Most ballets dont come with a parental guidance warning. But the Kansas City Ballets Dracula isnt like most ballets.
By HAMPTON STEVENS
Special to The Star
Based on Bram Stokers classic novel about the Transylvanian bloodsucker, Dracula is a dark, sexy, scary and occasionally bloody production. The ballets website makes the mature nature of the show quite clear with an online warning about the productions intrinsic adult themes, cautioning parents of young children to exercise discretion.
Thats unusual enough. Nobody worries that Swan Lake or Cinderella will give kids nightmares. But gore and grown-up themes of sex and death arent all that make Dracula so unusual.
In addition to remarkably lavish production values, and in marked contrast to more traditional ballets, Dracula features character-driven choreography, emphasizing story above all.
The show was created by Michael Pink, currently the artistic director of Milwaukee Ballet. Again and again during an interview at Kansas Citys Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, Pink spoke of staying faithful to Stokers intent, of his wish to preserve all he could from the book and the need to develop characters in service of that story.
Tall, with a quick smile and self-deprecating manner, Pink speaks with the accent of his native northern England. The audiences expectations for Dracula, he said, are usually much different from what they get. Most who see the show for the first time anticipate something a tad campy or tongue in cheek. As Pink put it, a little bit fangy and some blood and ha, ha, ha.
But Stokers tale is a serious one, exploring complex ideas of seduction, fear, immortality and the sometimes parasitic nature of love.
This is a story that has fascinated for generations, he said. Its really a serious story, with a lot of depth. We knew from the start that we had to maintain the integrity of the novel.
No gratuitous dancing
Sometimes, of course, that story becomes quite dark. The ballet necessarily follows suit.
This is not an evening of tights and tutus, Pink said. This ballet engages the audience in a powerful way. The show drags people into this complex story and takes them on an adventure. Its like a silent movie. We are telling this fun, adventurous, complex story with only movement.
That movement must serve a dual purpose. Every step and gesture onstage should not only be an exhibition of skill but also contribute to the story.
Thats far different from traditional ballet, which, Pink said, is often guilty of merely showcasing steps. In The Sleeping Beauty or Giselle, for instance, the plots function largely as a context for exhibiting technique. The stories are mere frameworks for displaying specific sets of formal, highly codified movements, be they jetés, arabesques or pirouettes.
You might see pas-de-trois in the middle of an important scene for no discernible reason. Or you might see the whole cast dancing in unison just because the dancers all happen to be onstage at the same time. Plot and character are decidedly secondary.
But Dracula is about narrative, eschewing what Pink deems gratuitous dancing. While the standard elements of ballet exist, they are augmented by an intense theatricality and, most important, are used only in the service of a greater, more cohesive whole. Pink said every kick, every facial expression, must have purpose.
If its not telling you more about the characters, if its not advancing the story, then it shouldnt be in there, he said.
A signature work
The show, commissioned in 1997 to commemorate the centennial of Stokers novel, feels like the piece Pink was born to create. Dracula, forgive the pun, is in his blood.
Pink grew up in York, England, just 50 miles from the tiny port town of Whitby, where much of Stokers story is set. He moved to London in 1969. There he joined the Northern Ballet Theatre, then seeking to distinguish itself from better-funded, better-known companies in Britain by shifting from traditional ballet into a dance theater company.
Dracula, created with a team including the late Christopher Gable, composer Philip Feeney, lighting designer Paul Pyant, and set and costume designer Lez Brotherston, became the companys signature work.
Anthony Krutzkamp, in the title role of the Transylvanian count, is in his final season with Kansas City Ballet. Krutzkamp said the company is excited to perform a production so vastly different than previous years. He called the show a new way to look at ballet.
It is more dramatic in characterization, and there is no real miming, Krutzkamp said. Its all done with movement.
James Jordan, who plays vampire hunter Van Helsing, spoke of Pinks meticulous theatrical coaching. Formerly a ballet master who took the unusual step of returning to the stage, Jordan said Pink has an eagle-eye for honestly motivated gesture and storytelling.
Velvet, not tulle
Dracula is a quintessential theatrical production where all elements are equal; from choreography, music, storyline, scenery, costumes, lighting, Jordan said.
Pink said lighting is especially vital. He collaborated on the original lighting design with David Grill, who won an Emmy as lighting designer for the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show.
The world of ballet can be so dismissive of light, he said. They think we just need to put the lights up, make sure everybody can see. But the lighting design is absolutely crucial. The story has to be told in light. Dancers have to deal with this big, open space. How do you create intimacy? We can only do it with light.
The costumes create some special problems. Rich, lavish and Victorian, rife with velvets and lace, the costumes are historically accurate and a challenge to work with.
Some of the costumes are very elaborate because theyre so authentic, Pink said. We needed to find movement that would work with these bigger, bulkier costumes.
Tempe Ostergren, who plays Mina, doesnt have a problem with bulky clothes. Very much the opposite. The theatricality and raciness of the production are her challenge.
Theres no greater challenge, Ostergren said, than sucking blood thats freshly oozing from a mans chest while wearing nothing but a nightgown in front of 1,800 people.
Pink said Feenys score, to be performed by the Kansas City Symphony, incorporates the variety of styles necessary to tell this wide-ranging tale, evoking everything from an English tea room to a Transylvanian peasant dance.
Dracula is not Pinks only literary adaptation. He has also choreographed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Peter Pan and La Boheme.
The vampires story, though, is his most successful work. Its wildly popular in whatever city its staged, having been seen by something like a million souls worldwide. It often achieves cult status and enters the permanent repertory of companies that stage it.
The show will open doors, said Pink, who estimated that 20 to 25 percent of those who attend will have never been to a ballet before. It will bring people in. If youve been to the ballet before and youve seen a Swan Lake or something and thought, Well, maybe I wasnt so sure about that, give it a second chance and come back.
Just be careful about bringing the kids.
The Kansas City Ballets production of Dracula runs from Friday through March 2. Tickets are $29-$99 through kcballet.org or at 816-931-2232. The show runs approximately two hours, plus a pair of intermissions.