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.   

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