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. 

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