by Lori Ibay
October 30, 2003 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
The character of Dracula continues to inspire literature, films, and even full-length ballets over a century after Bram Stoker’s famous novel was written. For me, the most intriguing aspect of Dracula is his eerie aura -- his sleek, black cape contrasting his pale, long face; his mysterious seductiveness contrasting his horrific rituals. While Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of Ben Stevenson’s “Dracula” captures the character’s enigmatic vibe with elaborate sets and elegant costumes (and with Halloween just around the corner), their performance on Thursday night also had major shortcomings -- the majority of which can hopefully be chalked up to opening night glitches.
Act I began in the crypt of Dracula’s castle, complete with his coffin, flickering chandeliers, and a ghostly fog rolling in across the floor. However, the stage was so dimly lit that after the first chilling appearance of the Count’s pale countenance in a shadowy doorway, Dracula’s movements (and his magnificent thirty pound cape) were barely discernible.
The eighteen wives of Dracula soon awoke and entered the crypt in flimsy, flowing white nightgowns, moving in graceful zombie-like unity. However, in the pas de trois between Dracula (Edward Cieslak) and two wives (Valerie Amiss and Tara Keating), Cieslak seemed to struggle in juggling just two of the eighteen brides. Martha Chamberlain as Flora, the village-girl-turned-bride, and Philip Colucci as Renfield, Dracula’s servant, both gave animated performances in contrast to Dracula’s solemn (or possibly flat?) demeanor.
The second act takes place in a gaily decorated, brightly lit village, where Svetlana (Amy Aldridge) and Frederick (Alexei Borovik) fall in love before Svetlana is abducted by Count Dracula. While a significant (and seemingly straightforward) portion of the plot takes place in this act, the action is oddly -- and almost confusingly -- played out. Svetlana first resists Frederick’s advances, but she later comically forces him to ask her father, the Innkeeper (played enthusiastically by Alexei Charov), for her hand in marriage. After receiving his blessing, the lovers dance an intimate pas de deux in which they cement their feelings for each other -- with the entire village, including Svetlana’s parents, as their audience.
Despite the discrepancies, there were grand performances by the corps of men, who had a bit of trouble keeping their hands on their wooden sticks used as props, as well as the female corps, who danced with more liveliness than their brightly colored but awkwardly limp ribbons. Aldridge and Borovik seemed to gain momentum during the act, with crisp pirouettes at the end of the act making up for some shaky moments in the beginning.
The final act returns to Dracula’s castle where Dracula has brought his latest victim-to-be. The wives reappear, but by this point, one wonders if they will ever deviate from their zombie-like posture, with arms outstretched and wrists limp before them. Chamberlain’s bizarre solo with beautiful, smooth movements intermixed with awkward and jerky motions garnered tentative applause from a bewildered audience. Even more perplexing was the incongruity of Liszt’s music, with its triumphant horns, in contrast to the intense conflict between Dracula and Svetlana’s rescuers.
The chaotic enactment of Svetlana’s rescue by Frederick and the Innkeeper added to the audience’s bewilderment. With a frantic Renfield, a helpless Svetlana, the devious Dracula, and the two heroes scattered across the stage, it almost seemed as though the set were falling apart before it became apparent that Frederick was purposely pulling the draperies down, allowing the early morning sunlight to stream through the windows.
Pennsylvania Ballet’s “Dracula” showed glimmers of excitement with spectacular special effects, stunning scenery, and elegant costumes, but with its inconsistencies and erratic performances, it’s hard to imagine watching this production when it isn’t Halloween season.