On October 21st, Ballet West opens its 2011-12 season with Ben Stevenson’s highly-acclaimed Dracula, and Easton Smith is passionate about more than his 18 bloodthirsty brides. Sharing the role of Dracula with Beau Pearson and Christopher Anderson, Easton expects audiences to be moved, and at times, scared out of their wits.
In a recent Ballet West “Viewpointe” event, Ben Stevenson said that while the male dancers in Dracula are outstanding, the girls, the brides, are “really scary, and really good”, and that during a recent rehearsal, he was sitting rather close to the brides and was eager to run away because they were just a bit too “creepy”! Stevenson, who has created some 80 ballets, praised Ballet West, noting that Salt Lake City has an extraordinary company here. He said, “they are wonderful dancers who want to make ballet the best that they can and I can’t say loud enough how terrific Ballet West is.”
Now entering his second season with Ballet West, Soloist Easton Smith gave me an inside look into Dracula, offered his own thoughts about the upcoming season, and talked about the continued need for our community’s support and involvement to keep our ballet company and the Art alive.
What did you first think when you heard that Ballet West would be doing Dracula?
Easton: I was super excited! I’ve done other Draculas before, but Ben Stevenson’s version was always talked about and it was always in the back of my head that it was something I wanted to experience; not even knowing or seeing the choreography, but knowing how much of an impact it had on everybody else…for them to talk about it, even in the midst of other Dracula performances.
What do you love about this role and this ballet?
Easton: I love the depth that the character Dracula has. I love the individuality of all the Draculas — Beau Pearson, Christopher Anderson and me — that we can be such different Draculas. Whether it’s the insane Dracula, the blood hungry Dracula, or the controlling Dracula, there are so many different moods and dimensions to this character. This guy’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, and you can only begin to tap into what you think are the emotions that he might have gone through and try to express them. It’s really amazing, the character development that you can do with this guy. And every day, playing with his character is different and changing, and it’s truly unlimited what you can do with this part as far as acting is concerned.
Ben Stevenson said Dracula is not just a dancer’s role; this is an acting role. Do you find Dracula to be different than other ballets you’ve done because of the acting element?
Easton: There are certain ballets that definitely call for a lot of acting. With something like Romeo and Juliet, acting is huge. There are certain parts in ballet that have this. I’m trying to think in my head of a part this big for such a dark character. Being a tall guy, I have been cast as the bad guy many times, and to have this much thrust upon a dark character, I think, is pretty unheard of. It’s very rare, I feel.
What are the Dracula challenges for you as a dancer or actor?
Easton: This role is very heavy in partnering and dancing and acting. I find it hard to keep up the façade, the acting, with 100 percent intent all the way through, because you find yourself at the end of the first act in pieces. Your eyes, your vision is blurry and you are red, redder than any tomato you’ve ever seen. You are completely tapped out as if you’ve done a whole 8-show week, just in the first act, and you still have the second and third act to do, and you’re just wondering how you’re going to get through this. I consider myself to be a strong partner, actor and dancer and I just find myself scraping the bottom of the barrel every time.
The word pacing normally comes up in certain parts, and when Ben Stevenson was here, he would have no pacing. It wasn’t about pacing. It was about sheer intensity, and pure character the whole way through. Normally, there’s a part where you can take a rest, or you can take a break here or there. There’s none of that in this. It’s full on, 100 percent of the time, and that’s difficult. But, it’s what creates Dracula’s character throughout the whole act. This guy Dracula, he has endless strengths with blood. He’s just so powerful, so being immortal and trying to portray that, that’s crazy…that’s unbelievable.
You mentioned that Draculas are different because there’s so much that you can pull out of this character. Will we find there are distinct differences in how you, Beau and Chris each portray him?
Easton: One hundred percent! We’re not even the same Dracula. I’ve been watching a lot of Draculas. I’ve watched Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Gerard Butler in Dracula 2000, Nosferatu, True Blood, and even the whole Twilight series. I’ve been watching crazy vampire stuff. Vampires are portrayed so differently in every single one of these series or movies, and they’re all even different as far as their weaknesses in what they can and can’t do, and also in how long each has been around.
We all definitely have these different ideas of what Dracula has meant to us. It’s a lifelong study if you think about it, because at a young age we’re vampires for Halloween, or we’ve heard the story of Dracula, and it also goes through this kind of cartoon phase. Now with society latching on to the whole vampire thing, there are so many different variables to create Dracula that you want to act out on stage. It is amazing and unbelievable and there are distinct differences between us all.
Chris Anderson has this kind of old school charm and class that you see Dracula having throughout time. Beau Pearson has this insanity that Dracula has that scares the bejesus out of you…it’s amazing! I don’t know where mine fits in; it’s kind of hard to put your finger on it. I’ve tried to go for a bit of the new ideas with vampires and Dracula, mixed with a little bit of the old and partial restrained insanity that kind of gives him his eccentric-type feel. Whether that comes across to the audience or not is completely…well, you don’t know. What you go for and what gets put out there is varied. For example, I did it when I was tired the other day and I did a whole new Dracula. I mean, I was bloodthirsty – I needed blood the whole time to be able to get from one step to the other. Sometimes I feel the blood in me so much, that’s what drives me to do it instead of going slowly from one thing to the next – it’s what pushes me onto the next thing.
What do you think will surprise the audience?
Easton: The darkness of the ballet at first glance. It’s not a cartoonized, animated, or characterized version of Dracula. It’s full on deep, dark Dracula. And the women, the 18 brides…it’s a corps of 18, immortal vampire women. And these girls, they look like they are going to eat you alive. In fact, if I wasn’t in character, I would probably run for the hills because the look is so intense.
You’ve seen classical corps. It’s beautiful and it’s precise, uplifted and great lines. This is the exact same thing, but it has this different kind of turn to it. They are all bloodthirsty. They want to suck life out of people. They move in the same synchronicity and they have the same beautiful lines – it’s tweaked so that you can tell that they’re dead and in search for, lusting for, blood.
But I’ll tell you what — it’s the most intense corps I’ve ever seen. You’ve never seen a corps like this; it’s out of this world. And when you sit back and watch it, it gives you the creeps; it gives you the chills. It’s nothing to be joked with. These women will drink your blood while you’re living and then kill you. That’s what it looks like. That’s going to be shocking to the audience to see this corps of Dracula’s brides, with him commanding them to dance and to do these things. It’s intense…really intense. It’s shockingly dark.
What do you think audiences will love about this ballet?
Easton: I think they will love the level of commitment between the dancers and their parts. It’s really amazing. I think the audience’s connection to that is really going to set them off on such an amazing Halloween adventure throughout the rest of the season, which is really cool. Even though it’s only a couple more weeks till Halloween, the people who see Dracula the first week are going to love even more this connection to this wonderful Halloween feeling that we have here in Salt Lake City and Utah. It’s just going to kick off the holiday season with a big bang. They’re really going to feel the intensity. It’s impressive, it really is. I think that everybody that has these parts portraying these ghoulish figures, has enjoyed it so much that they’re going to allow the audience to enjoy that, and it’s going to stand out for that alone. Salt Lake has a whole different level of commitment to Halloween. It’s not like a one-night party; they do a whole season for Halloween just like they do for Thanksgiving and Christmas and other holidays that are super important.
Tell me about that cape.
Easton: The cape is amazing. It has a life of its own, and for each of the Draculas it takes on a different life of the character, which is really cool. It’s the best cape I’ve ever worked with; the way it’s weighted, the way it has boning in it. Closer to the tips of the wings, it has this extra part that stands out like a bat wing would, and it really helps shape your character. There are times it looks like Dracula is flying, and they told us that it’s supposed to look like an extension of our body and character. The work that we do in the cape has been really intense like everything else. It’s not just putting it on and whipping it around. It’s really like having it be a part of who Dracula is. It’s amazing and so much fun to work with and to get to know it. This cape with slight movements in different directions or even just small things can help you learn better how to maneuver a cape in really cool and amazing ways. It’s something that you can play around in for hours, and we have.
I heard it weighs about 30 pounds?
Easton: It’s heavy. I’m not gonna lie. It’s heavy. You have to get a lot of steam going for that thing to go. It’s been amazing because I normally do workouts every day in the morning and do a lot of weightlifting. But with the amount of partnering in this cape, I’ve actually really cut down on that because if I were to do that type of workout schedule with what we’re doing at work right now as Dracula with the cape and partnering, there’s no way I would make it through.
The cape in itself is a workout, just holding it up, getting momentum going, and then switching momentum from one side to the other, it’s sheer shoulder and bicep and forearms and back. It’s crazy. You don’t realize how big it is, but you have to maneuver it in and out of the girls and actually do certain types of movements with the girls. And all of a sudden they’re like 8 feet away and you’re about to smack them with the cape and you have to move your arm. You don’t realize how massive it is until you have to move around and through them.
I looked at Christiana Bennett the other day and I said, “I’m so glad we’re not doing Carmina (Burana)” because it was so hard. And then as we started working with Ben Stevenson and it started getting harder, I was like, I think I’d rather do Carmina! It’s so hard! (laughing)
I think I read that Dracula flies?
Easton: Yes, Dracula flies…but not me! And I wish that I was, because when I did Billy Elliot, the little kid got to fly. And when we did The Sleeping Beauty, Aiden got to fly. I want to fly! When is it my turn? (laughing)
Did you know that this weekend celebrates the 200th birthday of Composer Franz Liszt? (Dracula music)
Easton: I had heard that actually. It’s very cool! You know, it’s funny because when you think of classical ballets and composers you don’t necessarily think Franz Liszt. It’s pretty amazing that on his birthday we’re doing such a huge kind of thing that’s almost celebratory of that. I hope the public can latch on to that and think it’s kind of cool too.
I also really hope that Ballet West can look at this and say hey, if we did something like this every year — and it doesn’t have to be directly a theme of Halloween but something close to that — it would be great for us to get that going to appeal to the community. Last season’s Carmina Burana was kind of the same way and then to have this, Dracula, and to have these darker-themed ballets in October knowing the connection that this community has to Halloween, would be amazing.
Do you think you’ll watch Dracula one night from the audience?
Easton: I really want to. But I find it really hard, even in rehearsals, to watch the other Draculas because you don’t want to take anything from them. For example, I saw Beau doing this one thing that I loved and I wanted to do it, but I had to fight myself not to do it. You know, if you take something and make it your own and change it up, sure that’s fine. But the way he did it was so amazing that it made me discount what I was doing there and think it wasn’t as good, and I don’t want to have that in my head. I’ve seen them in rehearsal and I’ve seen how amazing they are, and I do want to sit out in the audience and get chills. Maybe after I have a couple shows in me I will. When you get on stage, it intensifies your character even more, and after I have intensified it and can see where it lays, then maybe I can go and see it from the audience. But I don’t want to do it before I’ve kind of sealed the deal with who I am as Dracula.
Easton, you’re entering your 2nd season with Ballet West. Tell me a little about this past year.
Easton: Last year was really fun. It was weird, because coming from musical theater and doing 8 shows a week with infrequent rehearsals compared to coming here and having so much more rehearsal vs. shows was a hard transition at first. I was doing 8 shows a week in musical theater, and when I came here all I wanted to do was perform…perform…I want to do 8 shows. That was my mind set. When we got to The Nutcracker and we were doing all those shows, I kind of found myself at home again.
It was also interesting because you rehearse so much and do a show a certain number of times, and coming in and doing new rep I found myself challenged with going back and picking up with everything so fast just to do these 5 shows and then quickly moving on to something else.
There was some transitional stuff that I had to get used to, being back at a ballet company. It was an amazing coming-back-to-ballet feeling that I didn’t anticipate having. The parts that I was given last year were great opportunities for me to be able to say, hey I belong in this company, I’m able to do these parts. Between Bolero, Carmina Burana and Innovations, and doing Chris Ruud’s Trapped and Avichai Scher’s White Noise, I really felt that at the end of all that, I felt home again. I felt the transition was made and I was in my right place again.
I find myself every day grateful to have the full artistic staff of the ballet. We have all these amazing different dance talents and personalities helping us, and I found myself really comfortable knowing that as long as I paid attention to them I was going to have a good season and have a good show. And then having Adam Sklute as a director… My wife Haley and I had a really hard time finding a director that we really wanted to be around. And finding Adam and being here last year was super comforting throughout the whole season. I really feel like last year we were able to take on roles and be challenged, and it’s crazy how different this year feels already compared to last year. I feel even more at home, and that I can be even more successful just listening to everybody and taking what they have to say and really trusting this artistic staff because they’re all really brilliant.
What are you looking forward to most this season?
Easton: I’m definitely looking forward to Petite Mort and Don Quixote. We don’t know our parts for sure, but there is a part in Don Q – it’s a tall bad guy and I remember watching Don Q when I was young with Mikhail Baryshnikov and the bad guy was Patrick Bissell. I remember thinking I would love to do that part, and I was already tall at that time so if there was a part for me that would be it. I’m pretty sure that if typecasting exists then I’ll be doing that part, cause he’s this tall, cocky, colorful type dude – it’s just an amazing part and I really hope I can do that.
I’m looking at getting the rights for a song for something I choreographed for Innovations if it’s picked. It’s funny, we’re also doing Emeralds. Yeah, I look forward to so much; it’s really unbelievable. Because everything we do is an opportunity for us to keep doing wonderful parts, to keep being trusted to do stuff that carries its weight, to keep being in the public’s eye and to be able to communicate what these parts mean to me as an artist and dancer. As long as I’m going on stage and doing that, that’s what I look forward to more than anything because truly making something your own and then giving that to the audience, is probably one of the biggest gifts a dancer can have for themselves.
I’ve seen some video clips of Petite Mort and I’m really looking forward to it.
Easton: It is unbelievable. I think it’s going to be something that anybody who comes and sees it really notices. It’s just a huge storm. I mean, there are little blips on the radar, and then it’s huge. You know, it’s one of those things — that ballet was choreographed 20 years ago. And if you look at all the prominent, contemporary choreographers now, they’re still striving to be in that realm. That’s what’s amazing about it. It’s so cutting edge that even now, it’s still ahead of its time. You can’t help but see that anybody who comes in off the street who knows nothing about ballet could say, “this is amazing!” And that’s cool.
Do you often get paired with your wife Haley?
Easton: We do. I think Haley and I work very well together, and the couples that we have in the company do work together. There’s kind of this idea in ballet in general that couples don’t work well together. But here in Salt Lake City at Ballet West, we have a lot of couples that do work well together!
I think that last year coming in I didn’t get paired with her as much as I am going to this year. We’ve been paired together for Petite Mort and we’re paired together in everything we’re doing in The Nutcracker, which I think is 7 different parts, and as far as I know we’re paired in Emeralds if we get a chance to do that. We don’t know all the parts we’ll be doing this year as things have only been talked about and not finalized – everything is kind of up to chance. But I think this year we’ll be doing more together.
As a rule, we’re both tall and blonde, we work well together and we know how to partner each other extremely well, so we do get paired a lot. It’s really nice. I like looking back on my career and knowing that I spent time dancing with the person I love more than anything. That’s really rewarding.
What would you say to people who haven’t ever been to the ballet?
Easton: I would encourage them to come because I think anyone who hasn’t been to the ballet in Salt Lake City or Utah doesn’t realize what kind of world class ballet we have here. It’s internationally acclaimed; it’s one of the best company’s that there is. It’s unbelievable the amount of rep we do for this community! To be able to see the things that we do it’s just as if you were in New York, San Francisco or any place with a huge company. You get to see the best of ballet there, and we get that here. So we would encourage everybody to go out and experience it. Yes, go experience the The Nutcracker, but go experience our rep shows and go experience the real art of ballet because we have it here in Utah right at our fingertips.
I think that what Ballet West does is amazing – the dancers, the ballets…
Easton: I feel the same way. When I watch my co-workers do their stuff, I’m in shock. The amount of and level of talent that we have here, and the dancers — it’s unbelievable their contribution to this company. And I will say, our artistic staff really helps to create that in dancers. Throughout their career, throughout their years of being here, they really allow them to bloom and come into their own, and that’s what has made this company so successful — our artistic staff, and Adam, directly, Adam.
Any final thoughts?
Easton: Yes. I think it’s important for the community to support the ballet financially. As a ballet dancer coming here from being on Broadway, touring around the world, and being a lot of different places, when I came and went to the symphony one night and saw all the names of the donors of the symphony, and I then compared it to the donors of the ballet, my emotions kind of got drained for a while. The people who come and support the ballet give endlessly, it’s amazing. But I think we need to look at supporting it with more people, and getting more names on our donor list.
I see amazing things with all the ballets that are created and how the dancers are thriving. It’s really hard when you devote so much of your life and you feel that the community isn’t really taking advantage of the contributions that you’re making through ballet. But yet they are in another aspect of the Arts. I know it’s a sensitive thing to say and I’m incredibly grateful for our supporters. But I feel like a bigger part of the community needs to get involved with the ballet, just as they do the symphony, because we’re offering the same type of integrity, and the same kind of classical art form, and we want all of these to be in our lives and in our kids’ lives, to enrich everything.
I know that everybody goes to see movies, but this is theater. This is one of the earliest forms of entertainment, and we need to see that, take part, and give and donate so that we can keep it going as a ballet company. In this economy, Ballet West, like most companies, is having a hard time and we need the support of our community to stay afloat or we’re not going to have it forever. And that’s sad to think about not having that.
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