One of Alice Ferrulo Stampfle’s earliest memories is of a song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella. These lines in particular resonated with the young Pennsylvania girl:
In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be.
As she grew up, her favorite stories were the ones with a darker edge: The horror yarn The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, and S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, in which the sensitive central character Ponyboy Curtis barely survives an escalating wave of inner-city gang violence.
In those tales, Stampfle explains, “There was that heightened sense of reality, to read and to be able to imagine these characters, or the seeds, and see them in my head. It was the journey I was taken on, and where that took me, and what I was able to imagine. I was drawn to that.”
Stampfle, who describes herself as an “image maker,” enjoyed a lengthy career as a professional dancer, with several top New York companies, and also taught dance at her alma mater, Ohio University.
Elements from every period in her life – going all the way back to Cinderella’s declaration of imagination and independence – imbue the work she’s doing today in St. Petersburg.
Under the name Black Horse Theatre, she creates “avant-garde dance,” a uniquely visual form of non-linear storytelling that combines movement, theater and film, and often other elements – including shadows of danse macabre and theater of the absurd.
“I work very hard at crafting that image to give it its power and its impact,” Stampfle explains.
“It’s about being taken on a journey. All of the characters are theatrically-based and established; I then decide, ‘What is that character’s deepest secret?’”
In the case of Tied, which a small cast will present Saturday (Feb. 16) at thestudio@620, the central character (portrayed by Stampfle) has a trunkful of deep secrets.
Louise Davies is a displaced spirit at the bottom of the North Sea. A married woman of the Victorian era, she is in purgatory because of several unresolved issues in her life. “She’s tied on many levels – to the period, to the convention, to her husband,” says Stampfle. “She excelled as a viola player, it was her passion, but of course a woman of that time was not given the option of a career.
“She’s tied to the memory and horrific death of her son, her only child, in a house fire. She was unfulfilled in her marriage because it was a marriage of convenience. So she never experienced true love.”
The story involves Louise traveling on a ship with her servant, and the dead body of her husband. All spill into the ocean when the vessel capsizes; representative things from Louise’s life are summoned from a trunk that has sunk with them.
“I love to work with the surreal,” Stampfle enthuses. “So Louise is in this aquarium filled with water. It’s four and a half feet by three and a half feet. To me, that represents a slice of the bottom of the North Sea.”
Tied premiered in January at the Dali Museum, to a sold-out audience. “The Dali wouldn’t allow me to use any water, so I adapted it for that performance,” she says. “But for this one, I get to use real water.”
Stampfle spent part of her youth in in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of six children, she was accepted into the Royal Danish Ballet, training and performing for three years. “Once I started,” she recalls, “I knew that that’s what I would be doing. I was very focused and directed, since I was 8 years old.”
When her family returned to the United States, young Alice continued her dance training, and received a BFA in dance from OU. Following her professional years in New York (where she performed with, among others, the legendary Blondell Cummings), Stampfle returned to Ohio to teach, and while she was there earned two Masters degrees.
Over time, she began to realize that there were, for her, limitations to both ballet and modern dance –she was hungry for additional methods of expression, to fulfill her ambitions as a visceral storyteller. “I was always drawn to the character, I guess, and the idea that you can create a character that no one’s ever met before. To me, that’s so fascinating.”
She relocated to St. Petersburg a decade ago, to care for her aging parents, who had retired here. And she found, much to her delight, an audience receptive to her wildly interpretive and somewhat cerebral work. Area dancers, musicians, filmmakers, writers and artists began to seek her out for collaboration. She became an artist-in-residence at thestudio@620.
Stampfle is quite aware that her work is pretty far from the middle of the road. And she makes no apologies. “I’m fearless,” she says. “I never try to create a work, or adapt it, towards a particular audience. I think that good work will always be recognized. There’s an appetite for it. And you can always build an audience.”
For Tied, which Stampfle says will be her final performance at thestudio@620 (she’s moving to several new venues), she created the costumes for all five characters, and designed and painted the sets. She is the only full-time member of Black Horse Theatre.
“It’s important, yes, to experience life and to have a family, and friendships, and have those connections outside of the work,” she declares. “But I can’t separate myself from the work – it’s a part of who I am. And whether I’m working on a project or not, I’m always utilizing my eye. Always developing my eye.”
Cast: Helen Hansen French, Ellyce Hamel, Martin Rivera, Beau Smith and Alice Ferrulo Stampfle.
Narrator: Bonnie Agan.
Narration Writer, Video Projection Director and Soundtrack Producer: Victoria Jorgensen.
Tickets and additional information here.