Ever since a series of books and the subsequent movies involving a virtuous vampire swept onto the pop culture scene, all things vampire-related at least reference the overblown and overrated Twilight. Well, consider this the obligatory mention. Now, let’s move on.
Ben Stevenson offers up his take on the vampire mythology as Texas Ballet Theater presents Dracula at Bass Performance Hall. For those expecting the traditional Bram Stoker fare involving Mina, Jonathan, Lucy, etc., this could either be a disappointment or a pleasant surprise. Stevenson retains the mythological characteristics of Stoker’s creation and the basic structure of the tale: Dracula wants girl, girl’s friends hunt Dracula. However, the story is much simplified in favor of creating mood and emotion.
Act I opens in Count Dracula’s (Peter Zweifel) lair high in the mountains with his multitude of undead brides. Thirsty for more blood and another trophy wife, he sends his servant Renfield (Thomas Kilps) to the village for the next victim. Act II takes place in the village at the base of the mountain where Svetlana (Carolyn Judson), the innkeeper’s daughter is celebrating her eighteenth birthday. After accepting a proposal from Frederick (Lucas Priolo), Dracula kidnaps her as his next bride. Act III returns to the crypt as the Count attempts to seduce the new arrival. A team of rescuers arrives to fight off the Count, the brides, and Renfield, finally sealing the fate of the vampires with a rush of sunlight.
This is another chance to see the astonishing artistry of TBT. Stevenson brilliantly weaves classical technique with the sensuality of modern and contemporary for the brides and with the grounded nature of folk dance for the villagers. Kilps as Renfield explodes, scurries about, and almost steals the show, as if someone pressed the fast forward button. Zweifel’s performance as Dracula fills the entirety of the hall, and his intensely suspenseful seduction of his victims completely draws the audience in. Priolo not only demonstrates his usual exciting technical ability, but also proves to be a comical, romantic, yet dashing hero. Judson’s natural delicacy and playfulness fits perfectly with her role as the heroine.
The performances are phenomenal, but the beauty and genius of this ballet comes in the form of the unexpected moments, the unsettling subtleties, and the intriguing ability of the performers to bring the audience into their world. So if you’re the type who hates spoilers of any kind and loves to be completely surprised, consider this to be a two-thumbs-up, everyone-must-see-this, what-are-you-waiting-for review and stop reading. For the rest of you whose interest is now piqued, read on.
For those familiar with the structure of classical ballet, this might feel like the type of dream where things are mostly the same, but something is not quite right. First, the arrangement and choreographic style of Act I in Dracula’s crypt feels like it belongs later in the ballet, based on general convention. A village scene typically happens at the beginning of a ballet, but appears here in the middle. Stevenson’s composition choices are a little bewildering but just add to the eeriness of the story.
Act II provides the most suspense. The coloring of the scenery, mountainous backdrop, and even the hues of the Eastern European-style folk costumes all remind the audience that even though merry festivities abound, we have been introduced to Dracula and we know he’s coming. We just don’t know when.
The technical feats of the production are shockingly exciting. Dracula and his brides go from floating across the floor to soaring in the air, an effect which always made the audience gasp in surprise. Costume and set designers (Judanna Lynn and Thomas Boyd, respectively) create a visual feast of pattern and texture that transforms the hall into another dimension. The most electrifying moment comes with the pyrotechnics involved in Dracula’s death.
We think the curtain is going to fall on the reunited lovers after the undead have been vanquished and the couple walks off into the sunlight. But Stevenson has one more jolt for us. And it’s the biggest detail left out this review.
You’ll just have to see it to find out.
◊ Note: The cast names mentioned here were for Friday night’s performance, but most of the main characters switch roles throughout the run of the show.
◊ Be sure and click on the slideshow icon below the image at the top of this review, and you can see more than 30 images of the performance, taken by Sharen Bradford of The Dancing Image.