Evil spirits of one sort or another regularly pop up in ballet. So choreographer Nell Shipman of the Portland Ballet was well within the tradition with her latest offering, though her choice of a demonic figure is taken right out of history.

An expanded version of her “Jack the Ripper” haunted the stage of the Westbrook Performing Arts Center on Friday night. This tale of the infamous serial killer succeeded as essentially subtle visual poetry, without recounting all the sensational details of the murders of five women in the East End of London in the late 19th century.

The work presented the story in episodes, each with a projected title at the back of the minimally appointed stage. The setting and characters were introduced before the piece proceeded to the murders and their aftermath. An uncomfortable sense of inevitability was heightened throughout by a somber grace and just a few hints of a more modern expressiveness.

Pianist Chiharu Naruse provided onstage piano accompaniment with a selection of familiar Romantic pieces by Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin that, at their best (particularly with the Chopin), helped bring the ballet closest to the sublime.

J. Luke Tucker added more than enough spookiness to the title role as well as a bit of poignancy portraying a dangerously tormented soul. His leaps were countervailed with collapses as he prowled the streets of the legendary Whitechapel district. His muscular partnering with his victims gained violent intensity as attempts at a gentler connection failed.

A duet with Jennifer Jones as his last victim – and, it has been suggested, Jack’s former lover – was a highlight. To the music of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude,” the pair suspended time, transforming movement into pure emotion.

Kaitlyn Hayes, Eliana Trenam, Toni Martin and Milena Hartog, as the other victims, had peak encounters with the Ripper that, of course, also went terribly wrong. Ensemble passages, early performed by the dancers as living beings and later as apparitions, included one strikingly quiet moment where the women gently swayed and another where they reached a compelling syncopation with the detective, played by Russell Hewey.

Hewey’s initially stolid but ultimately shaken investigator added an identifiable dimension while the persistent presence of two ghostlike Shadows, danced by Erica Diesl and Kelsey Harrison, maintained the gloomy tone furthered by the generally dusky lighting design of Jamie Grant.

The stripped-down costumes by Amy Baxter enhanced the nocturnal ambiance in this highly creative look back at a notorious but still fascinating figure.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: