Dueling ‘Draculas’ offer ballet with a bite

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Call it coincidence, or credit dark forces dancing in the human psyche. Either way, Wisconsin’s two premier ballet companies are opening their seasons with productions of a story that ballet fans will really be able to sink their teeth into: Dracula.

Madison Ballet kicks off its 2015-16 season Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 with three performances of artistic director W. Earle Smith’s original production of Dracula, at the Overture Center’s Capitol Theatre. Driven by Madison composer Michael Massey’s rock score, the 2-year-old production is perhaps the only dancing “steampunk” version of the classic horror novel first penned in 1897 by Irish novelist Bram Stoker.

Less than a week later, Milwaukee Ballet opens its own season with four performances of artistic director Michael Pink’s own version of the Stoker classic, Oct. 22 to Oct. 25 at the Marcus Center. Performed to a score Pink describes as “filmic” and written by frequent collaborator Phillip Feeney, Milwaukee Ballet’s Dracula was first created in England in 1996 and has been seen by more than 1 million people worldwide.

Each version adds its own unique spin to the famous vampire legend.

“One of the things intriguing to me is that when it comes to scary creatures, the vampire is the one we both love and hate,” Smith says. “It’s like, deep inside, we all want to get bitten by a vampire. There is something really sexy about that.”

Pink sees a similar appeal in the legend. He considers Dracula as being driven almost entirely by the ballet’s main character, perfectly adaptable to the medium of dance.

“The beauty of Dracula is that he communicates with very few words,” says Pink, who created the original production when he was still with the Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds. “He is this calm, steely guy who never hurries because he will live for eternity. Dracula is a largely silent character best portrayed through movement.”

STEAMPUNK SPOOKS

Smith’s interest in Dracula was piqued when the “little brother” he mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County kept asking to be taken to the Twilight movies and other recent vampire films. Smith read Stoker’s novel and researched other sources of vampire lore for five years before joining forces with Massey to conceive and execute his production.

“In dance, the story is told through movement, so I had to pull out the biggest story lines and condense the work down to a CliffsNotes version,” Smith said. “(Massey) and I worked on the music for 2 1/2 years. He had a lot of experience in composition, but none regarding ballet, so I had to help him understand the format of a pas de deux and other movements.”

The ballet’s steampunk aesthetic — quasi-Victorian with technological elements integrated — originated in a discussion between Smith and costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore, who then worked with the late Charles “Jen” Trieloff, the show’s set designer, to create the original two-story steampunk world in which Dracula’s vampire coven thrived. (Trieloff, a well-regarded set and prop designer in the Madison area, died of a heart attack last fall.)

“I love the rock ‘n’ roll component and the steampunk design, which came about by chance,” Smith says. “I didn’t want to do a true period piece, but wanted to make it more accessible. Steampunk does that.”

Smith’s production strays from more traditional ballet fairly regularly, incorporating elements of jazz dance and contemporary choreography. The choreography has a contemporary, urban feel he says mixes well with the steampunk designs.

Smith likes his Dracula tall and terrifying. Dancer Joe LaChance, new to the role this year, is 6’4” — a commanding presence on stage.

“He did a lot of training at Ballet Chicago, so he brings that Balanchine aesthetic to the stage,” Smith says. “And of course he’s sexy. You’ve got to have a sexy Dracula.”

After its run at the Overture Center concludes, Madison Ballet’s production of Dracula will be presented Oct. 21 and Oct. 22 at the supposedly haunted Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, and then again next March at the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts in Springfield, Missouri.

Dark mysteries

Pink’s draw to Dracula had to do with his fascination with the legend, as well as a desire to present a compelling story most audience members could relate to.

“We asked ourselves, ‘how do we avoid the gimmicky fang thing?’ Do we go kitschy or deadly serious?” says Pink, referring to discussions with the late Christopher Gable, the ballet’s co-creator and former artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre who died of cancer in 1998. “We decided the most powerful thing we possess is our imagination and we created a world with a sense of illusion and mystery about it.”

Pink and Gable did the show’s 1996 media launch at The London Dungeon, a macabre tourist attraction that chronicles the city’s horrifying past. Audience response to subsequent performances was overwhelmingly positive and the ballet developed a base of fans that followed the company from performance to performance as the show toured England.

“They would come to each performance in full costume and makeup, adding an additional element of horror to the proceedings,” Pink says. “It was like one unending gothic Halloween party.”

Pink’s production offers more traditional ballet, but in a production he describes as having “a bigger, more theatrical Broadway value” thanks to elaborate scenery, lighting and special effects. The show relies on Victorian-era period costumes and sets created by Tony-winner Lez Brotherston, which lends an authenticity to the proceedings.

Pink’s production calls on two Milwaukee Ballet company members to fill the role of Dracula. Davit Hovhannisyan has played Dracula before, while Alexandre Ferreira is a newcomer to the role. Pink admits playing the vampire is a demanding task.

“It’s the gift of a powerful male role in ballet and they have to have total immersion as with any acting role,” Pink says. “Stillness, power and discipline are required, and the Dracula role calls for that stillness and omnipresence.”

ON STAGE 

Madison Ballet’s production of Dracula runs for three performances Oct. 16-17 at Overture Center, 201 State St. For tickets and info, call 608-258-4141 or visit madisonballet.org.

Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Dracula runs for four performances Oct. 22-25 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. For tickets and info, call 414-273-7121 or visit milwaukeeballet.org.

Madison Ballet’s New Season

In addition to getting its vampire on with a production of W. Earle Smith’s Dracula on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17, the Madison Ballet also offers a full slate of performances for the 2015–16 season.

The company welcomes the holidays Dec. 12 to Dec. 27 with its annual production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at Madison’s Overture Center, joined by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and maestro Andrew Sewell.

Repertory I takes the stage Feb. 5-6 in Madison’s Bartell Theatre (113 E. Mifflin St.) to showcase the works of both established and upcoming choreographers. The full program is still to be determined.

The company again returns to Overture Hall March 19-20 for artistic director W. Earle Smith’s original production of Peter Pan. A three-story pirate ship provides a dramatic backdrop to J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

The Madison Ballet ends its season at the Bartell Theatre with Repertory II, another classical and contemporary program running from April 22-23. This program, too, will be announced closer to the premiere date.

Milwaukee Ballet’s new Season

Michael Pink puts the bite on audience members with his own production of Dracula Oct. 22-25, but that’s just the beginning.

The ballet will perform its annual rendition of The Nutcracker Dec. 12-27, at the Marcus Center. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Milwaukee Children’s Choir and 150 students from the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy will bring the Tchaikovsky classic to life.

The company travels to the Pabst Theater (144 E. Wells St.) Feb. 12-21 to perform Pink’s original production of Dorian Gray. Based on Oscar Wilde’s controversial philosophical novel of hedonism and mortality, the ballet will feature the music of longtime collaborator Philip Feeney.

In Kaleidoscope Eyes, three works will share the bill at the Marcus Center March 31 to April 3. Choreographer-in-residence Timothy O’Donnell will stage his fifth world premiere, Genesis competition winner Garrett Smith will debut a new work of his own, and Trey McIntyre’s A Day in the Life will feature a pastiche of Beatles songs as background to eight dancers. 

Sensational costumes, ingenious sets and outlandish characters define Alice (in wonderland). Choreographer Septime Webre’s vibrant dance brings Lewis Carroll’s fantastic tale to life, taking audiences down the rabbit hole May 19-22 at the Marcus Center.