Ballet with Bite

Dayton Performing Arts Alliance’s Dracula: Bloodlines reveals the human in the monster

By Arnecia Patterson

The month of October is known for Halloween celebrations that barely resemble the festivals of ghosts, goblins, and animal sacrifices considered a pagan practice in the first millennium. Today, we play dress-up, make merry, and eat candy (corn)—a decidedly human approach. The human approach takes precedent over a scarier counterpoint for the Dayton Ballet as it mounts its 2016-17 season opener, Dracula: Bloodlines, an evening-length ballet. Over the past several years, the company has collected a goodly number of narrative dances. In 2012-13, it presented Cinderella, and the following season saw the presentation of a new Nutcracker; since then, Peter Pan and Romeo and Juliet have followed. These ballets are known for their lush sets and costumes, live music, and storylines that stick to their classic telling. They are “ballet-ballets” rife with the comforts of tulle, pointe shoes, strong danseurs, and princess-like ballerinas—everything the aficionado and ballet-curious would expect.

In Dracula: Bloodlines, the story takes an unexpected angle, which asks why Dracula is such a dark personality lurking in shadows, anticipating his next blood-letting event. Picking up its practice of spinning a danceable yarn, the company bookends the classic tale with a question: “what makes a bad person bad?” and an answer: “vulnerability sometimes allows a person to be seized by darkness.” Dracula: Bloodlines, the newest addition to the Dayton Ballet’s collection of story ballets, sheds light on a dark fiction. It questions the heart of its main character and brings him into the 21st century so that a contemporary audience can relate to Dracula, the man, instead of fearing Dracula, the blood-drinking monster.

In telling the tale of Dracula, anew, Dayton Ballet relies on a compound collaboration that follows the formation of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance (est. July 2012) as a marquee for its three performing arts disciplines: the ballet, opera, and philharmonic. The artistic proximity of merging the disciplines into one organization gives way to a ballet like Dracula: Bloodlines—choreography by Karen Russo Burke, artistic director of the ballet, an original score composed for the ballet by Austin K. Jaquith, a professor at Cedarville University, who was introduced to the ballet by Maestro Neal Gittleman, music director of the Dayton Philharmonic, who will conduct the orchestra for all performances of Dracula: Bloodlines. Jaquith’s score includes music for guest vocalists from the Dayton Opera—Grace Kahl, soprano, Melissa Bonetti, mezzo-soprano, and Tyler Alessi, baritone. The production welcomes back Ray Zupp, costume, set, and multi-media designer. Dracula: Bloodlines will open on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton. Performances continue Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 23, at 3 p.m.. With so many principal artists it would be easy for the project to become a hodgepodge of separate parts; however, Dracula’s new frame, conceived by choreographer Burke, is expected to coalesce the parts into an artifice that can entertain audiences in the same way the popular Dracula story has done since the late 19th century and off-shoots have continued to do today.

Dracula—the Man

Choreography has become an area of expertise for Karen Russo Burke. According to the Dayton Ballet’s website, she has created more than 30 dances for the company, yet the challenge of creating a new way of seeing Dracula, the feared icon, was in the forefront of the production Dracula: Bloodlines. Not just the steps—classical ballet variations are taught for the purpose of sameness as a matter of course; reusing steps is hardly a crime. Her desire was to put a twist on the story.

She takes the story back to the 15th century and presents Dracula as Vlad III, or Vlad the Impaler, a skilled weapons man who engages, along with his father, King Vlad II Dracul and two brothers, in a battle against the Ottomans. Unfortunately, Vlad the Impaler is the only one of his family who survives the battle; however, he is vulnerable from his loss and a sustained injury. Burke’s prequel-like twist is her way of showing the audience the man who became Dracula. She knows Bram Stoker’s 19th century novel is a classic Dracula, as are early film versions, particularly Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. Those tales gave rise to her thought process: “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go backwards. Look at it beforehand—before he became Dracula. How did that happen?’”

Her musings give Dracula an emotional arc that is the foundation for how she choreographs his movement. Between the two battle scenes of Act I, Vlad the Impaler moves from his confidence with weapons through wounded vulnerability, then fierce revenge, and finally, to a world-weary, prosperous refugee trapped in time, with power in which he has no choice. Burke’s choreography considers each phase of his life throughout the ballet. “He’s more warrior in the terms of his movement with weapons. But I have to give him power without weapons, so once the weapon movement is gone, he has to be able to encompass that with his being,” Burke says. “His power is going to come from his back and chest.
Almost superhero.”

Prior to his superhero phase, Vlad the Impaler is vulnerable to the power of Lilith whom he meets when he takes refuge in the woods after his first encounter with the Ottomans. Yes, that Lilith. The original expellee from the good neighborhood of the garden, encounters Vlad, the Impaler in his weakened state. She offers him the power he needs to avenge his family’s deaths; he accepts it without knowing it is an imprisonment. Unaware that the same transformation that will allow him to fight again will be his trap until the end of time, he is, simply, intrigued by her unique allure.

Burke imagines movement that illustrates Lilith’s mythical, dark signature as subversive to a ballerina’s light, ethereal quality. She has a different relationship with the ground. “I see her in positions not fully stretched,” Burke says. “Maybe bent-leg poses on pointe and spidery movements twitching with animal instinct. She is very earthy.”

Amid Act I’s blood-splattered battle scenes and transformation of Vlad the Impaler into Dracula is the first introduction of a light/dark contrast running through Dracula: Bloodlines’ aesthetic. Vlad III had a love, Katerina, whom he left behind when he went to war. The next time he sees her following his transformation, she becomes its victim. If Lilith is Dracula’s dark love, Katerina is his light love. Burke will identify her with signature gestures and movement, as well; Vlad’s pas de deux with Lilith runs counter to Dracula’s pas de deux with Katerina. Her light, lacy costuming, designed by Ray Zupp, is a contrast to the heavy, dark elements of Act I to make clear the struggle in the newly devised, emotional arc of Dracula, the man.

What happens in darkness is revealed
in the light 

The light/dark contrast comes to fruition, glaringly, when Dracula: Bloodlines moves from 15th century Turkey to 21st century London. Karen Russo Burke’s narrative has to be realized with artful subtlety, and that is Ray Zupp’s challenge as production designer. He joins the ballet in his expanded capacity after having first worked on Cinderella in the 2012-13 season. Over the years, his roles have grown with each ballet he has done through this season’s Dracula: Bloodlines. He is credited as costume designer—he sketched them, shopped for fabrics, and continues to check in on their building; and set designer—he repurposed old set pieces and designed others from scratch; and multi-media designer. That one is particularly new, mainly for its role as a vehicle that transports the ballet through centuries.

In Act I, Zupp plans to use media projection to add volume and depth to the two battle scenes in which Vlad, the Impaler fights. He knows how many bodies are needed to acclimate an audience to what it identifies as chaotic. Even though he has worked with media before, Zupp is encouraged by how the media application in Dracula: Bloodlines can affect its look. “Battles have hundreds, thousands of soldiers when you see them in film,” he says. “We don’t really have that, so the dancers will be layered into a projected overlay of battle and blood to show the intensity of what’s going on.”

A more experimental challenge is using multi-media for the time travel sequence crucial to show how the ballet moves from Act I’s 15th century to Act II’s 21st century, where the audience will see Lilith and Dracula at an exhibit opening in a London museum. Zupp’s intent is to enact movement through film so that the curtain goes down as the audience realizes that it has been transported to a different era after Dracula’s pas de deux with Katerina. “All of a sudden, we speed up,” Zupp says. “You start seeing another portrait, another drawing, a flicker, moving picture. You see stock footage from World War I and II. The music starts ramping up, and we end Act I on this great musical note that pounds.”

New sounds for the stage

Initially when Burke began thinking of music for Dracula: Bloodlines, her idea was to have a collage of music designed for the dance. During her consultations with colleague Neal Gittleman the challenges of time, cohesion, and myriad choices were soon uncovered; however, Gittleman provided Burke a solution with an introduction to composer Austin Jaquith. The idea of an original score took hold. Jaquith has composed for an array of genres—short and feature-length films, advertising, and concert. According to Burke, his role in Dracula: Bloodlines was kismet. As the creative exchange between them ensued, she discovered that Jaquith was a natural at composing music to accompany narrative, even though this is his first ballet. “He had all the impetus and accents and energy written in his composition exactly where they needed to be in order to follow the story,” she says. “It was amazing.” Jaquith’s music has parts for voice sung by members the Dayton Opera.

There is palpable anticipation at the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance over the mounting of the Dayton Ballet’s Dracula: Bloodlines. The dance discipline is taking center stage in a production that uses all of its arts for an original story set to original music supported by multi-media. It raises the possibility of other companies taking interest in using the work in the future. For now, it is available for audiences in Dayton and the surrounding region, to see what happens when a choreographer, composer, maestro, opera director, and production designer walk into a room.

Dracula: Bloodlines opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Performances continue on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $21–$72, with senior, teacher, and student discounts available through Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630. Pre-performance talk, “The First Step,” takes place 45 minutes prior to curtain time for each performance in the Burnell Roberts Room, beside the Victoria Theatre at 126 N. Main St., in downtown Dayton. “Behind the Ballet,” a Q&A with Dayton Ballet dancers, will follow each performance in the theatre. Both sessions are free for ticketholders. For more information or to subscribe to the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance productions—Dayton Philharmonic, Opera, and Ballet—please visit DaytonPerformingArts.org. 

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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