Blood, sex, the undead – oh my. Atlanta Ballet’s most recent production, “Dracula,” was a far cry from the pink tights, tutus and romantic plots that define traditional ballet. This time around, we got stakes to the heart, lethal crucifixes and an unsettling amount of garlic.
The production opened with a heartbeat pumping through the theater, as the curtains opened to expose a man – revealed to be Jonathan Harker – lying in bed, shaking restlessly and crying out his fiancÃ©e’s name. The audience is shown the horrific images that haunt Harker’s sleep; images of his wedding going horribly wrong at the arrival of a few uninvited guests: vampires.
In his nightmarish sequence, the vampires destroyed the wedding, tearing Harker apart from his bride. The scene ended with Harker on the ground, seemingly being seduced by one of the vampire women – a woman who ends up staking him.
Yeah, not exactly “Swan Lake.”
It’s a difficult endeavor to adapt a tale as dark as this opening section may imply into a ballet. You go to the ballet expecting pirouettes and gravity-defying lifts; you read vampire novels expecting blood and gore. You certainly don’t expect the two to mix. And that unexpected combination ended up serving as both the genius and the limitations of “Dracula.”
The truth is that this story was probably just too complicated to be a ballet. By tradition, there is absolutely minimal dialogue in a ballet, meaning that, by and large, the story will be told via dance and its accompanying pantomime or gestures. It was a bit ambitious to expect that an entire novel could be told through one two-and-a-half hour dance production.
Technically, “Dracula” was brilliant: Michael Pink’s choreography melded classical ballet steps with more contemporary, modern sequences, demonstrating both the formality and the underlying darkness of this world.
The music, composed by Philip Feeney, felt creepy and unsettling when the storyline called for it, but was also able to transition seamlessly back to somber, melodic tones. The production’s costumes conveyed primness in the context of the aristocratic world, while demonstrating the solemnity in the land of the undead.
So, “Dracula” possessed all of the elements that typically make good dance. But since the main selling point of “Dracula” was, in fact, that it’s so dissimilar from what you generally expect out of ballet, it was hard not to fixate on the plot. And though the shock factor of that plot was supposed to be what made this production work, it ended up being what held it back.
Through no fault of the dancers or the choreographers, several moments which were intended to be dramatic or climactic came across as arbitrary. And there were quite a few of those dramatic scenes. In one case, a crying, bloody baby was tossed across the stage; in another, a seemingly random girl was carried and thrown into a net. With a plot as complex as that of “Dracula,” you had to be constantly focused on following the story – a task which, in and of itself, did not allow the audience to savor the dance sequences.
Similarly, the show oscillated quite rampantly between the “regular” world – the formal, proper world of the living – and the gloomy, evil world of the undead. The use of these conflicting scenarios was probably meant to serve as juxtaposition, but instead, it just made it feel inconsistent.
After the drama of near-death experiences, bitten necks and bloodcurdling screams, it simply felt unsatisfying to have to return to the regular world.
In that vein, the most gripping moments of “Dracula” incontestably happened during those dark, vicious sections. And once we had definitively left behind the “real” world for the tense climax, which transpired in the vampires’ world, it was easy to let yourself become engrossed in the story. The third act, which contained the final showdown between the humans and the vampires, was enthralling.
For that, John Welker, the dancer behind Dracula himself, deserves exceptional praise. His first onstage appearance can only be defined as eerie. When Jonathan Harker arrives at Count Dracula’s residence, waiting downstairs to be greeted, Welker forebodingly makes his way down a grand stairwell.
Although his presence was creepy, Welker was undeniably hypnotic. On several occasions, Count Dracula literally danced his victims to death. The partnering sequences preceding those deaths, in which Dracula showed his dominion over his prey via an assortment of lifts, turns and jumps, were the highlights of the show.
And special credit is due to Jesse Tyler, who brought to life the character of Renfield, an escaped mental patient who ends up being the sacrifice needed to link the undead. But even though it was uncertain for the vast majority of the performance what exactly Renfield was doing – for example, he spent the entire second act suspended over the stage, ominously watching the action taking place onstage – he was completely mesmerizing. Tyler exuded a feeling that was both threatening and vulnerable, maintained his dancer’s presence and yet felt genuine, and sincerely made you care what happened to him.
But maybe the coolest thing about “Dracula” had absolutely nothing to do with the production at all. Maybe it was remembering that this was the catalyst for the entire vampire genre. This is what paved the way for the creation of every vampire story ever.
The story was genre-defining. And Atlanta Ballet’s dancing was incredible. It was just the rough fusion of the two that posed a few complications..
– By Emelia Fredlick