Oregon Ballet Theater takes a bite out of ‘Dracula’
Lights! Music! Dancers! Countryside! Costumes! Action! (a ton! in the air and on stage!)
These are all essential elements of Dracula, ballet, choreographed and more by Ben Stevenson. Billed as a tribute to Valentine’s Day and romantic love, Oregon Ballet Theater’s third show of its 2021-22 season opens Saturday afternoon at Keller Auditorium for six performances over two weekends, with live music at every show.
There are several balletic versions of the story. Stevenson premiered in Houston in March 1997, when he was artistic director of the Houston Ballet, to celebrate the centennial of the publication of Stoker’s novel and attract new audiences to the theater. Jennifer Dunning, who reviewed the first production for The New York Times, wrote that “the sets, costumes, and lighting are not only lavish, but exquisitely beautiful and atmospheric.” The ballet, danced to music by Liszt arranged and conducted by John Lanchbery, is full of ingenious stage magic, just like the ballets of the Romantic era of the [early] 19and century were.
Niel de Ponte, OBT’s longtime music director and highly experienced ballet conductor and arranger of music not originally written for dance (he worked with Christopher Stowell on his Carmen and Dream of a summer nightand with Trey McIntyre on his Peter Pan for the Houston Ballet), deeply appreciates what Lanchbery has done with Liszt’s music to incorporate it into ballet form as well as character creation. “Each act is musically balanced, and the fifteen works that make up the score come from [Liszt’s] orchestra, concerto, solo piano and even choral works, arranged for orchestra,” he said.
It is not a surprise. Lanchbery was for many years conductor of Sadler’s Wells, which became the Royal Ballet, and arranged and rearranged countless scores for story ballets. As de Ponte points out, “It is important to note that there is a pas de deux in every act, and much of the most sensual and tumultuous music is assigned to the pas de deux. [there are several] that involve Dracula. Viewed as a ballet as a whole, each act has its focal point that is meant to convey character development perhaps even more than exploit choreographic virtuosity (and there are plenty of those, too!). Note: Some of the best music is in the dramatic climax of Act 3. This is fantastic exciting, dynamic music and a technical challenge for the orchestra and the conductor, but it’s very good!”
The story of Transylvania’s bloodsucking aristocrat might seem like an odd choice for a holiday that bets on romantic love. But because of the way Stevenson, who is known for his ballet storytelling gifts, has rearranged and streamlined the novel, it becomes a love story as believable as Giselle’s Count Albrecht and the peasant girl who loves to dance; Swan Lake Siegfried and Odette; and The Sleeping Beauty Prince Désiré and Princess Aurora.
Stevenson, who now runs the Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth, simplified Stoker’s plot, eliminating all action set in England and moving Dracula’s castle to Transylvania. But there’s nothing simple about this production, one of the most elaborate that OBT has ever staged. It also has one of the largest casts, so company members, OBT2 dancers, and upper-division school students learned multiple roles, and due to the threat of a dancer stepping out with Covid, even acting art director Peter Franc covers the Innkeeper (who dances a czardas with his wife) and the shadow of Dracula.
Programming such an elaborate production at a time when the performing arts are resurfacing is quite risky. I asked Frank why he chose to do this one, rather than a James Canfield cover Romeo and Julietor Stevenson Cinderella, which are already in the OBT directory. “That’s exactly why,” he told me. “I wanted to do something new, something that Portland audiences haven’t seen.” And it is clear that Franc – who, when he danced with the Houston Ballet in 2004, interpreted the role of Renfield, the assistant of the bride of Dracula – loves ballet.
“I liked that so much, the theatricality, the pretending! First I did Renfield, then Peasants. It’s a timeless pleasure,” he told me a few weeks ago. Besides the technical requirements, which include flight (Dracula and his consorts are all required to fly, although a double climb for the dancer who does Dracula), this ballet is all about character development, and Renfield, no doubt, is still meaner than Dracula. He sups on spiders with appetite and delight (in the novel, they are mice). In the OBT production, Renfield will be danced on opening night by Michael Linsmeier, whose gifts as a character dancer were on full display in Bournonville’s Naples in 2018. Napleswhich features an evil sea monster brandishing a cape, peasants and fishermen dancing traditional Neapolitan dances, a love story with a happy ending and a cross that the hero brandishes to save the heroine of said sea monster, was a good preparation for Dracula. Here the vampire is defeated not by a stake driven through his heart – as in the novel and the movies – but by a cross pushed forward by Fredrick, the romantic lead.
Brian Simcoe, who danced these lead roles in two different productions of Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty (relaunched in February 2019, just before the pandemic kicked us all out of theaters) and Cinderella, will hold up that cross on Saturday night, defending her frequent dance partner Xuan Cheng as Svetlana. I asked him about the differences, if any, between dancing the Prince of Cinderella and Frederick. “The partnership choreography is somewhat similar to what I did in Cinderella and Three Preludes [a duet that had its company premiere last fall],” he replied. “Ben definitely has a signature style in the way he shapes his pas de deux and the way the women are lifted and paired. The biggest difference is the folk dance influence it has woven into the story. And my family has Eastern European roots, so it’s fun to be part of such a classic fable from that part of the world.
Amusing? Eva Burton, who is one of the Floras (Lucy, in the novel) had a lot with the research she did to build the character of the newest bride, including listening to the novel in the car during that she commuted to work and watched “almost every Dracula/Vampire movie that Netflix has to offer. I even made a stupid mix tape style playlist [of songs] from Flora to Dracula [whose] top tracks include magic man by heart, like a virgin by Madonna, and Your good girl is gonna go bad by Tammy Wynette.
Humor aside, Burton’s character analysis of Flora is both earnest and intelligent, as is her portrayal of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty two years ago. Then she “focused on polishing every detail of my classic technique so I could have the freedom to tell the story. Flora is almost the polar opposite – every step I do has to start with the story, and that translates to extremely unconventional forms. In my variation of act three, Flora is a vampire in her own right, and the choreography is far from classic – I have my feet bent, my legs parallel [i.e. no turnout]a squat position and a step we call the “broken bat jump”, and I had to feel comfortable with being scary and weird, but also strong and beautiful.
This variation is part of the pas de deux she dances with her frequent partner Christopher Kaiser as Dracula. Kaiser, a Juilliard graduate who joined OBT in 2016 from Alberta Ballet, is one of the company’s most versatile dancers. Although he is particularly fond of dance in the contemporary works of Nicolo Fonte and William Forsythe, he has the classic technique to interpret the fast and precise choreography of George Balanchine’s Candy Cane variation in the Nutcrackerand the comedy chops to make one of the mean stepsisters of Cinderella. “[Dracula] differs a lot from the mean stepsister,” he emailed me. “It’s a very slapstick, over-the-top comedy, whereas Dracula has more layers. He’s weak, hungry, aristocratic, monstrous, etc. I see him sad and mean. He seems to have this itch that he can’t satisfy , so he compensated by going through his wives.
Kaiser thinks the contemporary roles he enjoys have certainly helped him play Dracula. “[He] has a lot of off-axis movement and a lot of spinal twist. It differs from, say, a Balanchine ballet, which tends to be very light. Dracula is very heavy.
The same goes for Dracula’s cape, which is so elaborately constructed that it weighs 30 pounds. Designed by Judanna Lynn, who has made them for all standard history ballets for companies around the world, it is designed to be an integral part of choreography, much like the lighter-than-air costumes of the pioneering modern dancer Loie Fuller. I asked Kaiser what it was like to move in. “The cape really makes me feel larger than life,” he said. “I start with this [in Act One] and I feel like I have it with me even when I take it off. It makes me feel powerful and in control of my surroundings. There’s a long tradition of capes being part of the action and expressing the character in story ballets: Ric Young for what some young kids called “the bad bad sultan” in Dennis Spaight. Scheherazadeand the cape flowing behind Albrecht as he enters the graveyard in the second act. Gisele are some of them.
Ballet in the 21st century is many things, including great entertainment, and in this case, an excellent distraction from the considerable misfortunes of the world. And there is nothing, nothing more cathartic than live performance. Take the kids (must be 8+ – this ballet is scary!) and have a great time.
- OBT Dracula opens in the Keller Auditorium at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 19 and continues February 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. on Friday February 26 and at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday February 27. Proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test 72 hours before the performance, as well as photo ID are required for admission to the theater, and masks must be worn at all times. For more information on the cast and ticket prices, check out the OBT website.