“Dracula” rises again in Ballet West’s devilishly entertaining revival 

Sun Oct 22, 2023 at 3:20 pm
Amy Potter as Flora and Tyler Gum in the title role of Ballet West’s Dracula. Photo: Beau Pearson.

What are the odds of encountering Franz Liszt’s Totentanz on consecutive nights performed in two wholly different genres? 

Such was the case with Liszt’s work—performed by pianist Joyce Yang with the Utah Symphony Friday night and then again as part of the score for Ballet West’s highly entertaining and atmospheric revival of Dracula Saturday at the Lawson Capitol Theatre.

Ben Stevenson’s devilishly clever adaptation, debuted at Houston Ballet in 1997, is becoming something of a local Halloween tradition—first staged by Ballet West in 2011 and revived as recently as 2021.

The celebrated tale of the nocturnal vampire who must search out the hemoglobin of fresh victims to keep himself sort-of alive has become enshrined in pop-culture legend— from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, numerous theater adaptations and, most famously, the 1931 Universal film starring Bela Lugosi and its countless celluloid iterations since.

Stevenson’s Terpsichorean Dracula is creatively conceived and exceptionally well-crafted, with engaging, varied choreography for a large cast, presented in three compact acts. We move from the darkness of Dracula’s castle and his spectral “Brides”—including Flora his latest conquest— to the happy normalcy of the village where the young lovers Frederick and Svetlana become engaged. Dracula abducts Svetlana, and Frederick and his village fellows follow them to Dracula’s lair in a rousing climactic battle to rescue her.

The music for Dracula is all Liszt, whose output—uneven at the best of times—works surprisingly well as a ballet score.  What could have been a hodgepodge is woven together with consummate skill by arranger John Lanchbery to make a cogent musical narrative, and was well conducted by company music director Jared Oaks.

Saturday night’s cast was making its first appearance in this current revival and the pacing seemed a bit measured at times with some of the dancing and tempos feeling slightly cautious. Corps de ballet unity was less than airtight and there were moments with a lack of synch between the music and the dancers on stage.

The performance began to catch fire at the halfway point of Act I with the irresistible visual spectacle of Dracula and his 18 brides— in both the angular dances of the latter (two flying high over the stage) and, especially, the pas de trois between Dracula and two of his ghostly concubines, which managed to be both sensual and unsettling.

Following the jarring end of Act I, in which Dracula’s brides feast carnivorously on the doomed Flora, the contrast of the happy lovers and convivial villager archetypes in Act II comes almost as a relief. 

The final scene provides the show’s climax and a thrilling payoff with the battle for Svetlana, Frederick and the villagers arrayed against Dracula, Renfield and the brides. The frantic action and complexities were dazzling and visually stunning as the characters continually flew at each other and apart in ever-morphing side struggles as Svetlana is rescued, recaptured and rescued again. 

Katlyn Addison as Svetlana and Hadriel Diniz as Frederick in Ballet West’s Dracula. Photo: Beau Pearson

Hadriel Diniz was a dashing Frederick, noble of bearing and duly heroic, lifting his Svetlana, Katlyn Addison, high with seemingly little effort. Diniz was assured in his dancing with impressive free spins and mid-air battements. 

He was nicely complemented by Addison’s Svetlana; their lovely pas de deux was a highlight of the evening, with the ensuing, increasingly brilliant solo variations making a kind of competitive dance-off. Svetlana’s initial confusion and fear upon being reunited with Frederick was sensitively conveyed by Addison, making their eventual coming together register with even greater emotion and a sense of catharsis.

As Dracula, Tyler Gum proved an aptly Mephistophelean prince of darkness, recovering smoothly from a minor slip in Act I. At times one wanted greater speed and bravura in his solo movements, but Gum proved a largely worthy villain, at his best in the complex final scene.

The standout performance of the evening came from Kazlyn Nielsen, who made a spectacular debut subbing for the slated Amy Potter as Flora—Dracula’s victim who becomes his chief enabler, helping to ensnare Svetlana. As the flame-haired Flora, Nielsen made every nuanced movement and isolated gesture speak volumes—from the captured girl’s unwilling seduction by and capitulation to Dracula, to her unhinged dissolution and near-spastic breakdown in the final act.

As the henchman Renfield—here a mix between Larry Talbot in Wolfman mode and your creepy Uncle Joe—Vinicius Lima delivered a solid turn as Dracula’s demented, high-energy cohort even if his leaps and splits were neither as high nor as thrilling as they might have been.

Of the smaller roles, Jake Preece was a characterful Hussar-like Innkeeper. The engagement sequence with Emily Adams as his Wife and Chelsea Keefer as the Old Woman was a nice, deftly turned bit of ballet narrative through efficient gesture and movement. Brian Waldrep as the crucifix-bearing Priest proved a worthy ally in the climactic struggle to vanquish the forces of darkness.

Dracula runs through October 28 with three alternating casts. Balletwest.org

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