal of the ballet company's upcoming anniversary performance, featuring three of their greatest hits, so to speak, of the past 20 years.

The anniversary celebration comes in two parts. One is this weekend (Nov. 16-17). The other is in March. This first features Eathorne-Bahr's Seven Deadly Sins, plus two audience favorites: Bolero, a dance by Helena Baron set to Ravel's work by the same name, and Nine Lives, a work created by Daniel Pelzig that adapts the music of Lyle Lovett.

"I like control," she told me after rehearsal. "Most choreographers don't conceive and execute from beginning to end. It's easier if I do everything the way I want it done."

It's in her nature. But there's one thing she can't control.

Despite having written more than 30 works for the ballet company, comprising fully half of its repertoire, Eathorne-Bahr can't influence, coerce, persuade, or make demands of the most elemental stage of creativity.

That stage is inspiration.

Most artists accept the reality that creation is mostly perspiration. Hard work, however, is secondary. It happens after the initial spark. What accounts for that burst of light? The artistry of the universe would be nothing without that first big bang.

Guts and gory

She doesn't know the answer, though the question clearly fascinates her. As we talk over bottles of water in the lobby of the studio, where the performance will be held, about the centerpiece of this weekend's show, Seven Deadly Sins, she seems intrigued, as though she'd never considered it.

"You can't tell where inspiration comes from," she says.

Then she shows me something unexpected.

Returning from her office, she hands me a coffee table-sized book on Paul Cadmus, the representational artist best known in the 1970s and '80s for his work against the dominant vogue in minimalism and for his paintings of nude males, social-realism, and erotic grotesqueries.

Eathorne-Bahr opens the book and points to something disgusting: a human figure so fat his fingers are mere nubs.

His skin is taut and pink and scaly and thin. His abdomen is bursting. Guts are dripping onto his feet. And he's eating, no gorging, on what look to be the guts of another entity of some kind. In fact, he's swaddled in intestines. He can't get enough.

"This has been my inspiration," she told me.

The disgusting figure is "Gluttony," part of the painter's series of egg-tempura panels that the author of the book, famed New York impresario Lincoln Kirstein, calls the "capstone of Cadmus's career."

Kirstein continues, "Riveting in their diabolical repulsiveness, imagined with an awareness of essential morality, their precision of imagery and intense realization in form and color present a universalized iconography of evil unique in our time."

I'll say.

A black hole

Now remember: Not minutes earlier I observed the company run through Eathorne-Bahr's Seven Deadly Sins.

It's about a psychiatric patient who ends up killing her dubious doctor after having exorcised herself of the sinful septet.

I saw two statuesque and quite beautiful women dance together in a charming and elegant depiction of Envy.

I saw a group led by a tall, clean-cut male dancer pounding their fists in order to portray Avarice, or Greed.

I saw a solo by a man dressed like Wimpy from Popeye. He bumbled around, pulling hamburgers from his pockets. It was light, frolicking, and fun.

He certainly wasn't hemorrhaging his entrails or gorging on someone else's.

And "Gluttony" is tame compared to Cadmus' other sins. "Wrath" is red and violent, with spikes coming out of his fingers and toes; shards of bloody glass slice into his body. "Pride" is a female figure wrinkled and empty and filled with gas. Her balloon-like skin is pricked by a crop of sharp rocks.

"Lust" is even worse. She's stripped of all sensuality, beauty, and appeal. Her legs are thick, her skin is jaundiced, and she gestures with her stubby, knuckled hands at the large, gauzy black hole below her hideous navel.

She's just awful.

Cadmus's sins are pure spectacle, utter fantasy. They are brash. They are emotionally distant. They are in your face.

Eathorne-Bahr's sins, by contrast, are intimate. They are ominous, but also inviting. They are strange, but also familiar. They are dangerous, but still a reflection of humanity's fall from grace.

The narrative of Seven Deadly Sins is, it must be said, raw: It ends in murder, after all. But because the sins are so archetypal, so universal, it's easy to understand the patient (danced by company principal Jessica Roan). We understand what she's going through. We are connected to her. We see ourselves in her. We are her.

The question remains: How did one work of art inspire another, from Cadmus to Eathorne-Bahr? What psychic calculus computed to get from the spectacularly grotesque to the intimately frightening?

The devil inside

When I use the word "spectacle" to describe Cadmus' work, Eathorne-Bahr's eyes glint. As we talk, she says she started to understand her inspiration.

During the act of creating, she didn't pause to reflect. She was too busy inventing gestures, movements, sounds, and textures indicative of each sin. She was also busy coming up with a narrative thread to string the vignettes together.

"I wanted to get a feel for the sins, to figure out a way of creating ordered chaos," she says. "I wanted a question in the dance to give a sense of forward movement."

And here's where we start to understand Cadmus' affect on Eathorne-Bahr. The key is this question, this aching state of unknowing: Why is the psychiatric patient seeing visions of these sins? What are they?

Then Eathorne-Bahr is inspired. She says this: that Cadmus' paintings make visible the sinful nature of one's interior self. Only in this way is Cadmus's series, indeed, spectacle. Internal subjectivity is rendered into an over-the-top external reality.

The same goes for our poor psychiatric patient. The sins she encounters are not separated from her. They are her. Just as we are her. The sins are her subjective nature made real. As the story moves on, we see she's overcoming her inner demons.

All that's left to wonder is why she kills the doctor.

"I don't know," Eathorne-Bahr says. "Maybe that's what's inside me."

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