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Oregon Ballet Theatre sinks its teeth into ‘Dracula’

Preview: Choreographer Ben Stevenson's version of Bram Stoker's classic vampire tale takes to the sky with high romance and lavish design.

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Lights! Music! Dancers! Scenery! Costumes! Action! (a ton of it! in the air and  on the stage!)  

They’re all essential parts of  Dracula, the ballet, choreographed and more by Ben Stevenson. Billed as a tribute to Valentine’s Day and romantic love, Oregon Ballet Theatre’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’s premiered in Houston in March, 1997, when he was artistic director of  the Houston Ballet, to acknowledge the centennial of the publication of Stoker’s novel, and to bring new audiences into the theater.  Jennifer Dunning, who reviewed the premiere production for The New York Times, wrote that the “sets, costumes and lighting are not just lavish but exquisitely beautiful and atmospheric. The ballet, danced to music by Liszt arranged and conducted by John Lanchbery, is crammed with ingenious stage magic, just as the Romantic-era ballets of the [early] 19th century were.”

Floating: Ben Stevenson’s “Dracula” rises high in Tulsa Ballet’s performance of the same production design that OBT is using. Photo: Kate Luber

Niel de Ponte, OBT’s longtime music director and a highly experienced ballet conductor and arranger of music not written originally for dance (he worked with Christopher Stowell on his Carmen and A Midsummer  Night’s Dream, and with Trey McIntyre on his Peter Pan for Houston Ballet), is deeply appreciative of what Lanchbery did with Liszt’s music to integrate it with ballet form as well as the creation of character. “Each act is well-balanced musically, and the 15 or so works that make up the score come from [Liszt’s] orchestral, concerto, piano solo and even choral works, arranged for orchestra,” he said.

That’s no surprise. Lanchbery was for many years conductor for the 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 more sensuous and tempestuous music is assigned to the pas de deux [there are several] that involve Dracula. Seen as a whole ballet, each act has its focal point that is meant to convey character development perhaps even more than exploit choreographic virtuosity (and there is plenty of that as well!). Note: some of the best music is in the dramatic climax of Act 3. It is fantastic music, exciting, dynamic, and a technical challenge for the orchestra and the conductor, but it is great stuff!” 

The story of the blood-sucking aristocrat from Transylvania might strike you as an odd choice for a holiday that capitalizes on romantic love. But because of the way that Stevenson, who is known for his gifts as a ballet storyteller, rearranged and streamlined the novel, it becomes a love story as credible as Giselle’s Count Albrecht and the peasant girl who loves to dance; Swan Lake’s Siegfried and Odette; and The Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Désiré and Princess Aurora. 

Stevenson, now directing Texas Ballet Theatre in Fort Worth,  simplified Stoker’s plot, eliminating all action that takes place in England and transferring Dracula’s castle to Transylvania. But there is nothing simple about this production, one of the most elaborate OBT has ever put on stage. It also has one of the biggest casts, so company members, OBT2’s dancers, and upper division students from the school have learned multiple roles, and because of the threat of a dancer being out with Covid, even interim artistic director Peter Franc is covering the Innkeeper (who dances a czardas with his wife) and Dracula’s shadow.

Programming such an elaborate production at a time when the performing arts are just coming back to life is pretty risky.  I asked Franc why he chose to do this one, rather than a revival of James Canfield’s Romeo and Juliet, or Stevenson’s Cinderella, which are already in OBT’s repertory.  “That’s exactly why,” he told me.  “I wanted to do something new, something the Portland audience hasn’t seen.”  And it is clear that Franc – who, when he was dancing with Houston Ballet in 2004, performed the role of Renfield, Dracula’s bride-procuring assistant – adores the ballet.

 “I loved it so much, the theatrics, the make-believe! I did Renfield first, then peasants. It’s timeless fun,” he told me a couple of weeks ago.  Apart from the technical demands, which include flying (Dracula and his brides are all required to fly, although a double goes up for the dancer who’s doing Dracula) this ballet is all about developing characters, and Renfield, arguably, is even more wicked than Dracula. He sups on spiders with gusto and relish (in the novel it’s mice). In OBT’s production, Renfield will be danced on opening night by Michael Linsmeier, whose gifts as a character dancer came to the fore in Bournonville’s Napoli in 2018. Napoli, which features an evil sea monster wielding a cape, peasants and fishermen dancing traditional Neapolitan dances, a love story with a happy ending, and a cross which the hero wields to rescue the heroine from said sea monster, was good preparation for Dracula.  Here, the vampire is vanquished not by a stake driven through his heart – as in the novel and the movies – but by a cross thrust forward by Fredrick, the romantic lead. 

Brian Simcoe, who has danced those leads in two different productions of Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty (revived in February 2019, just before the pandemic locked us all out of theaters) and Cinderella, will be wielding that cross on Saturday night, defending frequent dancing partner Xuan Cheng as Svetlana. I asked him about the differences, if any, between dancing Cinderella’s Prince and Frederick. “The choreography in the partnering is somewhat similar to what I’ve done 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 in the way the women are  lifted and partnered.  The biggest difference is the folk dance influence that he’s woven into the story. And my family has Eastern European roots, so it’s fun to be a part of such a classic fable from that part of the world.”

Fun? Eva Burton, who is one of the Floras (Lucy, in the novel) has been having lots of it with the research she did to build the character of the most recently recruited bride, including listening to the novel in the car while she commuted to work, and watching  “almost all of the Dracula/Vampire movies that Netflix has to offer. I even made a silly 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’s Gonna Go Bad by Tammy Wynette.” 

Magic (and dancers) are in the air in Tulsa Ballet’s production. Photo: Kate Luber

Humor aside, Burton’s analysis of Flora’s character is both serious and intelligent, as was her performance of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty two years ago. Then, her “focus was on polishing every detail of my classical technique so that I could have freedom to tell the story. Flora is almost the polar opposite—every step that I do has to start with the story, and that results in some extremely un-classical shapes. In my act three variation Flora is a full-fledged vampire, and the choreography is far from classical—I have flexed feet, parallel legs [i.e. no turnout], a crouched stance, and one step that we call the ‘broken batwing hops,’ and I‘ve had to become comfortable with being creepy and weird but also strong and beautiful.”

That variation is part of the pas de deux she dances with frequent partner Christopher Kaiser as Dracula. Kaiser, a graduate of Juilliard who joined OBT in 2016 from Alberta Ballet, is one of the company’s most versatile dancers. While he particularly likes dancing in the contemporary work of Nicolo Fonte and William Forsythe, he has the classical technique to perform the speedy, precise choreography of George Balanchine’s Candy Cane variation in The Nutcracker, and the comedy chops to do one of the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella.  “[Dracula] differs a lot from the evil stepsister,”  he emailed me. “That’s very slapstick comedy and over the top, whereas Dracula has more layers. He is weak, hungry, aristocratic, monstrous, etc. I see him as sad and evil. He seems to have this itch he can’t satisfy, so he compensated by going through his brides.”

Kaiser believes that the contemporary roles he enjoys have definitely helped him perform Dracula. “[He] has a lot of movement that is off his axis and lots of twisting of the spine. It differs from, say, a Balanchine ballet, which tends to be very light-footed. Dracula is very heavy.”

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And so is Dracula’s cape, which is so elaborately constructed that it weighs 30 pounds. Designed by Judanna Lynn, who has done costumes for all the standard story ballets for companies all over the world, it’s made to be integral with the choreography, as were pioneering modern dancer Loie Fuller’s lighter-than-air costumes. I asked Kaiser what it’s like to move in. “The cape really gives me a larger-than-life feeling,” he said. “I start with it on [in Act One] and 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 is a long tradition of capes being part of the action and expressive of character in story ballets: Ric Young’s for what some young children called “the bad wicked sultan” in Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, and the cape streaming behind Albrecht as he makes his second act entrance into the graveyard in Giselle are some of them.

Ballet in the 21st century is many things, including grand entertainment, and in this case, a most excellent distraction from the world’s considerable woes. And there is nothing, nothing, more cathartic than live performance. Take the kids (who must be 8 and over—this ballet’s scary!) and have a grand time.

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  • OBT’s Dracula opens at Keller Auditorium at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19, and continues Feb. 19-20 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.  Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb 27.  Proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test 72 hours before performance, plus photo ID are required for admission to the theater, and masks must be worn at all times. For further information about casting and ticket prices check OBT’s website.
Dance

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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2 Responses

  1. Not a word about Lady Lucille and the Count, the sexy, gorgeous ballet from OBT’s past repertory, set to a haunting score by Dead Can Dance? How can a reviewer consider writing about Dracula without even mentioning it?? I am aghast.

    1. We understand your concern, Jen. This piece, though, isn’t a review. It was published before performances opened. It’s a preview feature, discussing aspects of the production, and talking with several of the people involved.

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