Blood and beauty dance in the return of Milwaukee Ballet's brilliant "Dracula"
Bram Stoker's "Dracula" has grabbed audiences by their lovely, vulnerable necks ever since its debut in 1897. The novel has been adapted for practically every form of media since its publication, with more than 200 films, dozens of plays, operas, cartoons, TV shows, comic books, rock songs, video games and dance compositions that feature the mysteriously seductive, undead, blood-seeking villain.
But perhaps one of the best ways to experience this gothic horror story is through Michael Pink's ballet, onstage as the opener to the Milwaukee Ballet's season at the Marcus Center through Oct. 28. Over the years, "Dracula" has taken many detours into melodrama, camp, parody and gore. By contrast, Pink's version is elegant and lyrical without shying away from any of the intensity of the spine-chilling story.
This production, which marks the twentieth anniversary of its American debut, is the result of an enormous confluence of talent. It features the graceful athleticism of eight principles and more than thirty ensemble dancers, in addition to forty musicians in the pit orchestra and eight members of the Florentine Opera Chorus. Together they literally fill the stage with this haunting story of murder, madness, attraction and possession through stunning movement and music. Complemented by sumptuous costume and scenic design by Lez Brotherston and deeply evocative lighting design by David Grill, this "Dracula" is not your typical haunted house, Halloween fare. It's so much better, and more sophisticated, than that.
The performance begins with an ominous drum beat that directs us to an even more ominous scene: The protagonist, mild-mannered Victorian solicitor Jonathan Harker, is resting fitfully in a sanitorium, plagued by nightmares of his recent visit to Transylvania. As the small, white clad figure surrounded by darkness, Randy Crespo's Harker ushers the audience into his fever-dream world of circling demon wolves, a ghost bride and a frantic feeling of impending danger from otherworldly sources.
As our gaze expands, we see the scenes that led up to Harker's diminished state: his departure from his lovely wife Mina (a delicate Nicole Teague-Howell) at Charring Cross Station, his arrival in the eerie and decidedly foreign land of Transylvania, and his bizarre encounters with the Count that have plunged him into near madness.
Throughout the first act, the production combines beautiful, flowing choreography with fast moving scenes that surge into one another, almost daring the audience to look away. The transitions from a desolate cell, to a bustling English train station, to the Romanian countryside are remarkable – and their contrasts stark: Where a towering clock had kept cosmopolitan travelers on schedule, an enormous, orange-tinted full moon shines through barren trees as the villagers have gathered to perform a ritual to keep evil spirits away on All Soul's Night. The men, clad in heavy boots and fur-trimmed tunics perform the stomps and high kicks of an Eastern European folk dance, joined by the spins of local women in vibrant red and black skirts. They wordlessly implore Harker to steer clear of Dracula's castle – its projected shadow appearing first on a scrim, its interior later revealed as a decaying and jagged fortress of grey stone.
Finally, we meet Dracula himself, performed magnificently by Davit Hovhannisyan. Practically floating into each scene, he is wrapped in a blood red, floor-length coat. The thin and angular ghoul sports long, stringy gray hair that frames his similarly ashen face. Hovhannisyan moves through the entire story with a fluid menace, like a large snake stalking its prey.
But more complex than a deranged killer, the Count is calculating. His amusement and surprise in receiving Harker – a welcome gift of fresh blood – turns to cunning as Dracula woos his visitor with wine, rescues him from a grasping orgy of female vampires dressed as white sprites, and then toys with him physically like a cat who gets more pleasure out of taunting and teasing a mouse than eating it. There are many intensely sensuous scenes in this "Dracula," as he finds and then finesses his victims into submission, but this first, thwarted seduction is the most heady.
In act two, the time shifts back to the present and we are transported to an elegant seaside resort in Whitby, England where bright, clean, turn-of-the-century types come to vacation. The schoolgirls in smart blue sailor suits pair off nicely with red coated soldiers, local luminaries and socialites mingle with suitors, and even the bellhop spins exuberantly with the gray-uniformed maids to the sound of a tinny piano. The bouncy, carefree crowd on the dancefloor looks like a jaunty, colorful travel poster come to life.
Ebullient Lucy, danced flirtatiously by Luz San Miquel, is dressed in a light blue frock adorned with white lace. She switches dance partners frequently, reveling in the attention of many beaux. But when a sudden thunderstorm blows in, both Lucy and a frail Harker sense Dracula's arrival. Drawn into the vampire's power, Lucy is mesmerized and succumbs to his fangs quickly.
Revisiting her in the sanitorium, the Count descends from a scaffold on the undulating wings of a bat and briefly hanging upside-down, before slowly, deliberately swooping down on his latest conquest. Hovhannisyan shows tremendous physical control throughout the performance, but here it is most obviously on display. Lucy's swirling dance with Dracula in the sanitorium is one of a lover in a trance – making it even more delightful when she spits and claws at her former friends, resurrected as a vampire.
The final act includes the inevitable showdown, where (spoiler alert) the good English monster hunters drive a stake through Dracula's heart – vividly enacted atop a coffin, surrounded by a smoky fog. But it is hopelessly upstaged by the opening scene of this final chapter, when Dracula summons his legion of lost souls to attend his impending wedding to the lovely but easily overpowered Mina. Accompanied by the liturgical strains of the chorus, black wrapped bodies ooze out of the crypt and writhe like worms around the "bride and groom." Fully transformed to a demon, Lucy cackles gleefully as she offers up a sacrifice to the festivities. This is the only moment when hands, faces and necks are covered in blood and the pops of color stand out brilliantly against the black and white palette of the rest of the stage.
The final image of Mina, alone in a spotlight, caressing her neck and looking wistfully in the distance is a provocative and elegant denouement.
So, yes. If you want to get your Halloween on, the Milwaukee Ballet's "Dracula" contains the requisite screams, ghouls, murders, blood and undead predators that make for a fun and seasonal scare. But it's also a stunning combination of exquisite dance that drives a very tight narrative, lush historical and fantastical costumes, and orchestral music that squeals and moans. And if you're new to ballet, it's an exciting, super-accessible introduction to complex stories communicated without words.
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