“Blackmail” is Deborah Dunn’s first full-length choreography since “The Birds”. Here, she isn’t pirating, but rather is inspired to deconstruct another Alfred Hitchcock film. With his 1929 original film version of “Blackmail”, Hitch — not yet at the height of his powers — set out to direct a more or less conventional thriller about a detective investigating a grisly murder/blackmail scheme. However, Dunn’s talent flourishes when she doesn’t play straight with the source material.
The evening began with “Burnt Norton” (2002). This solo, performed by Dunn, conveys a delicate and forceful presence to an Alec Guinness reading of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. With a view toward more recent work, however, this review focusses on “Blackmail”. What’s interesting about the dance work is how it brought the film to mind and how it leans closely to it. On further introspection, Dunn’s piece made me look into Hitchcock, flipping through stills and theoretical discussion reflecting on his original version of “Blackmail”. But, it also made me wonder why Dunn has undertaken this unofficial series on Hitchcock. What is her purpose in doing a second Hitchcock dance, beyond creating what the choreographer calls “a film noire body puzzle and a stunning explosion of red tutus”?
Playing in the Théâtre La Chapelle black box, Dunn’s “Blackmail” adventure opens with an astonishingly beautiful palette of blacks and greys — conveyed in designer Philippe Dupeyroux’s crisp shadows and textures of light, and emphasized in the costumes by Dunn herself. A matter-of-fact-sounding narrator fills us in through voice-over on the players and the overall plot.
In the film, Alice is the daughter of a shopkeeper in 1920s London. She secretly arranges a rendezvous with an artist and goes off to his studio where he attempts to rape her. She defends herself but kills him accidentally with a bread knife. When the body is discovered, a Scotland Yard detective named Frank is assigned to the case. Frank is not only a police detective; he is also Alice’s boyfriend. Tailing his lover, he is determined to protect her from the murder charge, but unfortunately, a thug who witnessed the stabbing is out to blackmail her. This lesser-known Hitchcock film is a creepy and unsettling thriller that sweeps into a spiralling dive through memory, obsession and the deep recesses of the psyche, interweaving various themes from paranoia, isolation and sexual anxiety to responsibility and redemption.
Dunn’s story deals with sexuality, aggression and absurdity. Hardly simple themes — but what’s satisfying and entertaining, at least in the first section, is the straightforward pantomime of her approach. With just three dancers, Dunn mills the situation for all it’s worth, rarely descending into dramatic contrivance but managing to heap up its darkly comic tone. The rest, beyond the pantomime introduction, is a surrealist whirlwind, which defies definition or easy comprehension. The second half doesn’t surrender to meaning easily. The only true way to make sense of it is to relax and let go as Dunn pursues investigation as an art form, and flows with expression and the easy articulate energy of the cast. In Dunn’s version, the female force is a very potent one. Alice is played, with an ingénue-like quality and vivid wide eyes, by Eryn Dace Trudell. In a nod to Hitchcock, through Trudell’s performance it is clear that what is behind those eyes is a psychological minefield. Gender-bending casting has the reed-tall, expressive-limbed choreographer take on the roles of the artist and the mysterious stranger, while Vancouver-based Jeannie Vandekerkhove, with her Amazon-like presence, is Frank. These roles are not played as parody males. Throughout the work, Trudell’s Alice is swayed (and sways, literally), under the spell of desire, guilt and madness. The voice-over happens in English and then in French and the dancers play the whole introductory scene twice, as if in replay mode, to accommodate the linguistic duality.
In the context of Hitchcock, there’s a lot to be said for Dunn’s casting decisions. The master of suspense was often challenged for his exploitation of his lead actresses. There is plenty of evidence to support the view of Hitchcock as a director who felt uncomfortable with, and often hostile toward women. Certainly his leading ladies are trapped (forced to assume roles, haunted by questionable pasts, locked into marriage or love affairs, forced to commit crimes, fixed by men’s gaze). But there is also evidence, particularly in interviews with actors as they reminisce about working with Hitchcock, that he admired strong, independent women. So Dunn’s play on gender roles and body politics is particularly noteworthy and, in reference to Hitchcock, consistently sly.
Dunn isn’t matching shots from Hitchcock’s film, but she does frame the characters in a stunning fashion, and capitalizes on her background as a visual artist and photographer. The dance, whose only narrative plot points are the murder and the on-again-off-again Alice-Frank relationship, is reliant on visual stimuli — in this case, a receding vortex, created by a lighting effect, through which the murder is glimpsed. The murder is treated with humour and exaggeration — a lifeless arm falls outside the curtain. Dunn also coyly inserts a snippet of the famous Psycho soundtrack — the piercing violin notes as the Janet Leigh character is stabbed in the shower. There is one scene from the film with the bread knife that has become notably celebrated. With a burlesque eye, Dunn creates a particularly witty moment, as Vandekerkhove crosses upstage on all fours, bread balanced on her back, with a knife sticking out the top of the loaf.
The dance at first gains in lightness with sequences involving symmetrical unison movement, where the angular dancing whips with precision. With embellishments and variations of phrases, Dunn etches out her dance expression. Forays into contrasting visions abound. When Alice and the artist become entangled, Dunn has Trudell — exuding a vivid sexuality in a red dress — anchored atop the artist and the detective, almost as if on shifting ground. Later, with Trudell gone from the stage, the two “men” — Frank and the stranger — face-off in confrontation, while at the back of the space, a toy car zooms across the stage, sirens blaring, in a field of light. At one point, the brick back wall of the theatre becomes a harshly lit Velcro curtain for the props — including, the knife, the red gloves and the red dress. In another moment, the three dancers are on their backs, enacting a scene, with legs at right angles to the wall.
Numerous critics have pointed out how women in peril were a feature of many Hitchcock films. The director saw female sexual vulnerability as a powerful dramatic device, which he often exploited, but like Alice in “Blackmail” illustrates, Hitchcock’s women also fight back. Dunn’s all-female casting indicates the obvious — that women together bond very differently than in mixed company — but also that she wants to deal with female potential. Perhaps that’s why she’s cast women in the men’s roles as well, adding a measure of ambiguity to the plot.
What Dunn is putting forward in the dance piece is the issue of sexual role-playing (without on-stage switches of the female dancers into males), sexual preference, socially fixed identities, and at the very least, the duality of human nature. She’s also framing erotic fixation, a Hitchcock staple, which by its very nature demands an enclosed space; and the choreographer builds her work within the confines of the small dark, shadowy spaces in the theatre. Dunn has chosen that in matters of partnering, whether in the technical physical sense or in the emotional register — as when Alice willfully tangles with the artist or in the final scene where Alice drifts and ultimately slips into bed with Frank — integration of men and women is not part of the game, at least not in this round. In fact, what reverberates well after seeing this work, is that what lies behind the dance is perhaps more important than the dance itself.