There is a sentimental tribute video on YouTube dedicated to the American actor, Cesar Romero, entitled Back From Heaven. Romero appeared in over 110 films in a 60-year career with titles such as Lust in the Dust, Seven Women from Hell and Lady in the Fog, but he is perhaps best known for playing the original Joker in the Adam West Batman TV series. Some of his films were of the B-movie Horror genre and in this intriguing new work of progressive dance theatre – with a title that appears to reference Romero’s return journey – Mark Bruce has created a compendium of references to just about every staple of the Horror movie repertoire. In no particular order, his visual clues encompass The Mummy, zombies, Frankenstein, Jaws, viral contagion (very topical), the Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Alien, the Vanishing, Bride of Dracula and – no doubt – much more besides.
Dark and dystopian themes have been prevalent in Bruce’s work: the severed heads in Sea of Bones; the surreal world of Made in Heaven; and his recent interpretations of the literary horrors of Dracula and Macbeth. Severed heads, sarcophagi and blood-lusting spiders all make their appearance in Return to Heaven. Guillermo Del Toro has a museum dedicated to Horror movies in his home city of Guadalajara – including the most extensive collection of Frankenstein artefacts – and I have a feeling that he and Bruce would get along very well!
Return to Heaven is an episodic tale of a fateful jungle expedition by Dane Hurst and Eleanor Duval, evidently recalled in a series of flashbacks, mixing up their dangerous adventures with the mythology they were exploring and harking back to happier times on the beach and in the dance hall. There is no value in searching for a linear narrative, since each episode stands on its own merit with no obvious linkage to the work before or after.
There is always a strong atmospheric sense to the visual spectacle of Bruce’s work, here further enhanced by the unique, decrepit environment in the bare brick walls of Wilton’s Music Hall. Guy Hoare’s slick lighting makes efficient use of the set (designed by Phil Eddolls), which is significantly constrained by the narrowness of the stage and wings the size of an average domestic shower cubicle! Given these circumstances, the quick transitions in the blackout (there are no curtains to hide behind) were particularly efficient and unobtrusive.
Bruce is also a composer and his dance theatre is invariably characterised by a great score. Here, three of his own pieces (one from his latest album, Girl in a Graveyard) embellished an eclectic playlist, which included several excerpts from work by Krzysztof Penderecki – one of the greatest living classical composers – and a trio of songs by Irving Burgie, perhaps the greatest composer of Caribbean music, including Harry Belafonte’s recordings of Scratch, Scratch and Islands in the Sun.
The company of six versatile dancers integrated strongly with several arresting duets, involving every dancer in varying pairs, and it all kicked off with a strong opening solo by Carina Howard (who also portrayed a sexy, lab-coated, clipboard-carrying technician who turned out to be a vampire). Duval had the closest brushes with horror, as both the spider’s prey and a woman whose face was fondled from behind by apparently disembodied hands. Christopher Thomas and Jordi Calpe Serrats were strong partners and filled in a myriad of supporting roles; and Hurst appeared mean and moody, variously sporting a sub-machine gun and a bloody machete. As if to confirm that love conquers all he enjoyed a romantic finale in the concluding love duet with Duval, dancing to the familiar sound of Unchained Melody.
Alongside this dreamy choreography, there are some fascinating visual coups such as a giant with a severed head that is sown back on (Frankenstein?) and Duval being graphically consumed by that giant spider before being sucked into the roots of a tree (returning as one of the Walking Dead); and other surreal moments, including Sharol Mackenzie appearing randomly as a cigarette girl; a dead shark having swallowed some sort of clue; and space capsules falling to earth.
Trying to understand a holistic approach to the narrative was like compiling a jigsaw where some of the pieces are missing and others don’t fit. That said, if the viewer approaches the work as a different type of puzzle, joining up the dots between the diverse Horror movie references, and just allows the intimate connection with spectacular visual effects and excellent music and choreography to flow then this Return to Heaven should prove to be an absorbing experience.