The WA Ballet … On Pointe with DRACULA

Dracula Programme Cover

Dracula is potentially an artistic minefield, it can so easily tip into Hammer Horror farce, shattering audience illusion, however the WA Ballet company has taken Bram Stoker’s iconic horror story and produced a masterpiece of dance and theatre.

Francis Ford Coppola, with his still stunning film Dracula (1992), understood the story was essentially that of lost love, despair and a corresponding descent into madness, Artistic Director Aurelien Scannella not only agrees with that interpretation, he’s come out of dancing retirement to take on the role of the Old Dracula.

It’s not often every element of theatre comes together in the way this production does – the sets, the lighting, the costumes, the music and of course, the dance. It’s a meticulous attention to detail I’ve not witnessed since the late Leonard Cohen’s concerts – perhaps there’s a Prince of Darkness synergy there?

Costumes and sets inevitably establish an era and a mood, but Phil Daniels and Charles Smith have also managed to set character, a Dracula aficionado will instantly recognise the main players, and it has the effect of enhancing the choreography. There was no sense the costumes had had to be worked around, rather a seamless match of costume and dance giving life to character.

The sets were, as to be expected, gothic and brooding, brought to life by Jon Buswell’s subtle, but evocative lighting, emphasising the collaborative thought and attention to detail throughout this production. Without in any way diminishing any particular set, the scenes that resonated for me, in no particular order, were the waltz scenes, the set reminding me of the Schönbrunn Palace interiors in Vienna, the power and sense of vastness in the interior of Dracula’s castle, the carriage delivering Jonathan Harker to the castle, Renfield’s asylum cell and the bed were Dracula’s brides seduce Harker.

Scannella has chosen to use music predominantly written by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, (dec), in fact much of the music features excerpts from his score for Coppola’s Dracula, if that sounds as if it was a simple task of matching film score to scene, nothing could be further from the truth. Kiwi arranger, Michael Brett has brilliantly matched diverse pieces to scenes, even including a little Chopin. Under the direction of Canadian conductor Judith Yan, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra is simply wonderful. As one might imagine, cellos are prominent, but special mention must be made of the piano – there was a keyboard passage that filled the auditorium with crystal clear emotion.

Ah, the dancers. It is after all, the WA Ballet. The cast were breathtakingly good, they were the characters, the illusion was peerless, whether it was the erotic danger of Melissa Boniface as Lucy appearing to float on pointe, or the innocence and sweetness of Carina Roberts in her dual roles of Elizabeth and Mina, the reasoned calm and comfort of Polly Hilton (Mrs Westenra), the studied, perfect, individual masculinity of Oscar Valdes (Jonathon), Gakuro Matsui (Arthur), Adam Alzaim (van Helsing), or Christian Luck (Doctor). Then there was the believable madness of Jesse Homes as Renfield, catching flies to eat, driven mad by the scent of his master. I don’t know which dancers were playing Draculas brides, however they were equally stunning, the eroticism and sensuality of the bedroom scene with Jonathon Harker on the bed, and the graveyard dance of the hunted stood out, reminding us of the undertones of sexuality that make this tale so fascinating. Then there were the kids! Although not required to dance, Dante Pendergrast, Zac Bresland and Leuan O’Donohue added poignancy as potential victims pursued by Dracula’s brides and in another scene, the lone child with his bereft mother who’d lost her baby to Dracula.

Then there is Dracula – two of! This was a masterstroke of creative thinking. Dracula withers without blood, without feeding he falls into decay and the monster is revealed. In other productions I’ve seen, Dracula drinks and gives some sort of power display, but in the WA Ballet’s production, (a new work), he is truly transformed, it’s both fascinating and beautifully done.

Aurelien Scannella plays the hungry decaying old Dracula, while Matthew Lehmann plays the young thirst quenched Dracula and they are two different beasts. Scannella’s Dracula is decay, evil and dangerous. His performance is like watching a tiger stalk, at once both repellent and riveting. Then he feeds and the transformation is astounding. In a fabulous display of choreography, lighting and dance skill, Lenmann’s reinvigorated youthful Dracula appears, whilst Scannella’s decaying Dracula fades into the shadows. Lenmann’s Dracula is not obviously a monster, he’s a sophisticated suave seducer, but he is still Dracula, you really have to see the changes to understand just how clever it is. Fantastic stuff. The production has added two butlers to the story and they work in two ways, firstly we quickly understand their appearance is a prelude to Dracula arriving, secondly, they serve to remind us there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism to the story, in fact their costumes are near naked as the story becomes more intense.

I’ve really had to stretch to fault this production, only two things slightly jarred for me – the first when Elizabeth throws herself off the castle parapet, the dummy used just fell to the floor, making an unrealistic thud as it hit the dance floor and the second, when the nurse screams seeing Dracula outside the window. The scream actually ruined the illusion for a minute – as a ballet, it succeeds beyond anything I’ve witnessed, in terms of conveying the tale without speech, the scream was a rare corny moment – it would be far more effective if she put her hand over her mouth and collapsed on the floor.  As for Elizabeth’s suicide, I’d like to see the dummy float to the floor without the Hammer Horror thud – easy to do with wire. But that’s really it, apart from those tiny two details, I can’t fault the production.

Apologies to dancers I’ve not mentioned, I counted about 36 performers on stage as the cast took their bows, the audience on Friday night rightly could not stop clapping, my two adult daughters were as overwhelmed as I was with the production, the three of us agreeing, we’d like to go again, it is that good. You will not see a better ballet performance and production anywhere in the world. I hope at some stage they do tour this, European audiences would go wild over it.

Greg Ross

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