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Things Not Being Quite What They Seem

A conversation with Artistic Director David Nixon about Northern Ballet Theatre's new "Dracula"

by David Mead

August 2005 -- Leeds, England

Towards the end of August, David Nixon, Artistic Director of Northern Ballet Theatre, took time out to talk to me about his “Dracula”, originally choreographed in 1999 for Ballet Met, but now to be seen in the UK in a new, redesigned production. We began with the obvious question...

DM: Why ‘Dracula’?

Because it’s autumn and people think of vampires! The original reason at Ballet Met was that we had a Halloween season at the end of October and we wanted to do something thematic. Of all the Victorian Gothic stories the one that interested me the most, before even reading it, was ‘Dracula’.

I’ve always been a bit obsessed with vampires. I remember when I was a kid in Canada we had a show on TV about them called “Dark Shadows”. When I read “Dracula” I realised that actually there was a lot more underneath the story than you often think. I got very interested in how I might be able to do it. It’s a horror story but at the same time there’s something else there and that fascinated me.

DM: How do you go about bringing a novel like that to the stage? It does have so many different aspects to it.

I think that’s true about anything. There’s a certain element of poetic licence. I think you are trying to say something about what you found or what you took away from it. The important thing to always remember when you read a book is that the writer sometimes writes in a way that everybody sees the same thing but sometimes in a way that stimulates your imagination and lets you create your own image. One of the big problems can be that people have such strong personal ideas of what characters are like. Then, when they see them realised they find it’s not actually how they saw them. What I do in most instances is look for an essence. I try to distil down the book or whatever it is I’m working on and find out what is at the core and ask how can that come up in dance.

One of the things that was particularly striking with “Dracula” was the imagery. To me the book suggested many very different images. I asked myself what would be the striking image for each scene that would show the audience what I took away from the story and what would also maybe cause them to see the same thing or question it or just get them thinking about things. A lot of the themes for me are questionable. I leave it up to audience to decide if this is really happening or if it is this one of the character’s imagination or fantasy. Or is it everything?

DM: So different people might see different things in what you’ve done?

Yes. For example, the first meeting between Harker and Dracula could be perceived in three different ways. It could be perceived that it’s absolutely happening as it stands. It could also be believed that Jonathan Harker is just writing down and researching about Dracula while Dracula is fantasising what he would like to do with Mina, this young fresh blood in the photograph he is looking at. It could also be that Harker is imagining what kind of weird character is and whether he would maybe do this to me. Maybe it’s all happening. Maybe really he is mesmerising Harker part of the time and almost acting out taking him as a vampire then drawing back because he’s got business to do. Because the scene starts at one particular point, moves into another space, then finishes in the original space as it started, it’s as if it’s gone nowhere. You have to ask yourself, and I want to audience to ask what could this be?

DM: You spoke about people having preconceived ideas about stories and characters? I guess most people think they know things and what they should be like from TV and movies.

To tell you the honest truth, it’s always that way. It was especially a problem with “Wuthering Heights”. People had such strong images of what it should be, could be.

The worst thing is when you think you know the story but actually you’ve never read it. I sometimes want to call people up when they write things and say ‘you know, you actually haven’t read the book’. They sometimes criticise things and I want to say ‘this is actually in the book. This is part of the story you’ve missed’.

But it’s not really their fault. These things are pop culture in a way. Somehow we think we assimilated the book and forget that we haven’t really read it. I think it’s the same with ‘Dracula’. How many people have actually read it? They’ve seen movies, maybe theatre shows as well, but they think because it’s a sort of ‘on the tip of our tongues’ story, that they know it. That’s what I find hardest. But it’s also part of it. It’s about personal expression. The audience can get outraged because it’s not what they expected.

Sometimes I think we’ve moved into a culture where people think ‘I’ve paid money and I’ve got to enjoy it’. What’s the definition of enjoyment? It isn’t always ‘liking it’. It’s how it stimulates you. I think the worst thing is if you leave the theatre thinking ‘that was nice’. It was bland and empty. You should feel something strongly one way or the other.

DM: Transformation and things not being quite what they seem are a recurring theme in “Dracula”. Have you used many special effects?

Yes, although some of it is done through the choreography. It’s alluded to a little bit through the costume designs, the shapes and what they are. There are some effects but I try and stay away from having too many. I wanted it to be much more about the dancing and the people, about their emotional journey rather than kind of put Dracula on some wires and fly him around.

DM: I think there can be a tendency to start relying on effects if you use them too much.

Yes. They can be great. In “Peter Pan” we had quite a few things like revolving stages and lots of flying. But with that come a lot of nightmares too, just through the logistics. Simple things like with a revolving stage you have to be very careful because there’s a hole in the middle of the stage all around the part that turns and the dancers have to be careful they don’t land in it. It made the scene changes wonderful but you’re right, they can take over.

DM: Can we talk a little about your choice of music?  You’ve used more than one composer.

The music was the big problem when I first decided to do the idea. The story seemed easy in the sense of how I was going to lay it out. I had quite a good visual idea but I had no idea about the music. However I had a very good accompanist colleague at Ballet Met and I asked if he could help. I said what are you thinking and he said, “Alfred Schnittke”.

I had danced to some Schnittke before because it’s quite popular in Europe especially but it’s also quite contemporary and quite difficult. I really wondered whether I wanted to go down this road. Anyway, he brought me the Piano Concerto and the tone of it, the speed and the anxiety in it appeared to me like Dracula. I said “this is fantastic.  I can see this for some of it but you can’t have a whole evening at that pitch and anyway it doesn’t capture the whole story.” He said “give me a chance” and went out and found tons of Schnittke’s music. Some of it you would never have thought was his but it all had one thing in common; it’s not what it seems. If it’s a waltz it can start out like a nice little waltz, then change in the middle into something else.

DM: We’re coming back to that theme again aren’t we?

Exactly. For that reason most of the piece is based on his music but there were a couple of holes, fortunately ones that needed contrast. So, for instance to contrast the waltz of Mina and Dracula we brought in the Rachmaninov waltz. This is a very traditional waltz, although it’s a bit eerie as well so it does capture the mood of Lucy already moving over into being a vampire but it’s still more normal than Schnittke’s.

Then in Act II, where I have the big pas de deux between Dracula and Mina which is taking them away from the real world into their own I use some Arvo Part music which is very spiritual and very simple. The contrast to the other music of Schnittke is marked.  It works.

DM: The sets appear to be Gothic and contemporary all at the same time. They have the traditional spookiness but with a modern look, for example all those straight lines in the mausoleum and those graveyard gates that look almost like something out of an abstract painting. How much guidance did you give Ali Allen?

Because it was a piece I had done before but we wanted a different look that would work in our theatre, I didn’t let her see the previous designs. I just sort of said “I absolutely need a castle for Dracula and I absolutely need a mausoleum and a cemetery.” I just gave her the names of things in essence and just let her go away.

DM: She actually went on a fact-finding trip didn’t she?

Yes, she went to Transylvania and came back with lots of inspiration. It’s contemporary because she hasn’t tried to reproduce something Gothic; she’s done her own thing. All the Gothic shapes in there but with a kind of layering on top. A bit like a spider’s web I would say; like a world broken apart. So the castle is no beautiful pristine place. It’s old and falling apart. The windows are cracked. There was a big dragon sculpture over a window but the window and half the sculpture has now gone. It’s very dark.

The mausoleum is always a hard one because it’s a very short scene yet you have to go somewhere with it. You either need a massive set for it or you need to do what we did and go very simple. It’s just kind of the light coming through the door shining on the coffin that’s laying there and I think that when you see it on stage you can see the archway behind one pillar.

DM: Do the costumes follow this period and contemporary mix, again things not being what they seem?

They follow the period, especially in terms of, shall we say the ‘normal’ people; in terms of the engagement, when we first meet Lucy, Mina and Jonathan. They are very much in the 1890s. But Dracula and the vampires, and Lucy and Mina as they move that way, take on much more of a combination of Gothic lines with Victorian and then contemporary elements coming into it as well.

I wanted Dracula to have a kind of animalistic feel to his costumes, to keep the bat shapes. So, for example the ends of his trousers are shaped like bats. They also have a kind of look and a texture that make it seem that they go up into his back. They don’t sit like normal trousers. They sit low on his hips at the front but go right up at the back. It almost gives him the look of one of those Greek characters that were half man, half beast like the centaur.

DM: One last thought. NBT has a relatively recent previous production of the story, which was critically well received. Are you worried about comparisons?

It’s always a problem. It’s never safe territory. Inevitably, no matter what you do, there would be a comparison, even if someone else had done it before rather than us. I do think this is a very different take on the story though. What were the strong points of the previous version don’t exist at all in mine and what are my strong points don’t exist in the previous one. I’m hoping people can just look at it as another take.

NBT’s new production of “Dracula” premiered on 2nd September 2005 in Leeds. Other tour dates announced are Milton Keynes (27th September to 1st October) and Nottingham (18th to 22nd October).

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