Fresh Fruit and Murder – Bones and Memory Dance Takes a Whack at the Lizzie Borden Story

Roberta Paixao Cortes & Elaine F.K. Fields pictured. Photo by William vonReicbauer.

Heather VonReichbauer, through Bones and Memory Dance, has been building a body of work that explores the macabre and unsettling. Her previous full-length evening shows include Dark Waters (2017), an exploration of Appalachian murder ballads, and Madness, Memories, and Woe (2018) which delved into the life and literature of Edgar Allan Poe. Just before the pandemic interrupted all our lives, she had started on a piece inspired by the story of Lizzie Borden, Pretty Pears All in a Row, showing an early solo in a Mind The Gap program. 

The pandemic slowed down development but did not stop it. The next phase in Pretty Pears is ready for showing on November 4 at the Houston Metropolitan Dance Center.

Many of us grew up chanting the verse, “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.” To be fair, Lizzie was acquitted of the murders in her trial—not that everyone believed it then or now. And to be precise, it was her stepmother who was killed—but “stepmother” throws off the meter of the chant. But perhaps I get ahead of myself.

Roberta Paixao Cortes & Elaine F.K. Fields pictured. Photo by Heather vonReicbauer.

Back when Heather and her musician husband, William VonReichbauer, were researching Dark Waters, Heather was taken by how the ballads were mostly cautionary tales for women. She characterizes the songs as saying things like, “I think she might have been pregnant or she might have cheated on me, so I’m going to hit her in the head with a stick and kill her.” In other words, women were almost always the victims in these songs. This started her thinking about women who were murderers, specifically female serial killers. While Lizzie only (allegedly) killed two people, not really fitting the definition of “serial killer,” she came up in the research and Heather found more and more of her story compelling. 

For this work-in-progress showing, Heather is focusing on Lizzie (portrayed by Elaine F. K. Fields) and her relationship with her sister, Emma (Roberta Paixao Cortes). Emma was an ardent defender of Lizzie during her trial, a continuation of a promise made to look after Lizzie when their real mother died when Emma was 12 and Lizzie was just short of 3 years old. Besides the limitations for women at the end of the 19th Century, the Borden girls were also limited by a father who was relatively wealthy but did not provide his daughters the usual social outlets to find spouses. By the time the murders happened, they would have been considered spinsters at 41 and 32. “They were bored,” Heather says. “In my mind, you can kind of understand, if you believe she [Lizzie] did it, how she might have snapped.”

Elaine F.K. Fields pictured. Photo by Heather vonReicbauer.

This showing consists of two solos and a duet. The first solo Heather made was for Elaine as Lizzie and prominently features the titular pears. The pears are part of Lizzie’s alibi—she claimed that while the murders were occurring, she was out in their barn eating pears. “To me, I always imagined Lizzie’s solo as taking place after the murders, in the parlor where her father was murdered,” Heather says. The dance travels about the stage as Lizzie gets her story together. For Emma’s solo, the movement is more reserved and controlled, with moments of sad fluttering. “It’s very birdlike,” Heather says. “I see Emma as a caged bird, possibly (in a cage) of her own making.”

The solo for Emma was actually started after Heather had started working on the duet between the sisters. “That duet is about their sisterly bond, which kind of switches within the piece.” The music for the piece is the song, “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two),” which was very popular the year of the Borden murders. The first half of the duet is performed to an old recording of the song, which Heather characterizes as being lighter, suggesting the two entertaining in the parlor. The second half of the duet has the song performed live by William, with stops and starts. This part shows the turn in their relationship after the murders, investigating what they do with each other, at their age, no longer beholden to their father and stepmother.

Roberta Paixao Cortes pictured. Photo by Heather vonReicbauer.

Heather depends upon William, who is classically trained, for finding music that fits. He approached the search with an understanding of how people experienced music at the time. “You didn’t turn on the stereo, there was no radio. If you wanted to hear a piece of music, you sat down in your parlor at the piano and played it,” he says. “I wanted music that would have been heard in the house.” 

There are lines spoken by both dancers, all of which are pulled from the women’s statements during and around the time of the trial. These add texture to the dances and insight to the women’s states of mind. 

Heather and William are both quick to point out that while the topic is gruesome, the performance is “very PG.” There is no onstage murdering or gore. People who enjoy true crime or mystery stories will likely find it of interest without any concern of seeing a bloody axe.

Audience members are encouraged to stay after the showing for a question-and-answer period. Heather and William have been researching the Borden family for months, including a trip to the Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts. They have found more information than could ever fit into one evening’s performance, even after Heather builds out the rest of the show next year. There are multiple threads to follow when considering the lives of Lizzie and Emma, their places in their hometown, and their world before and after the murders. Audience members will find Heather a wellspring of information on the Borden story. “There are a lot of rabbit holes to go down,” she says “and I’ve gone through most of them.”

Pretty Pears All in a Row work-in-progress showing will take place on Friday, November 4, 2022 at Houston Metropolitan Dance Center, 4916 Main Street, 8:00 p.m. All tickets are Pay What You Can. Purchasing tickets in advance is recommended as seating is limited.

About the Author

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer, living in Houston. Visit him online at neilellisorts.com.

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