Monday, March 4, 2013

Dracula Lives!

     Smith and ballet mistress Sarah Melli (back, left) watch Tierney and Linzer
   rehearse a pas de deux; Massey's band, in background.    © SKepecs 2013 
by Susan Kepecs
Vampires are coming – grab your garlic, protect your neck!  Madison Ballet premieres it’s all-new production of Dracula this weekend (March 8-10) at Overture’s Capitol Theater.  Artistic director W. Earle Smith’s choreographic take on Bram Stoker’s famous 1897 Victorian Gothic horror story promises to be the wildest, most contemporary ballet this small gem of a company has done in its five short years of existence.
    Over the last couple of decades Dracula’s been adapted by dozens of American ballet companies. One of the most successful versions, in fact, is Michael Pink’s, which has been a big hit for Milwaukee Ballet.  And dance companies often purchase the rights to other choreographers’ works.  Smith recently acquired George Balanchine’s “Valse – Fantasie;” it’s featured in the company’s upcoming repertory program, “Exposed,” which runs April 19-20 at the Bartell.  So why did Smith decide to do yet another Dracula?
    The inspiration to take on Stoker’s spooky story came from Smith's little brother (through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program) Ted, who’s a big fan of the Twilight books.  But Smith’s always been interested in vampires, witches and werewolves, he says.  The idea of doing Dracula was compelling, and other productions didn’t fill the bill.
    “When I wanted to do Midsummer Night’s Dream [last presented in 2011],” Smith says, “I decided against choreographing my own – there were Midsummers out there that I liked that would fit this company.  But I looked at other Draculas.  I liked the choreography in some of them, but what I didn’t like was the music.  It was always classical – either a score from another ballet or a compilation.  The score for one production used the ball scene from Romeo and Juliet.  It’s fabulous music, but I couldn’t get the idea of Romeo and Juliet out of my head.  And most of all I wanted Dracula to be a rock and roll ballet.  I thought about doing a rock compilation, but I was listening to music and fighting preconceived notions about what it meant.  So I decided that for my ballet I needed original rock music.”
    Smith asked Madison composer / keyboardist Michael Massey to write the score.  “Mike and I are friends and we have a close working relationship,” Smith says, “which allowed us to see this project in similar ways. The other thing is that the hardest part of composing a score for a two-hour ballet is to sustain the depth and variety of the music. Mike’s done a beautiful job in creating a work that not only tells the story but that’s interesting musically.  I’ll wake up in the morning and be humming melodies from the show, which tells me it’s good music, it’s memorable and impactful.  At first I considered choosing a composer out of New York or L.A., but the fact that Mike lives here is important.  We’ve been working together on Dracula regularly for over a year and a half, and twice a week for the last four months.  It makes the collaboration fun and lets Mike really bring life to the music.  I’ve been working on the choreography since last September, developing a contemporary vocabulary for this particular ballet, and as I worked on it he’d come in to the studio to watch the excerpts and see where it was going.”
    This close collaboration proved crucial for Smith’s concept. In story ballets achieving balance between dancing and acting can be tricky. Too many productions tip toward theatrics, a criticism that’s not uncommon in reviews of other Dracula productions.  Sometimes, though, the story line’s pared down to almost nothing, erasing the point.  In Smith’s Dracula, the interplay between dance and characterization relies heavily on the score.
    “What I think I’ve been able to do very successfully here is to marry the movement with the theatrical elements that are important in telling the story. I wanted to make this more about the dance than the story, but the score is the key to bringing it all out.  Each character has his or her own sound, so the essence of the protagonists is revealed through the music.  There’s obviously blocking involved to tell the story – Dracula bites Lucy, those kinds of things – but the action’s all related in contemporary ballet movement.”

Massey’s six-piece rock n’ roll band (keyboards, electric violin, two guitars, bass, drum kit) will play live onstage. 
    Like Massey’s score, the production design drives a stake through the hearts of more traditional adaptations.  You won’t find many Draculas, on stage or in film, that don’t cling to Victorian aesthetics. But Smith chose flat-out steampunk style for his sets and costumes instead; the look of his ballet’s rooted in Victorian forms, but it’s sci-fied and punkified to the hilt.
    The choreography’s classic Smith, recalling his earlier repertory works of contemporary tone, like “Night Dances” (2004) and “Expressions” (2011).  But from what I saw in the rehearsal I watched, it’s much bolder and more sophisticated. Some of the pas de deux are dangerously sexy, and Smith, who’s sometimes held back from staging the poppy petit allegros and sweeping grand allegros he gives in class, has gone full-out.
    The cast looks terrific.  Matthew Linzer, who’s danced with Bay-area ballet companies Smuin, Diablo, and Oakland, and whose soloist credits are many, takes the title role in his first Madison Ballet appearance.  Company veteran Jennifer Tierney, who’s been missing in Madison since we last saw her in 2011 as the bride in Midsummer’s wedding grand pas classique, is perfectly cast as the ethereal Mina.  The very solid Brian Roethlisberger is her fiancée, Jonathan Harker.  Marguerite Luksik, whose principal Madison Ballet roles include Midsummer’s Puck and Nutcracker’s Clara-cum-Sugarplum Fairy, is Mina’s Dracula-bitten best friend Lucy.  Long-time company member Jacob Ashley is Dr. Van Helsing, who, being a scientist, knows how to handle vampires. The corps – the rest of the regular company, plus five strong young male dancers imported for this production – looks looks pretty damn good, too, and the corps numbers are dotted with short solos, which lets everyone show off.     
     And Dracula is both dark and fun.  It was still being set when I watched a rehearsal.  Smith and his dancers were going over the scene in which Van Helsing and his friends prepare to capture Lucy, who’s become a vampire, and cut off her head.  Smith worked out an allegro combination full of chugs and failles, sautés and runs, and gave the dancers their motivation: “We got our mission and we’re gonna kick ass!  We’re gonna get that Lucy!  When a vampire comes runnin’ at your face, dude, run!  Don’t just stand there!”
    Waving imaginary weapons, the members of Van Helsing's posse ran.  Everybody laughed. 

A not-quite-set rehearsal’s a long way from a finished production.  I can’t comment on how all the elements work together, or how well the exuberant choreography will fit Capitol Theater’s smallish stage.  But Dracula has the potential to be Smith’s best ballet yet. 
If you need a plot refresher, there's one here:
... and if it tickles your fancy, wear your steampunk best to the show!  

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