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Northern Ballet Theatre

'Dracula'

by David Mead

September 3 , 2005 -- West Yorkshire Playhouse

A little piece of Transylvania came to Yorkshire last Saturday evening in the form of Northern Ballet Theatre’s "Dracula" -- not their previously successful Christopher Gable version, but a redesigned David Nixon production originally made in 1999 for BalletMet.

Nixon keeps pretty much to the novel, which can be something of a problem. Act I is decidedly narrative with lots of mime. The scene changes come thick and fast, a bit like they might in a movie. I’m sure anyone unfamiliar with the book, or who hadn’t read the programme notes, would struggle to work out exactly who was who and what was going on. The acting was, however, very good, as one would expect from NBT, and there was plenty to keep your interest.

Act II is much easier to follow, has much more dance and builds to a superb climax. The final scene, with its athletic dance for the leading men, danced to Michael Daugherty’s ‘Red Tango’, is definitely worth waiting for. Even if you have read the synopsis, the very last moment featuring Mina’s bloody death has a sudden, dramatic impact.

Nixon’s Dracula, at least as played by Jummy Orrante guesting from BalletMet, sweeps his cape around with great intent but does not come across as especially evil. Perhaps, though, that is intentional.  Maybe we have become too familiar with the movie stereotypes rather than what is actually in the book. There are times when Dracula backs off, almost as if questioning what he is doing, even though he eventually does it anyway. Indeed, there are lots of places in the ballet where you find yourself wondering if something is really happening or not. Does Dracula really exist or is he part of some horrible nightmare? Are things really what they seem?

"Dracula" is essentially a male ballet, with all the leading roles except Mina and Lucy danced by men. It’s also sparsely populated with no huge crowd scenes. Patrick Howell (Jonathan Harker), Darren Goldsmith (Dr. Jack Seward), Steven Wheeler (Van Helsing) and Hironao Takahashi (Arthur Holmwood) were all excellent, Takahashi’s turns and leaps being especially secure. Lucy (Georgina May) and Mina (Keiko Amemori) were the main female roles. Amemori came over as being a little cold with not too much in the way of sexual charge, but, then again, I suppose they were Victorians. Special mention must be made of the jucily awful brides of Dracula danced by Natalie Leftwich, Hannah Bateman and Victoria Sibson. Definitely not the sort of ladies you would want to meet on a dark night!

The choreography itself owes a great deal to modern dance. Indeed, returning to the cinematic theme, at one point I found myself thinking how much looked like some of Kim Brandstrup’s work for Arc.

For inspiration, set designer Ali Allen took a trip to Transylvania. I don’t know what she felt about being in Dracula’s homeland, but it certainly had the desired effect. The sets are simply stunning in a sort of Gothic cum Expressionist way, in which parts of Act II are danced to a quite Turneresque, Transylvanian mountain backdrop. Dracula’s castle is apparently close to ruin. The gnarled and twisted cemetery gates and the haunting mausoleum simply oozed atmosphere, helped along by John Bishop’s spooky lighting.

There is one gloriously awful exception to the designs. The ballet begins wonderfully spookily as Dracula’s coffin rises through the floor.  The lid opens, he emerges (naked) and walks off. Then it happens! A coach appears pulled by two horses, or rather dancers dressed as such. It may have been gloomily lit and they may have been dressed in black but it looked for all the world like pantomime. If ever there was a time to simply use sound, or to take the cinema theme further and use projection, this was it.

For the music Nixon has mostly used a collection of various little-known Alfred Schnittke pieces, which work effectively with his choreography and in adding to the mood. There is also a Rachmaninov waltz and two Part pieces, including the popular "Spiegel im Spiegel" for the Mina-Dracula duet; and of course that wonderful "Red Tango" to finish.

Nixon has now been with Northern Ballet Theatre for almost five years. He may be a Canadian, but on the basis of this production, he is very much a choreographer in the English and NBT tradition -- at ease mixing dance, drama and all those other elements that make an all-round good night at the theatre. He is certainly making sure we don’t forget the ‘theatre’ in NBT. Definitely worth seeing.

"Dracula" is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 10th September; then at the Milton Keynes Theatre from 27th September to 1st October; and the Theatre Royal Nottingham from 18th to 22nd October.

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