High expectations hung heavy in His Majesty’s Theatre on Thursday night, at the opening of the West Australian Ballet’s production: Dracula.
In our VIP seats, my sister and I were placed in the prime position to watch the show unfold. We were surrounded by ballet enthusiasts and the privileged Perth elite, dressed in their finest gowns and suits, who seem to spring up out of their boxes around wineries, northern beach cafes, and ballet shows. Nevertheless, we felt privileged to be there, and although the ballet re-telling of Bram Stoker’s original novel is certainly a tad elitist, it was absolutely and divinely wonderful.
Choreographed by the Artistic Director of the Polish National Ballet, Krzysztof Pastor, and accompanied by the insanely talented group of musicians in the West Australian Symphony Orchestra—Dracula is not one to miss this year. It was this sense of quality direction, choreography, and talent that raised our expectations tremendously high.
Our immediate reaction to the opening sequence was admiration and awe, purely dazzled by the costumes and set created by Phil Daniels and Charles Cusick-Smith for this production. You could immediately tell that a lot of intense research had gone into creating these designs of foreboding black lace, draping velvet capes, and mythical dresses. The designers attributed their inspiration to the style of the Victorian era (in which Stoker’s novel was published), the Ottoman war, glass photographs, and English churches and graveyards.
The red curtain rose, and Dracula and his beautiful wife Elizabeth are caught in a passionate embrace. It was certainly the right image to begin the performance with. It became clear very early on that this ballet rendition was going to stay true to the storyline of the novel.
For those who don’t know, Stoker’s novel revolves around the tragic spiral of grief and then monstrous transformation into the Count Vlad Dracula, who lived in 15th century Transylvania. He returns from a war with the Turks to find that his wife Elizabeth has committed suicide, believing that he had died in the war. Due to the nature of her death, the church refuses to bury her, and thus in savage anger, Dracula renounces God and transforms into an immortal vampire.
The rest of the story is essentially the playing out of another tragic love story: hundreds of years later, Dracula meets a young woman, Mina, who is the doppelganger of his beloved, Elizabeth. His pursuit of Mina, a woman who is already engaged to another, and their unearthly romance, results in death and great suffering.
The character of Dracula is played by two men in this re-interpretation of the classic: the “Old Dracula” is played by lead-dancer and Artistic Director, Aurelian Scannella—who has returned to the stage after retiring from ballet in 2008; while the “Young Dracula” is played by Matthew Lehmann, who has been cited as performing other well-known villains, like Romeo and Juliet’s Tybalt.
The pair were fantastically paired as the one and the same vampire, with brilliant choreography and lighting tricks enabling the pair to swap when needed; mostly when the Old Dracula had drunk the blood of his last victim, and thus regained his former youth, becoming a young man once more. Both dancers—but particularly Lehmann—were striking in their sensual dominance and in commanding a certain erotic and frightening presence on stage.
I found this particularly impressive and powerful in the dance scene between Young Dracula and the idealistic Jonathon Harker—Mina’s fiancée. Harker is a young solicitor who enters the dimly lit and unnerving castle of Dracula, planning on finalising the Count’s estate purchases. Instead, Dracula seduces him into a beautiful but dangerous dance, playing with him as one plays with their food before dinner.
Dracula’s immersive performance was so strong that you couldn’t help but be pulled into his fiendish world. There was a sense that you—as the audience—were also being hypnotised by Dracula’s subtle flirtations with Harker; by his strident walk, the licking of his lips, and his stroking of Harker’s neck.
The star vampire is joined by a haggle of devilish characters: the sexual and slightly mad female vampires, who give off a very strong Bellatrix Lestrange-vibe; and the two men, painted in camouflage colours, who represent Dracula’s mystical powers. They appear before Dracula does, always indicating his malevolent presence will soon arrive on the scene.
These characters and their unusual choreography made it clear that Dracula was not going to be a classical ballet; instead, it renders a neo-classical ballet movement, which attempts to strip away the detailed narrative from the performance, focussing on the movements and the dance itself.
In part, this was due to the contemporary dance being mixed-in with the ballet; the distortion of new and old worked fantastically with the dark and dramatic themes of Dracula. This was further complemented by the creeping and then climactic musical scores of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar.
Worlds away from Campion’s piece of art, however, was the music of Dracula. Oddly enough, I found myself comparing the scores to those of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its pounding drums, deep horn calls, and soaring choral vocals.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Dracula, though, was the real human element to it. This was a ballet that was based on real historical events, and more so, human suffering, beliefs, and fears. In this sense, Dracula wasn’t a fantasy at all—it was a portrayal of our often tragic and crushing human reality, and the brutal world of the late 19th century that inspired its story. For the space of about two hours, I was truly transported to another time and place.
This was beautifully and perfectly evoked on stage through what I can only compare to as a German Expressionist or noir setting. Long shadows, odd shapes, and exaggerated characters made me feel sure that the director was influenced by the 1920s expressionist films of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu, the latter of which was also about a terrible vampire. Such exploration of gothic darkness was what I loved about this ballet. The ghostly disappearances, devilish behaviour and hugely emotional and raw acting (which I did not expect from a ballet) was what compoundedthis performance as an outstanding, must-see show.
So, I guess Dracula isn’t too elitist after all. This is a show that anyone can relate to—yes, even you, you plebs; don’t hesitate to go and attend the show this spring!
Dracula is playing at His Majesty’s Theatre until September 22.