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Flash Review, 3-4: Blood on the dance floor
Tulsa 'Dracula' breaks all records

Mugen Kazama and Tulsa Ballet in Ben Stevenson's "Dracula." Photo by Sharen Bradford, the Dancing Image and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2010 Alicia Chesser

TULSA -- Tulsa Ballet began its 2009-2010 season with a literal bang -- the one that signals the death of Dracula at the end of Ben Stevenson's evening-length 1997 ballet of the same name. The theme of this season seems to be "something for everyone," with a mix of programs designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and particularly to those in the community who might never have thought to go to the ballet. They must have accounted for the increased attendance -- the production broke all box office records in the company's 50-year history, including "Nutcracker" runs.

TB's "Dracula," seen October 30 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, was a hit not just because of its zeitgeist-friendly story and its million-dollar sets, costumes, and special effects, but also for its dancers who managed to invest the rather two-dimensional characters with drama and the creatively conventional choreography with verve and strength. Get the people to the ballet, and get the ballet to the people: "Dracula" let TB do both at once.

Whether those who showed up to see ballet for the first time will come back is another matter, but the ballet on offer was solid. As he did in his "Cinderella" (also part of TB's repertoire), Stevenson has created here a large-scale, three-act drama in the mold of "Giselle" and "Swan Lake," with just enough inversions of the genre to keep it feeling fresh. In the Petipa universe, Act One lands us in the village square, Act Two leads us away from the town and into the shadows, and Act Three returns us to the "civilized" world, which will never be the same after passing through that haunted world. "Dracula" turns this formula inside out, establishing Dracula's world as the dominant one (Acts One and Three) and the village world (Act Two) as the "other" that disrupts the ruling paradigm. Another inversion: In the great 19th-century classics it's the male lead who is drawn into a mysterious, magnetic world of ghostly, altered, or otherwise "not quite right" women. Here, innocent village women are spirited away in Dracula's ghastly coach (with its bug-eating driver, Renfield, played by the deliciously creepy Mugen Kazama) to his dark, frightening, utterly alien castle where they are hypnotized and harrowed no less than poor Albrecht is by Myrta and her Wilis. Instead of a cohort of wronged-women-in-white, Dracula's semi-dead-zone intimidates its prey with a coven of zombie brides, pale and sunken in cheekbone and eye, wearing tattered wedding gowns and oddly luxurious blonde curls. These women, sucked dry by Dracula and now doing his bidding in their liminal state, move with a lurching walk, their arms limply outstretched in front of them; they crowd around their master as if trying to remind him they once had something he wanted; they even fly across the vaulted castle ceiling (with the help of Flying by Foy, the company that invented stage flight for Broadway's "Peter Pan" in 1954.

And what is it that Dracula does want? Within the musty dark of his lair and the velvety dark of his enormous cape (sets and costumes courtesy of Houston Ballet), the count is all mouth and fingers. He lives for death; he dies without fresh life. Stevenson's ballet strongly communicates the hellish monotony of Dracula's existence, the cycle of needing and taking repeated over and over. This Dracula is not a dancing part; the little choreography he has is low to the ground and inwardly-directed, which is appropriate, I suppose, given that his world quite literally revolves around himself. With his powerful stance and meandering hands, his mouth blood-red in a ghostly-white face, Alfonso Martin brought an ever-so-slightly campy smolder to the part. His expression transformed from focused lust to pleasant charm when the first victim of the evening attempted to resist his advances. His 18 undead brides outdid themselves in creepiness, scattering and gathering like so many ghostly Shades. The music by Franz Liszt, in a thrilling arrangement by John Lanchberry, is full of shuddering rhythms and pounding chords, giving the ballet some delectable wildness -- a quality that isn't always present in the all-one-level choreography.

The brides' dance in Act One, like much of the ballet's other choreography, is pleasantly and unashamedly derivative. It pulls most strongly from George Balanchine's "Serenade," playing on that ballet's arpeggiated falls and its motif of a single outstretched arm. The village scene that makes up Act Two (and how lovely it was to see that Tulsa Ballet, with its diverse contemporary repertoire, can still do a dynamic good old village scene) is a pleasing simulacrum of ballet circa 1880, with a graceful each-lady-has-a-ribbon dance and a vigorous each-fellow-has-a-stick dance. Joshua Trader and Alexandra Bergman, as the parents of the heroine, Svetlana (Karina Gonzalez), boldly filled their character dances with just as much dancing as character. Georgia Snoke was haunting as a wise old woman, warning Svetlana against vampires as she prepares to marry Frederic (Wang Yi). Yi was full of youthful ardor in his role. He and Gonzalez shared a tender pas de deux, swinging their hands like children as they walked together, followed by a flawless mazurka by him and an adorable ingenue solo by her, complete with chainé turns on her heels with one hand behind her bun. For all their sweet expressiveness, though, physically these two played it safe, holding back in the face of difficult passages in a way they rarely do in less "classical" ballets.

Soo Youn Cho and Tulsa Ballet in Ben Stevenson's "Dracula." Photo by Sharen Bradford, the Dancing Image and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

The first real drama in "Dracula" occurs when Renfield dumps the vampire's newest victim, a village girl named Flora (Soo Youn Cho), onto the castle floor near the end of Act One. Stunned into submission, Flora is chomped into an orgasmic crumple, becoming the freshest fair one in the bunch. The first real *excitement*, however, happens at the very end of Act Two (there having been a good deal of lovely dancing in between, but really, we're all just waiting for Dracula to come back). As Svetlana and Frederic conclude their pre-nuptial dance, suddenly Dracula's coach roars into the town square and there is chaos -- dust flies, Renfield leaps down wild-haired into the crowd, Dracula knocks over innocent bystanders with his cape -- and there is Flora, pale and open-mouthed, come to help the vampire catch another village girl. Svetlana is swept up, the coach rattles wildly offstage, and the townspeople are left in shock as the curtain falls.

In Act Three, the dread and horror of what Dracula "means" comes to its full expression. Alone with her captor in the castle, Svetlana responds to his command that she dance for him with a painfully searching solo. She rocks from side to side, hops back as if shying away from the spirit in the place, scanning the rafters with terrified eyes. Gonzalez found in this solo every bit of depth there was to find, then added some of her own. Her delicate body became a divining rod, registering every shock and shudder of Svetlana's situation.

Making the most of the suspense that comes before the bite, Stevenson's concluding paragraph puts Svetlana more and more in Dracula's power as he carries her, coffin-like, around the stage. As the saving forces of Frederic and the priest arrive to save her, the scene turns wild: Renfield shoots into the air in huge double tours and hangs off the curtains of his master's bed in an agony of confusion, Dracula flies up to the rafters only to explode in his own chandelier, and Frederic grasps Svetlana in a torrid embrace as they exit the castle, into the light, and the curtain falls.

TB made the very most of this ballet, short on depth but long on "theater" as it is, and gave an audience full of people who'd maybe just come to see the vampire something to get excited about. Mission accomplished.

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