Dallas — What is it with our fascination with vampires? They are everywhere these days, from movies to miniseries extravaganzas. Tales about them go back to the Middle Ages, although they have changed from being red faced mischief makers, still wearing their burial shrouds to the pale supernatural beings with extraordinary powers that be see today. This image was created by Bram Stoker with his 1897 novel Dracula, the subject of Ben Stevenson’s ballet that Texas Ballet Theater is currently performing the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, joined by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This oft-revived ballet—the first time TBT has performed it in Dallas—will transport itself to Bass Hall in October, accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony.
Stevenson’s ballet could have been choreographed at the same time as Stoker’s novel debuted. It is an “order” ballet with set numbers that are relatively self-contained. In this, Dracula is in the grand tradition of ballets like those choreographed, or revived by, Marius Petipa: Adams’ Gisele and the Tchaikovsky masterpieces such as Swan Lake and The Seeping Beauty. In fact, the parallel with Giselle is noticeable, with Dracula’s identical and ghostly brides similar to the equally undead Wilis.
The order ballet gave way to the dramballet, as promoted by the Kirov in the 1930’s, such as Prokofkiev's Romeo and Juliet with choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky. A dramballet (dramatized ballet) is where the story line unfolds like a stage play without any noticeable divisions.
Stevenson takes what he wants from both traditions. From the dramballet, he incorporates more character dancing to bring some “real life” into his portrayals, so that we get to know all of these involved. From the older tradition, in addition to the divisions, he uses some of the more formal classical mime traditions but he also uses non-mime gestures to convey thoughts and feelings.
A good example of Stevenson’s approach is the wonderful Grand Pas de Deux in the village scene. All of the classical elements are there: entrée, adage, variation for the danseuse, variation for the danseur, and a fiery coda for both of them. However, rather than stop in-between, Stevenson ties these elements together with interactions with the villagers and some banter between the two dancers.
The roles are triple cast and you can safely assume that all are of similar stellar abilities. On the evening of Sept. 5, Carolyn Judson was marvelous as Svetlana, combining poise with some youthful teasing. As her intended, Jyan Dai made a good-natured Frederick with just the right amount of swagger. Both added some believable humor into their characterizations, along with obvious affection for each other.
Alexander Kotelenets created an appropriately menacing Dracula, expelling evil breaths and using his monstrous cape like the wings of a bat. He mysteriously appeared and disappeared and flew through the air landing with a gentle soundlessness that made him all the creepier. The role is mostly dramatic mime, although nothing like the exaggerated gestures of yesteryear. In the few places where he had some real dancing to do, he was powerful and dominated the stage.
Renfield is one of those memorable characters, usually portrayed as completely insane in all of the incarnations of the Dracula legend on stage and screen. Stoker has Dr. Seward, who runs the insane asylum where Renfiled resides, describe him as 59-years-old with great physical strength, morbidly excitable, interspersed with periods of gloom. But in all Renfield incarnations, he eats living creatures such as bugs and even birds. Dr. Seward’s diagnosis is that he is a zoophagous maniac: a real medical term (minus maniac) that means one who feeds on live animals.
At the performance reviewed, Joamanuel Velazquez portrayed him with manic intensity. Constantly vibrating with energy, he combined the usual jumps and leaps with gymnastic propulsion to take everything he did to a new and spectacular level. His hysteria over the death of his master at the end of the ballet, frantically throwing himself repeatedly into the air as the curtain descends, is almost too horrible to comprehend.
All of the other lead dancers do an admirable job of being believable as the characters they portray.
Dracula’s airborne bevy of brides was quite a visual spectacle, but their precision arm movements, along with a villager’s dance with pounding staffs, presents a huge challenge to synchronization. To the credit of the corps, the few deviations were noticeable because of their rarity.
Now to the music.
John Lanchbery, one of the few ballet conductors to achieve any fame, assembled the score: they are usually an anonymous bunch no matter how deserving – such as Emil de Cou, who did such a fine job with Dracula (although his name comes at the bottom of the list). Lanchbery assembled a number of ballets from the music of composers as different as Sir Author Sullivan and Frédéric Chopin.
He first mined the rich vein of music left by Franz Liszt for MacMillan's ballet (1978). For that occasion it combined some 30 pieces. For Dracula, he knitted together an equal amount, some of it well known but more of it less familiar.
We expected to hear Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz and his Totentanz (“Dance of the dead”). However, the other music, some originally for piano, required some guessing. La Lugubre Gondola, a late work, resides in the first act. The aforementioned pas de deux is an orchestral transcription of Sposalizio from his cycle of piano music called “Years of Pilgrimage.” This comes from the second year of travel in Italy. Also from the “Years of Pilgrimage,” this time from the first year in Switzerland, Launchbery orchestrated the piano piece Vallee D'Obermann.
None of this really mattered to the overall effect. Liszt’s music, which can be bombastic, is treated with the respect it deserves and you would never believe that it was pieced together from multiple sources if you didn’t already know its origins. The score for Dracula is completely believable, never sounds forced, and flows as well as the best of Tchaikovsky.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra split its forces to play the ballet, with half of them at the Meyerson Symphony Center on opening weekend for a pops concert and the other half in the pit at the Winspear. They filled out their ranks with contract players, most of who appear regularly with the orchestra on an “as needed” basis. The result was impressive.
Since much of the music was originally for piano, that instrument was front ands center. The amazingly versatile Shields-Collins Bray, of the Fort Worth Symphony, did the honors in a most spectacular manner, tossing off Liszt’s nearly unplayable flourishes with flash. Too bad the piano was not precisely in tune, but in a way, that added to the rundown, cobweb-filled interior of Dracula’s castle.
Thomas Boyd’s sets contrast the innocent village square with the dank and rotting interior of Dracula’s castle. The costumes, by Judanna Lynn, were traditional and perfectly attuned to the time period. Dracula’s magnificent cape is a masterpiece. The lighting, by Timothy Hunter and recreated for this production by Lisa Miller, kept the interior of the castle dark and gloomy but we could also see everything clearly—no easy task. The village brightened considerably but not so much as to have come from anther ballet.
Dracula is a spectacle of a ballet: lavish in its production and amazing in its special events. Texas Ballet Theater has assembled a company of excellent dancers: as good as any you will see elsewhere, who bring this gothic horror story vividly to life. But it is Stevenson’s choreography, his unique combination of traditional ballet with recent trends, which has given Dracula its staying power, with multiple productions around the country.
Ballet fans, as well as those enamored with gothic horror and movies about vampires, should grab this opportunity to see it.
» Read our feature about this production of Dracula here