Thursday, October 22, 2015

Madison Ballet's Dracula Sizzles

Count Dracula ©  Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
They believed, so I did, too.  I’m talking about the dancers in Madison Ballet’s fast-paced feast of entertainment, cooked up by artistic director W. Earle Smith and featuring his own action-packed choreography, Michael Massey’s indelible rock n’ roll score (played live onstage by his band), Karen Brown-Larimore’s slick steampunk costuming, and a big Broadwayesque aluminum-truss set by the late Jen Trieloff.  It played Overture's Capitol Theater last weekend, Oct. 16-17.
Dracula premiered at Capitol Theater in March, 2013, and returned in October of that year.  In both of its previous runs it seemed like a series of somewhat disparate dances, held together by a thin thread of story plus the astute characterization in Massey’s score. But this time the cast reveled in the plot, taking the tale to new heights while refusing to sacrifice dance on the altar of drama. The ballet itself, with the exception of choreographic adjustments to suit the styles of dancers who’ve joined the company since the last time Dracula was staged, had few obvious changes.  Except one.  The action starts with Jonathan Harker trapped in Dracula’s castle, dancing frantically.  This solo of distress formerly was done behind a scrim, which provided a delicious air of mystery that gave way to spine-chilling shock – when the dance was done and the veil was lifted, there stood Dracula, in all his glory.  In last weekend’s production that magic was lost – the scrim was gone, the Harker variation brightly lit.
Other than that I have no complaints.  If Balanchine had created a sex-oozing rock n’ roll ballet in the twenty-first century, this would be it.  The dance for Dracula’s brides is unmistakably
Brides © Kat Stiennon 2015
neoclassical, despite its subject matter.  Abigail Henninger sizzled and slithered, Rachelle Butler was lascivious, Kelanie Murphy demonesque – but what really mattered was how the dancers’ precise pointework exaggerated their slinking hips.
The Dracula corps is packed with talented soloists, so it’s no surprise that some of the show’s best dancing happened in the ballet’s two large ensemble numbers.  In “Gypsies,” eight dancers in goggles and mohawks in charge of Dracula’s bags of dirt – vampires, of course, can only rest if their coffins are filled with earth from home – travel with the Count from Transylvania to England.  Ensconsed in the dark hold of a wave-tossed ship they shifted between partnering and unison work, rhythmic and expansive like the roiling sea.  “Minions” was bigger, wilder, and more beautiful, full of batlike contractions that marry latter-day Balanchine with Martha Graham.  All ten dancers (six women, four men) wore long red satin skirts that swirled and flew as they spun and lept, to dazzling effect.
As eager suitors of the coquette Lucy Westenra, the doctor (Jason Gomez), the Texan (Cyrus Bridwell), and the nobleman’s son (Phillip Ollenburg) brought out an arsenal of balletic pyrotechnics, competing for her attention with leaps and pirouettes.  When she became a vampire, their pursuit – and their arsenal – turned murderous.  The scene where van Helsing (Jacob Ashley) laid out his plan to slay the vampires just popped.  Men bravura dancing in unison, with guns – pow!
Ashley’s danced this role in every Madison Ballet Dracula production to date.  He’s always
van Helsing © Kat Stiennon 2015
been a powerful jumper – grand cabrioles, switch leaps, and tours en l’air are his specialties – but he’s upped his acting ante since last we saw him in van Helsing’s leather frock coat.  He was so authoritative he looked presidential (ok, yes, it’s primary season), directing his posse in the hemovore hunt.
Jackson Warring, cast again as Dracula’s lackey (the crotch-grabbing, insect-eating lunatic Renfield), has grown into his role, too.  He came across as blazingly crazy, and he nailed the intricate rhythmic shifts in Massey’s spot-on maniac music.  This is much harder than it looks, since it demands complicated counts and an almost constant string of various kinds of jumps.
The part of Lucy Westenra was danced by McKenna Collins, one of two current company dancers who’ve come up through the School of Madison Ballet.  At 19, this was her first principal role.  A hint of tension that showed mostly in her shoulders held her back at the start of her opening number, a wildly flirtatious rock n’ roll romp, but the stress vanished when her boyfriends charged onstage.  It was fun to see her relax and let go, ripping through the rest of the dance with great delight that didn’t abate as the plot moved along.  Drained by Dracula, laid out in her tomb, and sensing the
Lucy in the tomb © Kat Stiennon 2015
presence of van Helsing’s posse, she heaved herself up from her icy slab, angry and hissing, feet pointed.  She bouréed across the stage, pale under the cold light, arms gesticulating, hair flying -- a madwoman in a house of horrors.  She bared her teeth and lept brazenly onto her pursuers, one by one.
The Harker role was danced by former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson, guesting with Madison Ballet for this show.  An accomplished dancer, he exudes an aura of smoldering lust that he gets a lot of mileage out of, adjusting it as needed. He approached the ballet’s opening display of male bravura with relaxed, confident swagger; he swooned and staggered, swept away, in the vampiric orgy with Dracula’s brides; he was passionate, playful, and protective in his bedroom-eyed pas de deux with his fiancé, Mina Murray (Shannon Quirk).
Quirk, as always, was a joy to watch.  We first saw her alone, dancing on air, lyrical and light, dreaming of Harker.  She was liquid; she flowed and soared.  Her pas de deux with Johnson was an
Mina / Harker pas © Kat Stiennon 2015
ode to carefree delight.  Their chemistry was superb – they were diggin’ it, you could tell.  Sometimes Johnson pulled her off center, exaggerating her luxurious long lines.  The Mina / Dracula pas was the other side of the sex coin – a dangerous, surreal dream in which Quirk appeared terrified but willing.  The powerful Count (Joe LaChance) swept her hungrily into arched overhead lifts; he tossed her over his shoulder; he slung her deep into fish dives; he tried to bite.
LaChance made a compelling Dracula, tall, proud, and able to slip sideways through the ether while imposing his will on vampires and humans alike.  In his final variation, shot by the nobleman’s son, he sank to his knees, slurped his own blood, and, like a wounded animal, rose to fight again.  I desperately wanted him to break the fourth wall and appeal to the audience before van Helsing drove the final stake through his heart.  He didn’t, but the moment was gripping nonetheless.  He believed, so I did, too.   

Monday, October 5, 2015

Interlude with the Vampire-Dancers: Getting Ready for Dracula

Dracula slings Mina over his shoulder  © SKepecs 2015
By Susan Kepecs
Shortly after dusk, a string of plump Dane County Farmers’ Market garlic wrapped around my neck, I muster my courage and tiptoe up the steep flight of steps that leads to the Secret Kingdom of Madison Ballet.  I peek into a spooky, windowless room where a troupe of vampires is rehearsing a ballet.  It’s artistic director W. Earle Smith’s Dracula, to be precise.  I loved that show so much I saw all three performances of its 2013 premiere.  That’s why I’m here.  Insanely drawn to vampires and other bad boys, I can’t wait even one more day to see it again.  Take it from me, though – unless you want to scare yourself silly, go for the finished product.  It runs Oct. 16-17 at Overture’s well-guarded, very safe Capitol Theater.  If you see the show there you get the total experience – Smith’s weirdly terrifying, action-packed, contemporary choreography; Michael Massey’s indelible rock n’ roll score, composed just for this ballet and performed live onstage; Karen Brown-Larimore’s over-the-top steampunk costuming; and the late Jen Trieloff’s bold, Broadwayesque aluminum-truss set.
Smith’s Dracula, like all really good story ballets, is more about the dancing than the narrative, though when you catch it onstage you can see the fable’s flow unfold.  But since I’m sneaking in to see a rehearsal, and it’s early in the process, I’ll just get bits and pieces.  To prepare, I boned up on the Cliffs Notes:
I draw a deep breath and venture into the studio.  At this hour all the sugarplum fairies have gone home, but except for an occasional glint of fang the members of the Dracula cast seem for all the world like perfectly ordinary highly trained ballet dancers (not that there’s anything ordinary about highly trained ballet dancers, but you get my point).  They’re wearing regular old dancewear, which heightens the effect.  
I work up the nerve to approach Smith.  I don’t have any formal questions ready, so I just plunge in.  “As the artistic director of a vampire company, I assume you usually work late into the night?”
“I do my best work at night,” he says.  His upper lip lifts in a slight snarl, and I notice a red fleck on one of his front teeth. “I play best at night, too.  I’m a night owl.”
“How do you keep them from biting you?”
“We don’t often bite our own kind, but the truth is best left unsaid – vampires never give away their secrets, or their feeding habits.” 
 Out of the corner of my eye I notice something unusual for ballet companies – half the dancers are men!  Smith anticipates my next question.  “The real tension in this ballet is between the Count and a number of mortal men who haven’t crossed over,” he says.  “It takes more male dancers than we have in the company, so I called in Jacob Ashley – um, Dr. Van Helsing – because he’s the best vampire slayer I know.  And I brought in former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson, also known as Jonathan Harker, because, well, even though he’s a mere mortal, he’s just plain sexy.”  
Smith turns away from this impromptu interview and bares his fangs; the dancers jump to attention.  The opening notes of the overture to Massey’s Dracula score announce the start of rehearsal.  (Just to clarify, Massey is not a vampire, but he is their favorite composer).  
Harker, indefatigable fiancé of the lovely Mina Murray, bears a slight resemblance to the young Mikhail Baryshnikov – it’s his haircut, and some of his facial expressions.  He’s executing a bold bravura variation and is in the middle of a string of second position pirouettes when the music goes gouhlish – the characterization in this score is right on point – and the imposing figure of Count Dracula (day name: Joe LaChance) sidles in with loose, lateral steps – the opposite of the diagonal dynamic we earthly humans usually employ.  He stalks Harker, grabs him, and – sluuurp! – licks his neck – then pushes him away in disgust. 
There’s a break; the dancers regroup.  “Mr. Harker,” I ask, “do you find Dracula attractive?”
“Nooooo!” Harker replies, scandalized.  “Of course, I’m apprehensive – I don’t really believe in vampires, but there they are!  It’s all so weird – I don’t know exactly what’s going on here.”
Dracula's brides seduce Harker  © SKepecs 2015
The action resumes.  Dracula’s brides (Rachelle Butler, Abigail Henninger, Kelanie Murphy) set out to seduce Harker, who’s ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time; they circle him, slinking lasciviously, hissing, hips jutting.  Holding hands, arms crossed like three harpy cygnets from some perverted Petipa ballet, they slither    
sideways doing the Count’s signature step.  Each executes a bloodthirsty little come-hither dance.  Henninger brandishes exceptional extensions; her limbs seem to stretch toward outer space.  Butler, who’s been with the Count longer than the rest, flaunts a singularly voluptuous solo.  Still, Smith isn’t satisfied.  “Don’t prettify it,” he insists, incisors flashing. “Make it more grotesque!”  
I’m itching to ask Dracula if bigamy’s common among his kind, but he’s protected by a band of Gypsies who pirouette, pas de chat and kick, pointe shoes flashing, like human spikes on the castle gate.  It’s big, bold, off-center dancing that looks devastatingly dangerous.  
The mortal Mina (the elegant Shannon Quirk) appears, leaping happily; she’s come to visit her friend Lucy Westernra (McKenna Collins), who responds with a welcoming outburst of shoulder-rolling, hip-shaking, sheer rock n’ roll that brings her three suitors (Phillip Ollenburg, Jason Gomez, Cyrus Bridwell) out of the woodwork in hot pursuit.  Mina watches warily.  Lucy beckons her to join this bacchanal.  “Mina,” Smith admonishes – and it’s obvious how his tone softens when he’s around this superbly graceful dancer – “don’t fall for it.  You’re like, oh no, no, I’m not doing that!  Not me!  I’ve got morals!”
Lucy is gossiping in the corner with some of the Gypsy girls.  I make my way over.  “I know you always have a lot of boyfriends,” I say, “but aren’t you afraid Dracula will come lusting after you when you do that outrageously flirty dance?” 
“No, not at all!” she replies, laughing.  “I’m a daredevil – I’m not afraid of anything!  I find vampires alluring – I find most men alluring!”
Renfield does his crazy dance  © SKepecs 2015
That crazy Renfield – his day name’s Jackson Warring – is a bona fide schizophrenic.  It’s slightly unnerving to see him suck up to Dracula with his loony little crotch-grabbing, insect eating dance.  “I’m the action star of my own movie,” he says, safely back in his cell and drooling slightly.  “I mean, I just want Dracula to like me.  I want him to make me into whatever he wants.  Ha ha, I’m a vampire!”  
But Dracula has other plans.  He goes after Mina, sweeping her into a luxurious penché and lifting her onto his back to carry her off.  “Bite her!” Smith commands, chomping at the air.  “Find your inner Dracula!” 
Finally, I work up the nerve to approach the Count.  Up close his towering presence is totally intimidating.  “What is it you want?” I squeak.  “The taste of blood – I need blood!” he snarls.  “I’m a control freak.”  His upper lip curls.  “I want to do what I want, to whoever I want, whenever I want to do it, and nobody is smart or strong enough to top me.  I’ve been dead 400 years – I don’t really want to reconnect with humanity.  It’s insulting to have to associate with all these humans – I feel put upon.  But it’s Mina – I have a long-term plan for her.  I want her, which is why I want to kill Lucy.  I’ve been feeding on Lucy for ages, but the next time she looks at me wrong I’m going to do her in.  I’m going to do it for Mina, and the hell with Lucy and the rest of my brides!”
I’m starting to feel really weird about all of this.  I want to get out of here, now.  Mina must be thinking the same thing, because she’s inching toward the door.  I follow her.  
“How does it feel to be pursued by Count Dracula?” I ask as we tiptoe toward the stairs.  “It’s terrifying, yet flattering,” she whispers.  “I usually play it safer – it feels very risky to fall into being pursued, especially by a vampire.”  
The first faint rays of dawn are visible in the hall.  Only the hemovores remain inside the studio; the sound of coffin lids softly closing reaches our retreating ears.  But someone who doesn’t belong in there is trapped – it must be Harker, since he’s not with us.  We can hear him leaping, flinging himself at the walls in frustration.
Want to know what happens next? You’ll have to go to the show.  But don’t forget your garlic, or you might be sorry.

Dracula tours to Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House (Oct. 21-22) and the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts in Springfield, MO, on March 16. If you can’t get enough, get on the road.