Sunday, February 13, 2011

"love at first bite"

Last night my mother, older sister Lindsey, younger sister Jordan (and co-adventurer of my recent Emilie Autumn concert experience) went to the Benedum Theater in downtown Pittsburgh to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater's production of Dracula.  This particular ballet, which has not been performed by the PBT since Halloween 2004, was, oddly enough, set for Valentine's Weekend. Why?  Choreographer Terrance S. Orr claimed in the ballet's program and to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this was because Dracula is actually a love story.  I think it's really because of the recent association with vampires and true love that the Twilight series has sparked in popular culture.

As a money-making scheme, it seems to have worked.  According to reports that I heard from others who saw it, the two previous performances before our Saturday evening show were packed.  Our show was no different.  The PBT also ran out of all of their Dracula apparel and most of their PBT merchandise during the very first show, according to the women at the merchandise table with whom I spoke about the lack of PBT t-shirts.

Besides this being the second ballet with dancing dead girls that my mother has taken me to see (the first being Giselle), I thought that this ballet would be a good one for me to review for this blog, since the original Dracula story was published in 1897 by Victorian writer Bram Stoker.

Well, for fans of Bram Stoker's original Gothic novel, the ballet has very little in common.  The only two characters from the story who make it onto the stage are the lunatic Renfield and Count Dracula himself.  Mina and Jonathan Harker, Van Hellsing, and Lucy are all gone.  Instead they are replaced with Svetlana and Frederick (the lovers), an unnamed Transylvanian priest, and Flora (the seduced girl).   Instead of three wives Dracula has somewhere around 18, all pale, blonde, curly-haired girls in gossamer gowns that flow eerily about them as they dance, and, when not dancing, raise their hands in front of them as they walk in a possessed state. 

The first act started out in the crypt in Dracula's castle, where he and his wives awaken from their coffins.  Renfield brings Flora, a pretty girl from the village, to the castle to satisfy the Count's lust.  He hypnotizes and seduces the scared girl before making her his new bride with a vampire kiss on the neck.  The scene ends with all of his wives falling in to drink the blood of the freshly dead girl.

The second scene takes place in the village, where the innkeeper and his wife are celebrating the birthday of their beautiful daughter Svetlana with the other villagers.  After a series of humorous dancing gestures and movements Svetlana and her boyfriend Frederick are engaged and more celebrating follows.  At the height of the party Flora crashes it by staggering in as if drunk, and then proceeding to attack everyone.  Only the crucifix of the priest seems to keep her at bay.  Then Dracula appears and carries Svetlana off.

The third act, which takes place in Dracula's bedroom, involves Dracula and his brides "initiating" Svetlana as a new bride.  Just before the fatal kiss Frederick, Svetlana's father, and the priest storm the castle and a chaotic "fight" scene involving many leaps, spins, and graceful falling to the floor ensues.  Dracula is defeated only when Frederick rips the curtains off of the castle, exposing the Count to the power of the sun.  Instead of sparkling, however, Dracula flies up to the chandelier and explodes. Svetlana, Frederick, and the rest of her rescuers return home.

image source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The storyline was terrific- simplistic, to the point, and still retaining the Victorian ideas of repressed sexuality that Stoker's novel exudes.  The costumes were gorgeous- Dracula's cape looked like bat wings, and were especially impressive when he was hooked up to wires and "flown" across the stage.  The ripped gossamer gowns of the brides flowed so eerily and seductively out of the dark that the thought of dancing eternally in such a gossamer dress in similar ghostly ballet movements was very appealing to any Romantic notions that lurk in my rather pragmatic mind.  They were especially impressive when the dancers would hold the top layer up with their arms and run across the stage, letting the gossamer trail behind them like wings.  Even the colorful dress of the Transylvanian peasants was beautiful to watch twirling across the stage. The setting itself was timeless- those peasants, their village, and Dracula's castle could have just as easily existed in the 17th century as in the 19th with the exception of the crazy Renfield, who was wearing Victorian slacks and a matching vest beneath his white collared dress shirt.  And the special effects were beyond impressive- that explosion of Dracula's was thunderous, blinding, and fiery, leaving the audience completely shocked that such a thing could have occurred in a ballet theater.

There were a few downsides with this ballet.  One was just a personal issue with my seat.  Our tickets placed us so far to the right of the theater that the speaker system and the stage scenery blocked a portion of the stage from my view.  I missed Dracula coming out of his coffin, Dracula about to consummate his "marriage" to Svetlana with the fatal kiss on the bed (if that scene doesn't scream "sexual symbolism," I have no idea what does), and some of the characters bouncing on and off the bed through the fight scene.  Not the end of the world, of course, but I do have to trust that nothing else was happening on that bed other than an "almost kiss." 

The other downside was the choreography.  It seemed rather sloppy and not very well put together at parts.  Flora's dance scenes with Dracula during the third act, which I think were supposed to make her look like she was possessed, were just too jerky, more like she was drunk and about to be sick than anything else.  Parts where Dracula's brides were supposed to be in sync were not very clean in the execution of the dancers' movements, and the villagers dropped a few of their props.

Terrence Orr did add some golden choreographed movements, especially comedic ones.  During the marriage proposal the innkeeper asked Frederick if he wanted to have kids with Svetlana.  When the poor boy answered yes, the innkeeper shot down the proposal.  Only Svetlana pleading her father by rubbing her face against his hand melted his hard heart.  During Svetlana's seduction by the Count, Renfield accidentally found himself hypnotized by Dracula when he looked directly at him, and had to shake himself out of it. The entire audience chuckled appreciatively.

Overall, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater's production of Dracula was a decent ballet that should have been rehearsed a few more times to clean up the choreography.

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