Work In Progress: Melissa Podcasy Musters up the Macabre

Published in the February/March 2011 issue.

Melissa Podcasy in the studio

Photo courtesy Carolina Ballet

Melissa Podcasy’s career encompasses a rich mixture of great classics and new works. She has danced the Sylph, Juliet, Giselle and a host of principal roles choreographed for her by the likes of Christopher Wheeldon in Carolina and William Forsythe when she was a Pennsylvania Ballet principal. Along with her husband, artistic director Robert Weiss, Podcasy is a founding member of Carolina Ballet, and one of its principal dancers. In 1999, two years after the company’s founding, writer Gary Parks called her “a model for the troupe’s younger dancers: Here is an accomplished performer who moves beyond technique to artistry.” Eleven years later, those words have only grown truer. The latest test of her artistry was a new ballet choreographed by Weiss, The Masque of the Red Death, based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, which premiered last October.

 

Melissa Podcasy: “Ricky [Weiss] actually made up the character of the Duchess; there is no character like that in the story. Whenever I’m in a new piece, I first have to figure out the steps, and then work from the inside out with how I can, through those particular steps, help the choreographer express what they’re trying to express. There has to be meaning to every movement; there has to be something attached to it—a color, a feeling, a sound—that’s personal and specific to you, and then you’re able to give life to a role.

 

It’s not a narrative ballet—it’s sort of like a poem. The ballet is broken up into sections. The first shows the Red Death ravaging the countryside; the second is safely inside the chateau walls at the costume ball. Section three is myself and my partner, the Duke. This duet was choreographed to make the audience understand that this story is a bit off-kilter, a bit bizarre. The feeling is as if you are in a strange dream and the room you’re in is tilted. The atmosphere is quite creepy. The external world does not exist for these people, and they have become a bit depraved from being shut up together for so long. I tried to convey all those things by subtly shaping my movement with a bit of strangeness, altering the angles of my head and using my eyes, which was very important because a mask covered a lot of my face. I used my hands and fingers in a combination with angular, proper and prim movements, with a shade of eeriness thrown in.

 

In the story, Poe writes about the clock that strikes the time as the guests move from room to room within the chateau. The chimes make the guests feel nervous and uneasy. As the musician plays the chime, the dancers transition in a smooth, slow-motion style that exudes a feeling of being watched by someone or something…not knowing what that is, of course, until the end where we all die!”