James Ellroy is not the real name of James Ellroy, did you know that? He was born Lee Earle Ellroy, after his father, whom he would come to despise. He changed his name to James Ellroy around the time he published his first novel.
In 1958, a few weeks after Lee’s tenth birthday, the body of Geneva “Jean” Hilliker Ellroy was found in the shrubs outside of Arroyo High School.
Those of you who have read Ellroy’s My Dark Places know this story. The never-solved killing of his mother has understandably haunted Ellroy his whole life. A year later, when he was eleven, his dad gave him a copy of Jack Webb’s book The Badge, which contained a synopsis of the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, who would forever be known to history as “The Black Dahlia.” Ellroy’s breakthrough novel, as well as the first novel of his “L.A. Quartet,” was called The Black Dahlia. Unsurprisingly, the brutal death of a beautiful young woman in Los Angeles resonated with Ellroy. Ellroy spent most of his early years in erratic fashion, he briefly joined the American Nazi Party (mostly for shock effect), and he also became a petty criminal and burglar; he was arrested several times. After he became a successful writer of brutal noirs set in Los Angeles, he hired a private detective to investigate his mother’s murder, a process that led to the writing of My Dark Places.
If you think all of this is horrendously unpromising material for a dance piece, then you aren’t Hans Van den Broeck, of the Brussels-based dance group SOIT (Stay Only If Temporary). He has choreographed a dance piece called “The Lee Ellroy Show,” which premiered in Brussels last November and recently was staged for the ImPulsTanz festival in Vienna, Austria. (Van den Broeck appears to have some prior connection to Vienna; a 2010 piece of his is called Café Prückel, a magnificent old Kaffeehaus on Vienna’s Stubenring.)
The story is set in the 50’s. Divorced and lonely, James Ellroy’s mother moves to El Monte, part of the endless sprawl of greater Los Angeles. The new suburbia, isolated and eerie. A sordid boiling hot place risen from the dessert, a nowhere, where she was prone to meet other lost souls and eventually did. On a ‘cheap’ saturday night she met her killer, the ‘swarthy man’, a murderer who was never found. She had a night out on her own, a few drinks, a talk, a dance and was discovered in the early morning hours in the bushes of a small dirt-road. An existence halted in the grass, a life that never blossomed.
This sudden, traumatic disappearance condemns James Ellroy to a life-long search for the mother he never really knew, a loving mother. He embarks on a disturbing journey ; from a big mouthed young bully, to a shoplifting teenager, a voyeur and finally nearly losing his mind as a homeless young adolescent. About to tip over the cliff, he devotes himself to writing. It will be his salvation and a sublimation of the trauma, a life-long battle with the omen living inside him.
As Van den Broeck has said of the piece, “It has such a tragic and obsessive undertone: that man has really been obsessed by that loss throughout his whole life. It led to him becoming a writer, of course, but also, among other things, to a love-hate relationship with women. I trained as a psychologist and that fixation with an unresolved trauma of that kind really fascinated me. But in terms of language and style, too, it is a hugely inspiring book: obsessional in tone, written in a staccato rhythm, and quite ‘in your face’.” Jake Ingram-Dodd and Anuschka Von Oppen are the two dancers who inhabit “The Lee Ellroy Show.” The piece will have performances in Belgium this coming October and next March.
Thank you Thomas Seifert!