One lovely early November night, my fellow Vicky A, our friend Jennn, and I decided to gamble with the evening’s entertainment and take in a performance of Dracula the Ballet as performed at the Kennedy Center. Dracula + ballet can ONLY equal a good time, right?
Here we are by the ballet placard. Notice our incredible fanged impressions. Can you tell we went in with extremely low expectations? All due respect to both the Washington Ballet and the Kennedy Center, it had the potential to be utterly fantastic or utterly abysmal. Either way, we went in expecting a good time.
While we weren’t sure how well the book was going to translate into dance, I have to admit that the performance was enthralling. The sets themselves were incredibly elaborate but also multi-functional; a stairway at the train station became a grand staircase at a party and then became part of the structure at Carfax Abbey or part of the sanitarium where Renfield was housed. The ballet began to the sound of a loud, beating heart, an effect that I adored. The costumes were beautiful and the dances themselves told the story remarkably well. I must also comment on the excellent special effects department and their use of fog, which I will elaborate on a bit later in this review.
So, here’s the man himself, played in our performance by Jared Nelson (pictured above). When he first appeared, there were a few titters in the audience at his rather androgynous/feminine appearance (especially since his makeup and lipstick were so dramatic and he himself was ballerina-slender and elegant), but in my opinion, I think they nailed the look. In the novel, Dracula is described as having lips that were blood red, almost looking like they were dripping with gore before he even takes a single bite. The fact that this Dracula looks like he’s wearing blood red lipstick (Guerlain Rouge Automatique Habit Rouge or Chanel Allure Laque Dragon, for sure) fits with his established look. He’s also described as having a hawkish look, and a lean, aquiline nose: “His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead….The mouth … was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.” (Dracula, Chapter 2) As you can see, Dracula here has the perfect look: strong, angular features, pale with ruddy lips, with a cruel look to his features. Add a ridiculously wonderful swirly coat and we have our man…beast. Bat. Thing. Monster. Hottie. Anyway.
His interactions with the characters were in a word, mesmerizing, especially the contrast between his duets with Harker, Lucy, and Mina respectively. Each dance was unique and emblematic of Dracula’s particular relationship with these people. His dance with Harker was fraught with tension and anguish on Harker’s part and all power and cajoling seduction on Dracula’s part; he had his captive and once Harker learned too much, it was clear he would never let him escape. I think this was the moment that truly convinced me that this would be a performance to remember.
Dracula oozed the raw sexuality and power of the role, but he also moved and acted like a predator, animalistic and feral. Dracula performed a fantastic feat of physicality when he was about to prey on Lucy and Mr. Nelson actually pulled some Cirque-du-Soleil moves in his descent by backflipping down the wall like a lizard (much like is described by Harker in the novel when he sees Dracula scaling the wall head-down like a squirrel or other creature) and occasionally hanging upside down by his knees like a bat. I was continually impressed by small moments that alluded to aspects of the novel; the creative director and/or the choreographer clearly had done their research and knew their subject matter extremely well.
The dances with the women were no less dramatic. Dracula’s dance with Lucy might have been one of the most beautiful and powerful in the performance. This was a dance wholly in contrast with his domination of Harker; there was an ebb and flow in their interactions and hints of great romance in Dracula’s wooing of Lucy; you could almost feel her longing for him after he left her. Later on, when Dracula visits Lucy to consume her blood entirely, her need for him was as palpable as his animal need to feed (See picture below: definitely pretty hot). Even watching him “feed” I was reminded of an animal and its prey, rather than the romantically sterilized vampire-biting that pervades literature and media these days. Right before he left her for the final time, fog filled the stage and he was pulled backwards into it, seemingly dissolving into the fog itself. It was a gasp-worthy effect and extremely well done. At the end of each act, I was eager to see more, which to me, is the mark of any good performance, whether you know the story or not.
Dracula’s duet with Mina was one of the most incredibly physical dances I’ve ever seen. We were only a row or two back from the stage and every once in a while, I could hear Dracula exhale breath as he performed, which was a testament to the exertion of the dance itself. I have no idea how often he picked her up and wound her around him like a vine or how he wound around her like a snake but it was incredible to watch. The overtones of master/prey were not as pronounced; the dance declared them as equals of a sort, where Dracula reveals his predilection towards Mina as a particular bride or partner rather than just making her, like Lucy, just another servant. This is emphasized when we get to see them together towards the end of the ballet walking arm in arm like a genteel Victorian couple, a presentation of his new bride to his vampire coven, if you will.
Another great performer to watch was Renfield. I had no idea how the ballet was planning on incorporating the complex subplot of Renfield, the caretaker of Carfax Abbey, Dracula’s eventual home, who goes mad, consumes numerous insects in his obsession with consuming life like his master. I imagine it would be difficult, if not impossible to convey all of the above through a wordless medium such as ballet, but once again, I was pleasantly surprised by their fearless creativity. When Renfield would interact with Mina, you got the sense that he was, in fact, trying to convey important information about Dracula to her, much as he did in the book. How you act out a wordless warning to someone while dancing in a straight-jacket I’ll never know, but he managed it and we sat back, impressed and wowed.
Without giving away anything of the ending, I’ll simply say that I left the performance extremely impressed and wanting to see it again. Another fun moment: much like Lincoln Osirius in Tropic Thunder, Dracula didn’t break character during the curtain call, dramatically and carefully stalking out onto the stage, step by step, as haughty and dignified as during the ballet itself. Well played, Drac. Well played. Until next time, my red-coated friend… Thanks for a…bloody good time.