'Dracula' brings new blood to Madison Ballet

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Leave it to the undead to help bring a struggling Madison arts company back to life.

Next month, the Madison Ballet will stage the world premiere of “Dracula: A Rock Ballet” at the Capitol Theater in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. The two-hour original ballet, danced to a score by Madison composer Michael Massey, is the third of four works in the ballet’s 2012-13 season – a season marked by expansion, new ballets and a return from the financial precipice, says W. Earle Smith, Madison Ballet’s artistic director.

Smith is betting that “Dracula” will help build the company’s profile, as well as attract new fans. Described as a “steampunk” version, the ballet is original and shares nothing with the recent version created by the Milwaukee Ballet’s Michael Pink, except that the source material for both is Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel. 

Due to its sexual themes, the work is being marketed as “for mature audiences only.” Ironically, it was Smith’s “little brother,” a boy he mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County, who spurred the project.

“I started working on ‘Dracula’ about five years ago,” Smith says. “My little brother was into the whole vampire scene, due largely to the ‘Twilight’ books. He got me to read the books, go to the movies and re-interested me in working on the project.”

Smith’s neo-classical approach to dance is a natural match to the subject matter. It fits beautifully with Massey’s rock music score and gives the familiar tale a contemporary feel, according to Smith.

“When I started working with the look of the ballet, even before meeting with my creative team, I gathered a bunch of images,” Smith says. “My costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore saw them and said, ‘Clearly, steampunk designs’ and it was clearly a perfect fit.”

Steampunk, for those who don’t know, refers to a style that reflects an apocolyptic future powered by steam engines but inspired by Victorian style. In addition to matching the time and place in which Stoker’s novel was written, the subgenre features fantastic machinations and a lot of black and metal-studded clothes, both of which suited the ballet’s esthetic.

Juilliard School-educated Matthew Linzer will dance the role of Dracula, aided by Jennifer Tierney (Mina Murray), Molly Luksik (Lucy Westenra) and Verona, Wis., native Brian Roethlisberger (Jonathan Harker). The cast is a mix of dancers trained by Smith, as well as some chosen from other parts of the country. The show’s 19 dancers include 10 males, far more than is normal for a ballet, Smith says.

Smith has worked with Massey before, including on a 20-minute repertoire ballet a number of years ago, but he did not realize Massey had a rock ‘n’ roll background. The composer shared some samples and the choreographer knew he had found the right partner to create a new work.

“Music comes first,” Smith says. “It is the driver of the movement. In a full-length ballet, the story dictates where the music and movement should go, but music is its heart and soul.”

Of course, Dracula technically has no soul. But short of a stake through the lead character’s heart, Smith expects his ballet to continue helping to breathe new life into Madison Ballet’s future.

The 2008 recession affected arts organizations nationwide, including the Madison Ballet, forcing the company to cut back on expenses and eventually productions, says Smith, who also has a background in accounting and financial management. The overall economy is now on the mend, and so is the financial outlook for the Madison Ballet, Smith says.

“For the 2011-12 season we reduced our performances so we could pay down more than $150,000 of operational debt accumulated over three years,” Smith says. “Madison Ballet is definitely in a much better position, but we have to be very careful with our finances since the overall economic recovery of the country is still rather slow.”

On stage

Madison Ballet’s production of “Dracula: A Rock Ballet” runs March 8–10 at the Capitol Theater in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. For information and tickets, visit http://overturecenter.com/production/dracula.