Some people think that going to the ballet really sucks! But in the case of Ben Stevenson’s highly acclaimed Dracula, that was pretty much the point. Ballet West’s 2011-12 season opener invited Salt Lake City right into Dracula’s lair, and what we experienced took our breath away!
In 1999, I lived in Boston and had never been to the ballet or the symphony. I didn’t know people who participated or performed in the Arts, and was thus never inspired to do so myself. Yet somehow, I acquired free tickets to Boston Ballet’s production of Dracula, and I thought it would be pretty cool to go see Dracula on stage, so I went. I had absolutely no idea what I had gotten myself in to, and it was so foreign and bizarre to me, to see people moving about the stage without telling me a story in words, that I got up and left.
Fast forward 12 years and I’m now immersed in the Arts and have attended dozens of symphony and performing arts programs. And after seeing Madame Butterfly at the Capitol Theatre a few years ago, I instantly fell in love with Ballet West and now see performances whenever I can. However, upon discovering that Ballet West would be presenting the same Dracula that I walked out on in Boston, I was a bit less than enthusiastic and groaned at the thought of reliving this bad experience. But… with a new appreciation for the Arts, I eagerly looked forward to making an entirely new memory to replace that old yucky one. Four words: Thank you Ballet West!
Prior to Dracula’s Friday night season premiere, I interviewed Easton Smith, one of three dancers who is sharing the role throughout the two-week run. Easton shared his excitement about Dracula and how thrilling it promised to be for the audiences. He also talked about how different each of the Draculas (Easton, Beau Pearson and Christopher Anderson) would be, and I knew that I had to see Dracula more than once! My plan was to see the premiere on Friday night with Easton as Dracula, and then see Saturday’s cast with Beau Pearson.
As I sat in my seat, waiting for the curtain to rise, the theatre became still, the mood very dark. The Utah Chamber Orchestra began to slowly play haunting and foreboding music by Franz Liszt. As the curtain rose, through a screen we saw an eerie coffin lit by moonlight, surrounded by billowing fog. And then in a swift movement, the coffin was pulled to the back of the stage and there he was… Dracula!
I can’t remember a more exciting opening to an event! I was literally on the edge of my seat during those first few minutes. It was like watching a scary movie, anticipating the big moment that you knew was coming. I was excited, nervous, and a little bit giggly all at the same time!
After Dracula made his grand and dramatic entrance, we were introduced to his 18 brides. Eighteen stunning dancers. Eighteen stunning dresses. They were absolutely gorgeous, in a deathly, creepy sort of way, and their dresses were one of my favorite components of the ballet. What I really enjoyed about the brides was that their dancing was so varied and unique. There was so much going on that my eyes darted from bride to bride, and I was riveted by everything happening on stage.
In a beautiful Pas de Trois during Act 1, I found it impossible to take my eyes off of Dracula bride Haley Henderson. I loved everything about her! Her facial expression, or lack of one, ironically had such life and her movements were exquisite. Even lifeless, she had an incredible grace about her.
During the Friday performance, my eyes were transfixed on the brides. But with Saturday’s performance, I was drawn to Dracula, Beau Pearson. Easton had said that each of the Draculas were very different, and he was absolutely right! I observed certain mannerisms about Easton’s and Beau’s Draculas that my friends did not, but what I love is that what my friends and I perceived about the dancers ended up being something that was very personal to each of us. We each connected with a particular dancer on a different level.
I found Easton’s Dracula to be a powerful and domineering vampire who Lorded over his brides. I found Beau’s Dracula to be equally powerful, but I felt he was more compassionate, almost loving, towards his brides, and in Act 1 particularly, he showed a complete desperation for blood that I didn’t sense from Easton’s Dracula. These differences in the first two Draculas set the tone for the entire show, and I felt as though I was watching two different ballets – and that was fantastic!
Act 1 introduced us to Flora who is brought to Dracula’s castle as a dinner guest. In other words, Dracula thirsts for her, and his brides need to feed. After Flora’s futile attempts to flee fail, Dracula takes his prize in a ruthless and violent act of animalistic hunger. But don’t just take my word for it…
As the curtain rose for Act 2, the audience delighted in the extensive stage setting. We were greeted with outdoor village buildings surrounded by forest branches above that were incredibly intricate. The set was stunning!
Quite the contrast to Dracula’s dark and dreary castle, Act 2 begins joyfully in the village square where young men and women are enjoying their evening at an outdoor tavern. We are introduced to Svetlana and Frederick who comically become a couple after Svetlana pushes (literally) Frederick into asking her father for her hand in marriage.
In a spirited celebration, the village men and women dance, the father and mother dance, Svetlana and Frederick dance, and even an old woman dances. Their costumes were vibrant and colorful, the music was fun and light, and it was a festive evening to be sure.
But, as in all Dracula stories, the good times come to an end and Dracula suddenly appears in the village, swoops in to steal the beautiful Svetlana and Dracula and his henchman Renfield speed away in Dracula’s carriage back towards his castle in the mountains.
Act 3 brings us back into Dracula’s bedroom at his castle where we once again see his brides. Act 1’s village victim Flora, having “survived” her sisterly feast, is now a full-fledged vampire bride who is featured somewhat like a queen.
Christiana Bennett’s Flora (Friday night) was beautifully paired with Easton Smith, and everything about her was regal, even as she effortlessly flew across the stage. I can’t say enough about how perfect she was for this role with her fire-red hair and devilish grin! She stepped into her new bride role with confidence, grace and subservience and her dancing was simply beautiful.
Village maiden Svetlana is soon brought into Dracula’s chambers, presumably as breakfast, and we see the power that Dracula has over mortals as he commands them into a trance-like state. It’s the old, “don’t look into his eyes” rule…
As Svetlana fights her involuntary submission to Dracula, she and Dracula have one of my favorite moments of the whole ballet. As Easton Smith and Katherine Lawrence performed this quick lift, I remember actually saying “WOW!” out loud. Svetlana is under Dracula’s spell and in a swift move, Dracula lifts her horizontally into his arms. It was so perfect that it looked as if Katherine had a board directly under her. And they did it twice! Absolutely LOVED it!
Act 3 culminates in the unexpected arrival of Frederick and the villagers who have come to rescue Svetlana. There is so much going on in this scene that I was reminded of being at a Cirque du Soleil show! I couldn’t figure out what to concentrate on or who to look at because it was all a frenzied dance between villagers, brides, Dracula, Frederick and Svetlana.
There were so many moment in this ballet that took my breath away! The ballet so engrossed me that I truly felt like I was watching a movie at the theater. There were times when I was literally on the edge of my seat and while the ballet had two intermissions, it seemed like it went so fast!
Dancers who really stood out for me were Easton Smith and Beau Pearson, who both received standing ovations, Christiana Bennett, Haley Henderson, Arolyn Williams (Svetlana), Christopher Sellars (Renfield) and Ronnie Underwood (Frederick). All the dancers were amazing! Having seen two casts perform the ballet, I was able to truly see two different ballets. The story was the same, but the acting and dancing were different enough to allow me to feel like I was seeing the ballet for the first time. I absolutely loved both performances!
As I watched Beau Pearson in Act 1 on Saturday’s show, half way through the Act, I found myself itching to go back and see a performance with Easton in it…and see Dracula once more! I was intrigued by the differences and I just wanted to buy a ticket for the next show and see it all over again! If there is anything bad to say about this ballet, it’s that you can’t just see it once…it makes you want to see it twice, maybe even three times! … it’s that good!
This ballet was set to the music of Composer Franz Liszt and it was fitting to celebrate his 200th birthday this premier weekend with his amazing and haunting music. The Utah Chamber Orchestra was exemplary and I heard from a number of musicians that this was highly challenging music to perform. There were a number of beautiful solos that stood out, including flute, oboe, and I believe English horn, and the strings sounded sublime. Pianist Jed Moss was featured prominently throughout the Ballet, most notably when Dracula made entrances or danced and at times I felt I was at a piano concerto and was eager to see, not just hear, him live on stage. Dracula was one of my favorite orchestral performances at Ballet West.
Congratulations to Ballet West, all the dancers and artistic staff who put so much of themselves into this riveting ballet. I am ever impressed by the works that Artistic Director Adam Sklute brings to Ballet West and am eager to see each subsequent performance.
I highly recommend purchasing tickets for more than one night before the ballet ends! It’s one of those performances you will regret missing!
Photos by Luke Isley, courtesy Ballet West.
Learn more about Ballet West by visiting www.BalletWest.org.
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