Pennsylvania Ballet


by Lewis Whittington

October 30 - November 8, 2003 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

Transylvania, Pennsylvania -- Just weeks after PAB poured their heart into the seasonís Balanchine opener, they unleashed "Dracula," conceived in 1997 by Houston Balletís Ben Stevenson to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Bram Stokerís psychosexual thriller that not only scandalized London society, but created one of the most evil and campy characters in literature and film, if not dance-theater. Unfortunately, Halloween-eve spooked this second mounting by the company.

Technical difficulties and anemic performances made for a bloodless ride with the Count. Fortunately, two days later, the second cast, proved more interpretive and was close to spellbinding, indicating that the flatness was more of an off night than any lack of conviction on the part of the company.

Without doubt, Stevensonís heavy-handed choreography is often more draining that the Count himself, with movement that somehow manages not only to be thematically bloated, but utterly spare in its variations ("Paging Petipa."). This Dracula story is told in plodding straightforward manner for an evening length gothic tale and at times is as engaging as a cheesy midnight horror movie ("Paging Elvira!").

The subtext to all Dracula stories is sex. Itís more suspenseful in the hot-housed environs of Victorian England -- where Stokerís Count suddenly assaults, suffocating mores and corrupting virgin flesh -- but Stevensonís ballet keeps the Count in his home country to feast on local villagers who know that he lives just down the road and are ready with their crucifixes and garlic.

The score by Hungarian Franz Liszt doesnít help. In a special arrangement by John Lanchbery, it is a flaccid symphonic narrative for a story ballet. It has a famous dramatic signature -- a lurching trombone fanfare over a diabolic kettle-drum -- but mostly the music just doesnít sound menacing or eerie enough.

Through make-up poundage, Stevensonís Dracula moves around his castle leering at his eighteen ex-wives and swirling his cape like a clumsy vaudevillian. As for the bejeweled, spoked, thirty-pound cape, Liberace could do more with it from his grave. The eighteen brides, in shredded white gowns that billow hauntingly in harrowing jetes, otherwise stalk around like zombies when not animated at Draculaís command.

In his entrances, Eddie Cieslakís Dracula has effective moments, but he is too earnest, and shy of a fleshed-out characterization. First appearing in an archway of his castle battlements, he had an instant visual command, but his seductions look lounge lizardly rather than hypnotic, and his solos donít give the character any depth.

He valiantly sticks close to un-dynamic choices by Stevenson, who gives the Count flourishes from gypsy and ethnic Eastern European dances, but uses these accents without irony. In contrast, David Krensing (leading the second cast) jettisoned Stevensonís layers and interpreted a real character, pacing the gestures more sharply, communicating early that Dracula is cruel, obsessive, and full of bloodlust.

The one significant solo, sans cape, allows Dracula to breathe in the role, but Cieslak, atypically faltered on turns that were un-centered and jumps that were slack-legged. Krensing drew the eye to his hands and eyes, constructing Draculaís obsessive nature, shown powerfully in his motionless command over the wives, his deportment regally ruthless, and where he can, breaking out furiously.

Draculaís trio with ex-wives, Valerie Amiss and Tara Keating, featured heavy, tensionless lifts. But, his seduction of wayward village girl turned virgin procurer, Flora (Martha Chamberlain), was more dramatic. Flora, dumped out of a carriage in her bright appliqued skirt, comes under the spell of the Count. As Lisztís horns stab, he seduces and moves in for the bite and recoils, his back leg stabbing back erotically. Both Draculas handled this crucial moment well, when it could have been too stagy. Krensing brilliantly acted out the rush of new blood coursing through his veins.

The engagement of Svetlana, the innkeeperís daughter, to the romantic Fredrick in the town square provides comic relief and for interesting character parts by Stevenson. He works in authentic ethnic dances and moves the story along, but the act seems endless. Stevenson throws in forced divertisement of the villagers that has the women in a schoolyard ribbon dance. He does better with the men with a pole dance full of double-tours, but this ends up being a hit and miss unison work for eight men, who seemed boxed in and unfocused for most of the sequence.

In the romantic leads, Amy Aldridge and Alexei Borovik make the most of what they had to work with, eliciting little excitement in their saccharine duet, both with potent solos. Aldridgeís pirouette run, on pointe and flattened out, were beautifully paced. Borovikís amplitude and clarity was impressive in air gobbling leaps and sharp grand pirouettes, finishing off each turn. In cast two, James Ady, returning after a year with American Ballet Theatre, was perfectly partnered with principal DeDe Barfield. Ady was virile and playful as he tossed off great jumps and also produced thrilling turns.

Martha Chamberlain knew exactly what to do with Flora, especially in her possessed scene in the town square. Looking a little like Mary Pickford, Chamberlain acts every bit of the choreography, showing equal amounts of real fear and melodrama as she comes under the spell of Dracula. And in the last act, the effective use of lighting and aerials had Flora flown diagonally over the proscenium in what looked like spectral motion. Philip Colucci owned Draculaís bug-eating man slave Renfield, hurling his body across the stage with twisted body barrel leaps and his bent-knee turns, madman fury. Unfortunately, these parts were too brief.

Next time around for Dracula, PAB should drain-off some of Stevensonís bloat and go more for the jugular. For this run, itís Nosferatu tu much.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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