This week, Philadelphia’s modern dance company, BalletX, premieres a new choreography based on the 1958 film noir, Touch of Evil.
Touch of Evil depicts a border-town clash between a corrupt American detective (Orson Welles) and a Mexican narcotics investigator (Charlton Heston).
Universal Pictures wrested control over the film away from the gifted but unreliable Welles (who was also the director) before he could he could finish editing. It was ultimately released as the lower half of a B-movie double-bill.
Since then then, some film critics have come to revere it as one of the finest examples of film noir, in particular for its famous three-minute opening crane shot tracking a time bomb in the trunk of a car.
But you don’t need to know any of that to watch “Grande Perdita,” a new dance created by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.
“I’m not following the storyline. I’m not following the scene changes or characters,” said Elo during a break in rehearsal at the Wilma Theater. “If you look for a theatrical experience, you’re not going to get it. This is dance. It’s about movements and structures in dance.”
Instead of plot and characters, Elo used the movie’s mood and structure to inspire this dance. He did not even use the movie’s famous score by Henry Mancini, but rather selected classical music, including a discordant piece by Alban Berg.
Elo, the resident choreographer with the Boston Ballet, was commissioned by BalletX to come to Philadelphia to invent the dance with its company of dancers. He arrived in Philadelphia a few weeks ago with nothing but some music and a noirish mood.
“I hope it’s unconscious,” said Elo. “I work with dancers in the moment, in the studio. I don’t come prepared. I have inspiration and the structure of the music, which is clear. We’re free-flowing.”
The plot of Touch of Evil is brutal; the lighting is harsh, and Welles made himself — as the slovenly and overweight Captain Quinlan — remarkably ugly. This is second time Elo dipped his toe into “ToE.” In 2008, he choreographed a mash-up of Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil, calling it “Double Evil”.
He can’t say why.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m drawn to Touch of Evil. It’s peculiar movie,” said Elo. “I don’t know how it got made or how people can watch it. The structure, and the lighting … it’s not necessarily pleasant to your eye. But it draws you in.”
“Grande Perdita” will be performed as part of a three-dance show, including another premiere of a work by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan.