Sunday, October 27, 2013

Dracula: The Second Time Around

Mina / Harker pas de deux    © SKepecs 2013
by Susan Kepecs
I’m head over heels in love with Dracula.  The ballet, that is, choreographed by Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith.  It celebrated its world premiere at Overture’s Capitol Theater in March and made a four-day return run at the same venue last week (Weds. – Sat., Oct. 23-26).  Forty-eight hours after leaving the theater I’m still dreaming in steampunk, and I can’t get Michael Massey’s brilliant rock n’ roll ballet score, written specifically for this prodution, out of my head.
Dracula isn’t the apogee of classical dance.  It lacks the startling avant garde edge of the Balanchine / Stravinsky ballets or the lush mindfulness of Alonzo King’s cosmic abstractions.  But Dracula’s a pitch-perfect ballet for our times – bold and fresh, sexy, fast-paced, and extremely entertaining.  It’s just the right two-hour horror story escape for a world filled with real-life political-economic horrors.  Swan Lake, with its dark fairy tale base, must have had similar significance when it premiered at the Bolshoi in 1877; at the time, the Old World economy, overshadowed by the fast-rising US, was rocked by recession, and the Russian and Ottoman Empires were at war.
Not unlike the perfection of a really great Swan Lake, every single component of Madison Ballet’s Dracula – Smith’s sleek, contemporary choreography, Jen Trieloff’s smart, Broadway-style set, Karen Brown-Larimore’s over-the-top neo-Victorian costumes, Kenneth Ferencek’s bold, primary-hued lighting (punched up an order of magnitude since March), Massey’s score (played live by his seven-man band on a platform high above the stage), and, most importantly, the dancing – was beautifully turned.
Almost all of the cast in the very slightly revised October production mirrored March, and the second time around the choreography was set in the dancers’ bones.  Instead of thinking about which foot goes where and when they just danced, and it was obvious that they were having more fun doing it.
New company members hit a few small bumps.  Two of Dracula’s three harpy (half woman, half bat) brides (Morgan Davison and Courtney Stohlton) joined the troupe just this fall.  They danced competently; they were appropriately vampy, and wore the right blood-hungry expressions.  But they were largely eclipsed by veteran bride Shannon Quirk, a long-limbed, expressive dancer with a singularly elegant post-Balanchine style.
Apprentice Jackson Warring, also new to Madison Ballet, did an absolutely beautiful job dancing in the role of the bug-eating, crotch-grabbing, split-leaping lunatic Renfield, but I wasn’t quite convinced he was crazy.
And that’s about it.  Everything else looked polished to near-perfection. The sheer spectacle of the big corps numbers – Gypsies and Minions – was exciting to watch.  So many trained bodies moving in unison, filling the frame of the proscenuim arch with tightly choreographed patterns!  Gypsies had more attitude, though Minions, a wild firecracker of a dance with batlike arm movements, men and women all flaunting enormous red satin skirts, was more visually stunning.
Marguerite Luksik took the Lucy Westernra role to new heights, playing her rock n’ roll number with wanton abandon, head loose on her shoulders like a tipsy disco dancer’s as she flirted outrageously with her three suitors (Bjorn Bolinder, Phillip Ollenburg and the irrepressible Anthony Femath).  In the spooky, blood red-lit tomb sequence she arched up from the cold slab, hissing and fearless, and allowed herself to be tossed violently through the air from one member of vampire hunter Van Helsing’s posse to the next.  Subtler, and even more surprising, was her short, mournful nightmare adagio, built on utterly classical steps spiced improbably with limber, rolling hips.
Rachelle Butler, replacing Jennifer Tierney in the Mina Murray role, was Wonder Woman to Tierney’s fairy princess.  The difference was striking, though both were aptly typecast – in Bram Stoker’s story, Mina, a complex character, embodies both of those female archetypes.  But Butler, unlike Tierney, is Smith’s quintessential dancer – she’s got his slightly quirky, Balanchinesque timing down cold, which she proved beyond shadow of doubt in the breezy, luxurious neoclassical variation she danced before Lucy appeared. 
During Luksik’s wild rock out, Butler, on the sidelines, could have been sassier, but her Wonder Woman side came out in spades during the battle with Dracula, and the subtle, jazzy undercurrent in her dancing rendered spicy her three pas de deux, one with Matthew Linzer (Dracula) and two with Brian Roethlisberger (her fiancée, Jonathan Harker).  The slow Mina / Dracula pas seemed dangerously lustful; in one especially sexy sequence she wrapped her leg around him in attitude; he lifted her onto his shoulder, from which she slid, trancelike, down his back.  The Mina / Harker pas, in contrast, were happy little rock n’ roll affairs.  The pleasure Butler and Roethlisberger took in a playful merengue – cha was palpable, and their relaxed partnering, rich with tricky dips and lifts, revealed the real-life trust that exists between the two.
Roethlisberger, who, standing still, looks slight, and the physically more imposing Linzer – as well as Jacob Ashley, in the Van Helsing role – served up satisfying doses of the bold, airborne steps audiences crave.  Ashley’s forte is daredevil jumps – switch leaps, revoltades, double tour jetes.  Done in the context of pursuing Dracula, carrying an outsize weapon and wearing a long leather coat, these audacious capers gained a fantastically comic, movie superhero edge.
Roethlisberger's blessed with natural ability -- he first caught my eye when he was a talented teen dancing with Carol Ceniti's Jazzworks.  He's more than a decade into his professional career now,  and his artistry's skyrocketed over the last year or so. Trapped in Dracula's castle, he flung himself into crisp multiple pirouettes, pranced like a matador, and sailed his big bravura jumps high into the air.  That's pure ballet, perfectly executed; it was one of the best sequences in the show.
Linzer possesses impressive stage presence and physical prowess, though he spends much of his time onstage plying the former quality, stalking his victims with undulating, undead-like movements in the frontal plane. His short bursts of bravura throughout the ballet are like little teasers; the big disappointment of the original Dracula choreography was that we hardly got to see him strut his best dance chops.  That shortcoming was remedied in the revised ballet with a final tour-de-force death variation that played up the interplay between dance and theater.  Dracula'd been shot.  With blood spilling from his gut he was wobbly, but Linzer was in complete control.  He whipped through a string of coupe jete turns with wrists flexed and a look of sheer agony on his face, fangs showing.  Then he staggered, spun and fell, and with his last gasp he tried to bite Van Helsing, who triumphantly finished him off by driving a stake through his heart. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Day in the Life of Dracula ..... Rehearsal

                                            Linzer bites Butler                    ©SKepecs 2013
by Susan Kepecs
Matthew Linzer, who was Count Dracula in the world premiere of Madison Ballet’s steampunk vampire production last spring, is Count Dracula again – just in time for Halloween. The chic and sexy show runs next Weds. – Sat. (Oct. 23-26) in Overture’s Capitol Theater.  Linzer is waiting for a rehearsal of company artistic director W. Earle Smith’s choreographic take on Bram Stoker’s Victorian Gothic horror story when I walk into the big, warm-toned studio.  He’s sitting in the floor in second position, leaning forward on his elbows, checking his cell phone.  Some dancers are stretching; others go over steps together along the back wall. 
The CD of local composer Michael Massey’s rock n’ roll Dracula score, written specifically for Smith’s ballet, starts up.  Brian Roethlisberger (Jonathan Harker) looks around, obviously spooked, and leaps into the grand allegro that is his captive-in-the-castle variation.  Linzer stands up, rolls his shoulders a few times to get ready to move, and begins to slink across the floor toward Roethlisberger, who’s started a series of second position pirouettes.  Linzer bows to his prisoner and circles him, looking hungry.  His lip curls; his mouth closes on Roethlisberger’s neck. It’s ambiguous – a kiss, or a bite?  Roethlisberger falls, exhausted, watching warily; Linzer turns away, sweeping through an enchaînement of tour jetes, saute de chats, pirouettes and attitude turns, then doubles back and crouches suggestively over his victim. 
The lunatic Renfield (Jackson Warring) does his batty little dance; Linzer / Dracula watches, mildly amused, then bites the crazy man’s neck and flings him to the floor. 
Marguerite Luksik (Lucy Westernra), rehearsing the nightmare scene, executes a set of elastic, hip-rolling turns.  Linzer warms up again; some cobra-like pushups on the floor, a luxurious piriformis stretch with one knee propped on the closed top of the Steinway.  And in the blink of an eye he's back in action, sinking his teeth into Luksik’s neck and quickly turning away, fangs still bared, wiping hot blood from his lips.  Now he’s stalking Lucy’s best friend and Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray (Rachelle Butler), with whom he dances a languid, sensuous pas de deux, his extraordinary teeth hovering near her neck.

I’ve fallen through the looking glass.  Even though the dancers are in plain practice togs I’m nearly convinced this is real.  At rehearsal break I follow Linzer / Dracula down the hall, hoping to see what vampires do in their spare time.  I find him relaxing in a striped, upholstered chair nestled in a windowless corner of the Madison Ballet office.  I venture some questions.

CulturalOyster: How do vampires get ready for rehearsal? 

Linzer: Blood, then coffee, then more blood, then more coffee.  Maybe a blood smoothie or two.  Hopefully I’m full during the day so there’s not so much temptation to snack on my partners.  And of course vampires take class like everyone else, so it starts there.  It’s hard to get warm, ‘cause we’re cold blooded – essentially I’m dead.  And I’m stiff when I get up from the coffin, so I have to loosen up quite a bit.  I do special fang warmups to get the blood flowing. 

CulturalOyster: But you can dance during the day?  I thought you only came out at night. 

Linzer: I’m superhuman, so I just work around it.  Of course, I do some of my best work at night – I think over what happened during the day, what could be better, and what I need to work on the next day.  It’s not easy for me, doing day work.  I’m not a person who just pops right up and gets ready; I need a relaxed start and a good breakfast. I try to be very balanced and calm – tension doesn’t work for me.  And then when we drive over here I’m covered in a black shroud, so I don’t burn up on the way.  Luckily, the studio has no windows.  Once I get here I try to have a good time – it should be fun, and it is.  Earle is great to work with, and so are my partners. 

CulturalOyster: How did a vampire like you get started in this career? 

Linzer: I was born in Maryland, in the DC area.  I started dancing because when I was really little I would dance around my house to pop music and I was driving my mom nuts, so she put me in a Saturday morning dance class that ended up being ballet.  I wasn’t too keen on it, but she bribed me to try it.  By first grade I’d ended up at Maryland Youth Ballet, where I studied till my senior year.  When I graduated I went to Juilliard; later I danced with Ballet Memphis and then moved to the Bay Area, where I’ve been for the last eight years.  I danced with Oakland Ballet, Diablo, and Smuin; I’ve also freelanced quite a bit, including with Madison Ballet.  Right now I’m concentrating on freelancing and figuring out what’s next for me.  

CulturalOyster: I imagine freelancing gives you the flexibility to move around, say from Transylvania to England, when you need to.  But is being a dancer a good life for a vampire? 

Linzer: Why not?  We perform at night, there’s drama, there’s occasional blood.  And definitely, whether you’re doing Dracula or Nutcracker, there’s a sexuality to dance.  You’re touching people and interacting with them.  It’s not always sexual but it’s always sensory, and there’s something very intriguing about that. 

CulturalOyster: What about all the biting and kissing?

Linzer: I just do it, it doesn’t mean anything, there’s no personal attachment – it’s just part of the power and control that’s the key to the character.  Part of that is sexual prowess.  Biting someone on their neck is very erogenous, there’s something very sexual about vampires and it’s very intimate, how we feed.  It’s not formal sitting-at-the-table – you have to have another person there in order to satisfy your cravings.  For rehearsal it’s just an act, and I can detach from the reality of hunger – I’m not really feeding, I just have in my falsies, er, my fang dentures.  Onstage it’s all heightened, it’s more realistic when you put on those clothes and get all done up.  And it’s a little darker in the theater, so I like it a lot more. 

CulturalOyster: Are some kisses sexier than others in this ballet?

Linzer: Most of them are about power.  I never kiss Renfield, I just bite – I think of him as a malleable pawn.  He’s a little off-color – there’s something that intrigues me from a power point of view, I like to play with that, but he’s a little too weird – his essence doesn’t quite entice me.
It’s a little more lustful with Harker – there’s an innocence to him.  He definitely gets me going.  I want to invite him into my world, but he’s definitely not going to fit in there – there’s no long-term connection, it’s more of a fling.
When I bite Lucy, I’m hungry. Blood tastes good, it’s the only thing I can eat.  It satisfies the senses.  The taste, the texture, the feel of it running down your face, the whole sense of exerting physical dominance – I really jump on her.  It’s not dainty, it’s really quite carnal.  It’s exciting, feeling the blood and the satisfaction of feeding on someone – sex and power sometimes go hand in hand, and part of my power is sexual. 
But Mina – there’s something special about her, her blood, her smell, her essence, it’s like a fine wine.  There’s definitely much more of an allure.  She’s the rare case – it’s more love than lust.  I still try to bite her, but I’m a little more sensitive – I’m more lenient with her. 
Lucy and Mina, how could they not like it?  I think there’s definitely fear, ‘cause it’s unknown – I do hurt and kill people by feeding off them.  They don’t want to be my victims, but there’s something mesmerizing about me, so there’s temptation.  They might be innocent, but they both have an underlying, insatiable quality within them – they like to bad boy a little bit.

CulturalOyster: You get killed at the end of Dracula.  What happens when a vampire dies?

Linzer: In real life we have to be staked.  Luckily, since this is only a ballet we have a trick stake.  Even so, it’s very fearful for me.  First I get shot, and then I feed off myself – I kind of enjoy that, the heat and the blood.  My final dance is about being vulnerable and wounded and less powerful, more helpless – and then I get fake-staked.  I feel bad for the guys who have to carry me up the stairs [on the set] at the end. 
Don’t let having seen Madison Ballet’s Dracula last spring at its world premiere stop you from going again.  It’s much jucier the second time around!  Three of the four principles (Linzer, Roethlisberger, Luksik) are the same, but Rachelle Butler replaces Jennifer Tierney as Mina Murray.  Don’t miss Butler's performance, she’s one of the quintessential Madison Ballet dancers.  There are a few new dancers in the company, too, which adds spice.
If you need the Cliff Notes to follow the story, here’s the link:  ... and remember, it's Halloween.  Steampunk attire or your spookiest vampire outfits are totally appropriate for the theater.