Monday, March 11, 2013

Dance Review: Dracula!

                                                                                            © SKepecs 2013
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith took a big, bold risk with his all-new steampunk rock n’ roll production of Dracula. It paid off, in spades.  Not that the ballet I saw Friday night (Mar. 8) in Overture’s Capitol Theater was perfect. There were minor glitches, a few slips and wobbles, and in several spots the choreography still needed work. But for a spanking-new show straight out of the box, Dracula was pretty damn good. 
  Successful story ballets tell the tale without sacrificing dance on the altar of drama. If you were unfamiliar with Bram Stoker’s 1897 Victorican Gothic horror story, on which Smith’s ballet was based, and if you overlooked the program notes, you might have been a little lost.  But Smith did his research. The periodization was done to a turn. The keys to the plot were all in plain sight.  And dance prevailed – Dracula’s a ballet, not a play.
  The dancing itself didn't carry all the weight.  It was good, and occasionally excellent. Smith’s choreography was articulate and bright, with a huge kinesthetic feel and an inventive vocabulary that’s part contemporary, part neoclassical, part rock n’ roll, part bat. But it was the total package that told the tale – the flow of movement partnered with smart production design and a sparkling score. 
   Jen Trieloff’s set, constructed from aluminum trusses, scaffolding and platforms adorned with with astrolabes and gears, simultaneously evoked rock concerts and the Industrial Revolution, during which the story is set. Overexposed, sepia-toned projections in keeping with the late nineteenth century birth of moving pictures suggested the scene changes; steam engines and horse-drawn carriages marked Jonathan Harker’s trip to Transylvaina; ships’ portholes and billowing waves accompanied Dracula’s voyage to England; bat shadows flickered across a full moon that hovered appropriately above the vampire bite scenes.  Karen Brown-Larimore’s savvy steampunk costuming – Django Unchained meets Moulin Rouge burlesque – similarly cinched Victorian past to rock n’ roll present.
Composer / keyboardist Michael Massey’s robust score, played by his seven-man band on a platform high above the stage, is ballet music as surely as Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker – but hey, it’s rock n’ roll.  The themes that accompanied the principal characters – synth-heavy and rhythmic for Dracula, melodic and violin-driven for the virtuous and pure Mina Murray – played a part in driving the plot.
       Smith didn’t shy away from the psychosexual implications of Stoker’s novel, written in light of Sigmund Freud’s then-emerging body of work on hysteria and repression. Vampires are notoriously bisexual, and Smith shows Dracula caressing Harker seductively; Lucy, turned into a vampire, bestows a lascivious kiss on Mina’s lips.  In Stoker’s story the lunatic Renfield, a nod to Freud’s early work on schizophrenia, eats small critters to absorb their powers.  Smith’s Renfield, the very proficient James Stevko, who’s got a flair for comedy (he was Quince the carpenter in the company’s 2011 Midsummer Night’s Dream), does a loony little crotch-grabbing, insect-eating dance, cut to perfection with clean, pure ballet.
  Most of the choreoraphy wove styles that way. In the castle scene at the start of the ballet, Jonathan Harker (Brian Roethslisberger), seen through a scrim, reacts to imprisonment with fright and flight.  His powerful solo – the best I’ve ever seen from him – stirred prancing, flamenco-like steps into a sweeping, Smith-style grand allegro.  Roethslisberger’s partnering in his two pas de deux with fiancée Mina Murray (the lithe and dreamy Jennifer Tierney) was pale by comparison.
Dracula (the imposing Matthew Linzer) often moved in loose, lateral steps – the opposite of the diagonal dynamic we earthly humans employ.  But this quirky vampirishness was mixed with sailing grand allegro steps, because, you know, it’s ballet.
  The dancing in the big corps numbers – Dracula’s Gypsies, in Act I, and his Minions, at the end of Act II – was hard-driving and tight. The Brides of Dracula (Yu Suzuki, Shannon Quirk, Rachelle Butler) were wonderful, seducing Harker with come-hither neoclassical dance adorned with batlike upper-body contractions, arms like wings waving overhead. Slinking into elastic, long-legged arabesques and attitude turns they fluttered their soft white nightgowns and showed their fangs – a demented fairy pas de trois, or three crazed Isadora Duncans on pointe.
Tierney was aptly cast as the innocent Mina. Her variation in the scene at Lucy Westernra’s house was lovely and soft; her two pas de deux with Roethslisberger were playful and sweet. But the lifts during her pas with Dracula were choreographically awkward. More than once Linzer tossed her onto his back into mildly compromising positions that, plainly put, showed more than enough garter.
  Madison Ballet powerhouse Marguerite Luksik, who’s actually cast against type in her annual Nutcracker Sugarplum fairy role, was electrifying as the wanton hellcat Lucy.  She rocked out in a wild danse en pointe, rolling her shoulders and circling her forearms over a series of sixth position piques, flirtatious little knock-kneed jumps and jazzy drag steps.  Her liquid nightmare variation, done under a full moon and set to mournful music, showcased sleek neoclassical pointework shaded with subtle hip and shoulder rolls.
  Luksik’s vampire dance, in the depths of Lucy’s tomb, was the pinnacle of this production.  The music went rhythmic, with a hint of clave.  Blood red-lit columns descended from above while light patterns on the floor played back and forth – a spooky hallucination.  The vampire slayer, Dr. Van Helsing (Jacob Ashley) and his posse – Mina and Harker, plus Lucy’s three suitors (Bjorn Bolinder, Anthony Femath and Phillip Ollenburg) – burst into the scene. Luksik arched up off her cold morgue slab, hissing, and hovered, bat-like, among the men, who lifted and dipped her and literally tossed her through the air from one to the next. Death defying!  The audience gasped. Van Helsing chopped off her head at the end of this pas de sept. 
  What followed – the killing of Dracula – was, as in the novel, anticlimatic.  The battle scene in which Van Helsing and his allies go after the big vampire was amply dynamic, especially the exchange between Ashley and Linzer involving a lift / cabriole / toss sequence.  And Linzer got in a short coupe jeté / attitude turn combination before Ashley drove the stake through his heart.  But the final emphasis on blood licking and agonized cape flinging was disapointing.  We didn’t quite see enough of Dracula in this ballet, which left me hungry for more.  Some spectacularly furious bravura variation before he staggered into his final fall would have satisfied the craving.

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