Bulletins From Immortality… Freeing Emily Dickinson reads like a work made in haste
Performed by Margie Gillis and Elizabeth Parrish. Choreographed by Margie Gillis. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Wednesday, October 23. Continues until October 26
The combination of Margie Gillis and Emily Dickinson should be a match made in heaven, but Bulletins From Immortality… Freeing Emily Dickinson reads like a work made in haste.
This is not to say that the Montreal-born dancer does not have a genuine appreciation for the 19th-century American poet. Swooping around the stage in full-on Isadora Duncan mode, tossing her waist-length mane and rocketing her gaze toward some infinitely distant horizon, Gillis was passionately engaged with the task of animating Dickinson’s words.
But why, oh why, did so many of her animations look like cartoons?
In “I Started Early—Took My Dog”, Dickinson goes for a walk upon the Massachusetts strand and is greeted by “mermaids in the basement”. As actor Elizabeth Parrish reads those words, Gillis repines languidly on a pile of three white-painted wooden boxes, in the posture of the famous “Little Mermaid” statue that can be seen in Copenhagen’s harbour (and also off the rocks of Stanley Park’s north shore).
In “Two Butterflies Went Out at Noon”, the supine Gillis twists her hands above her torso, just like—you guessed it—two butterflies all aflutter.
And every time the poet mentions death, which she does quite frequently, Gillis rolls her eyes and slumps floorward, as if suffering a ghastly case of the vapours. The result, especially given the dancer’s widow’s weeds, is quite appropriately Victorian. It’s just unfortunate that Gillis’s melodramatic moves more often invoke Edward Gorey’s swooning socialites rather than those, like Dickinson herself, who succumbed to an early death during that medically primitive era.
This was all mildly entertaining, but surely not what Gillis had in mind. And it wasn’t amusing for long enough. Not much more than halfway through, I found myself counting the tawny panels of typewritten text that designer Randal Newman had hung at the back of the stage. Then I counted them again. There were 95, arrayed in five rows of 19.
According to one particularly loopy Internet site, the number 95 encourages one to seek ”guidance from the angels”, the better to align oneself with one’s “spiritual soul mission”. Bulletins From Immortality… was just flakey enough that this might have been taken into consideration in its conception.
On the other hand, in the periodic table 95 denotes americium, a radioactive chemical created by bombarding uranium or plutonium with neutrons. I’m not going to go so far as to say that this production is a bomb; moments of real beauty occasionally rustled through the corn, mostly thanks to Parrish’s straightforward reading of Dickinson’s texts. But when I started counting Newman’s panels for the third time, my atoms wanted to split.