The Draw of Dracula

Classic Arts Features   The Draw of Dracula
 
Margaret Putnam takes a bite into Ben Stevenson's ballet creation, which returns to Houston Ballet this fall.

Bats, fangs, blood and gore‹oh, how we love a good scare. Houston Ballet's Dracula offers all but the fangs in delightful provocative fullness, down to the enormous bat shaped cape, the eerie nocturnal setting, and Franz Liszt's disturbing score. Evil sells.

Artistic director Stanton Welch thought it was time to bring Ben Stevenson's creation ‹which premiered March 1997 at the Wortham Center‹back to life. "Ben's version has a long shelf life," Mr. Welch says. "Ballets can age, even Swan Lake. You have to ask, 'does it do something new for you?' I am very confident about Dracula. We have strong actors, and it's huge to have some of the original cast."

Mr. Stevenson's version celebrated the 100th anniversary of the publication on Bran Stoker's gothic thriller. To put it into ballet form, Stevenson took liberties with the plot, skipping England altogether and placing all the action in Transylvania. The first and third acts are set in the Count's gloomy castle, and the second in the village. He whittles down the number of characters, focusing on two virgins, a fiancé, 18 vampire brides, and the mad, spider gobbling henchman Renfield.

This is a serious Dracula, structured in the classical style, and portraying Dracula as a man whose sensual appeal entices victim after victim, the prettier the better.

The myth of a vampire who roams at night, feasting on blood, goes back centuries. But it was Stoker's B-grade novel that ignited an entire subculture of vampire lore. Think of the 1922 silent movie, Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror; Anne Rice's psychologically driven Interview with a Vampire; or the uber Dracula of all, Bela Lugosi in the 1933 classic movie. Naturally, cartoons, farces and parodies followed, in the form of other movies, posters, poems, music, paintings and the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Other offshoots include the band Fat Dracula, the book Dracula Cha Cha Cha, a rock opera, postage stamps and T-shirts. There are also Dracula clubs, societies, symposiums, tours and conventions, as well as a Vampire-Santa tree, plastic Dracula Ducks and a board game, Dracula's Revenge. The last time I checked eBay, there were 2117 Dracula items for sale.

And then there is Halloween, a great excuse for kids to go in for chalk white faces, fangs and capes.

Choreographers can't resist either, and not just Mr. Stevenson. There are at least a dozen Dracula ballets, beginning with the 1899 version created for the Budapest Opera. More recently, James Clouser's clever Vampire Follies: La Cage des Vambyres for Ballet Dallas envisioned Dracula as an artistic director and his victims eager dancers auditioning for a ballet. Others keep closer to Stoker's novel, like Michael Pink's version for Northern Ballet Theatre and William Starrett's Dracula: Ballet with a Bite for Columbia City Ballet. Mark Godden's Dracula was so popular that it almost single handedly got the financially strapped Royal Winnipeg Ballet back on its feet.

The beauty of Dracula is its mutability. Every age shivers anew, casting its own interpretation on the symbolic meaning of blood and never-ending life. For Victorians, it was the forbidden pleasure behind Dracula fangs. The danger of exchanging blood resonated with new meaning 100 years later in the era of the AIDS epidemic.

It also explains why there are so many different versions of ballets, movies, and rock operas, from the camp to the terrifying.

Stevenson's ballet falls somewhere in between. "A little over the top," is how principal Barbara Bears, the original Svetlana in Stevenson's production, describes it. "Ben's is lighter than most ballets I've seen," says Mr. Welch. "And there is a romantic element," he says, referring to the subplot that involves the lovers Svetlana and Frederic.

For Mr. Stevenson, there is nothing camp about his scenario. "It is a chilling story, and Dracula is evil."

New full length ballets are a rarity in this age, expensive to stage, requiring just the right dancers, and most important of all, securing the right music. 19th-century choreographers often had the luxury of working side by side with composers, breaking down the scenario into acts, scenes and numbers.

Mr. Stevenson did the same, but in a reverse way. He told John Lanchbery, the most accomplished of ballet music arrangers, "Try to find something for Dracula to change into a bat and fly around the stage." The choice was Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, whose taste for the gothic, supernatural and macabre fit perfectly. Lanchbery arranged numerous pieces from Liszt's oeuvre, including the scary "The Dance of Death" for the prelude, "The Lugubrious Gondola" for the 18 brides and "From the Cradle to the Grave" for Renfield.

In keeping with Dracula's aristocratic origins‹he is a Count, after all‹only elegant attire and a huge, if menacing, castle would do. Thomas Boyd provided appropriately gloomy sets and Judanna Lynn a 30-pound, 23 foot long cape for Dracula and filmy Pre-Raphaelite inspired dress of the brides. "The cape is a work of art," says wardrobe mistress Patricia Padilla. "It's heavy velvet, appliquéd in many ways, with a three dimensional bat image on the back. The royal colors are purples, blues, black and gold, and the lining purple."

The brides wear identical wigs‹"more white than blond"‹and gowns "that are very ghost like. The sheer fabric is distressed to look muddy, as thought they are roaming the graveyard, with bits of leaves and flowers sewn in. The fabric moves in whispers, like air," Ms. Padilla says.

As for Mr. Stevenson's original Dracula, Tim O'Keefe found having a role created for him "fulfilling." "It requires so much energy. It deals with the basic urges of life, and how Dracula's addictions propel his actions. That intensity must show even when he is standing still."

As for the cape, "it weighs like a coffin," Mr. O'Keefe says. "But once you put it on, you become Dracula."

Margaret Putnam lives in Richardson, Texas, and writes about dance regularly for The Dallas Morning News.


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