As we enter the Halloween season, it is important to remember that we wouldn’t have Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers without the original, real-life slasher, Jack the Ripper. In 1888, the Whitechapel section of Victorian London was gripped in terror by the brutal slayings of five women, carried out by an enigmatic killer who was never identified. The Savannah Ballet Theatre is bringing the story of these women, known as the “Canonical Five,” to vivid life in an original production of the “Jack the Ripper” ballet.
“I’ve always been interested in true crime, and there is really no greater true crime story than that of Jack the Ripper,” said Abby McCuen, Advancement Director of Savannah Ballet Theatre. “I found myself wondering, people know who Jack is, but they don’t know who the victims are. If you asked anybody they wouldn’t know the victim’s name. I thought that was an interesting angle, to perform a production based on these women’s lives.”Get Savannah arts & culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and food newsletters
To tell their tragic stories through dance, the Savannah Ballet Theatre brought in choreographer Armando Luna of the Atlanta Ballet, which is considered one of the premier dance companies in the United States. “We hired an amazing choreographer who latched on to the idea and has really made it his own,” said McCuen.
For the music, McCuen, who is the music supervisor, drew from various movies, but she prides herself on choosing unique pieces so don’t expect Jack the Ripper to stalk the foggy London streets to the theme of “Jaws.” “These are songs that nobody will recognize,” McCuen assured.
The production includes nine professional dancers from all over the United States, as well as some apprentice dancers who are training with the Savannah Ballet Theatre company, and students from the high school company. “We also have other local actors and dancers who just wanted to be a part of it,” said McCuen. “We always find a spot for everybody.”
Savannah Ballet's core company dancers are portraying the five victims. “They’re fantastic,” said McCuen. “They’re all incredibly well versed in ballet technique, as well as storytelling. They are just fantastic storytellers, which is why they received these lead roles.”
Jack the Ripper will be portrayed by Sam Chester, a dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina with an extensive background in performance. “He’s one of our favorite dancers to bring in,’ said McCuen. “He takes a character and just runs with it.”
To bring Victorian London to life on stage, Savannah Ballet will use moving video projections, as well as some heavy set pieces which they will be utilizing for the first time. “When you see a ballet, it’s usually a blank stage for the dancers to move on,” McCuen explained. “For this production, we’re using actual set pieces such as walls and windows, but they’re not just set pieces, they’re almost a part of the show—they move almost as much as the dancers do. It’s really a unique take.”
“Jack the Ripper” differs from previous Savannah Ballet productions in that it is historical rather than based on a literary work. “We wanted to get the facts right, so it did involve a good amount of research because we didn’t want to skimp on details,” said McCuen. “We really wanted to portray it as it really happened. Usually we can take some artistic liberty, but this one we really didn’t. We stayed true to the story.”
The production is PG-13 so don’t expect an abundance of gore. Although the story revolves around the horrible slayings of these five women, the focus is really on their lives. “These woman were fighting to survive and they had a rough life, and we wanted to portray them more as the unfortunate souls that they were,” McCuen explained. “They weren’t bad people—Jack was the bad person. We wanted to make sure people remembered that and remembered their names.”
Audience members are invited to attend a pre-show discussion from 6:30p.m. to 7 p.m. before Saturday’s performance to learn more about ballet, and the history of Jack the Ripper.