Counting On It
Northwest Ballet Theater’s “Dracula”
Friday, October 25, 2013
McIntyre Hall, Mount Vernon, Washington
by Dean Speer
Dracula is a character who keeps rising up in popular culture – such as with a new television series and movies based on the original book, plus spin-offs; our fascination with the undead remains unquenched.
Originally based in the Fidalgo Island town of Anacortes and now in Bellingham, John Bishop’s 15 year-old Northwest Ballet Theater recently presented his production of “Dracula” at a handful of regional theatres, including the one I caught at McIntyre Hall located on the campus of Skagit Valley Community College in the charming town of Mt. Vernon.
This version successfully and faithfully follows Bram Stoker’s plot outline, with a couple of small exceptions – Lucy’s mother not dying of fright, for example -- and uses dance motifs well for the corps of ghostly women who make up Dracula’s entourage. Bishop also pulls out one minor evil character, Countess Bathory [Natasha Keeley], from a chapter that Stoker’s publishers did not use and created a kind of Odile sidekick for the Count who follows him around and chases the good guys.
A bias of mine is being able follow stage action, regardless of genre, without having to consult program notes to follow and understand what’s going on. This is one of the challenges that narrative presents, including keeping track of multiple characters and complexities of plot. In this, “Dracula” was mostly successful but there was an assumption that audience members had read the book or were fairly familiar to the plot. Until I read up in preparation for this review, I didn’t know for example that the character in the insane asylum functions as a kind of warning bell for the Count’s presence. The dancer who did this character – Alona Christman – of Renfield was amazing, the choreography playing to her modern dancer strengths and way of moving, yet didn’t know what he/she had to do with the plot and kept waiting for it to be revealed. Simple text projections at the start of each scene might be a solution to this, such as “Count Dracula Travels to England by Sea” or “Insane Person Telepathically Connects.” Perhaps his persona is meant as a kind of Cassandra – one who accurately predicts the future but to whom no one listens.
Other actions listed in the program, such as when Dracula is shot and turns into a bat, escaping by flying away are nearly impossible to stage and we just had to imagine him flitting away, instead of the dancer just disappearing into the wings, hoping we wouldn’t notice he didn’t magically transform.
The climax of hounding and hunting the Count – making it impossible for him to “rest” anywhere and his “death” at the end were true to the book, yet I had in mind the more – to me – Gothic [and movie version] where he’s lured and exposed to direct sunlight, thereby instantly turning to crumbling ashes.
The dancers were a mix of experienced adults and students, with Bishop using their strengths, such a the lovely lines of sisters Mija and Miye Bishop who danced the roles of Mina and Lucy or of Joshua D. Deininger’s menacing Count and his ability to confidently execute double tours en l’air and partner effectively through a lengthy and expressive pas de deux, where my only choreographic fuss would be that they gave us too many and varied lifts, lift after lift, rather than taking two or three and developing them into a single legato line.
I cannot resist giving a special shout-out to one of my former students who strongly took the role of Lucy’s mother, Mrs. Westenra, Ryann Lewis.
Requiring a fairly large cast, Northwest Ballet Theater nicely pulled off a complex story ballet which brought dramatic ballet to the greater community.