WA Ballet’s ‘Dracula’ is a hypnotic, gothic treat

15 September 2020

Seesaw theatre reviewer Xan Ashbury takes a walk on the balletic side, with West Australian Ballet’s Dracula… and it’s a thrilling detour.

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Dracula, West Australian Ballet ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 11 September, 2020 ·

I’ve invented a new word: “Bramstalker”, to describe someone who disappears down internet rabbit holes in the quest for ever-more Bram Stoker trivia. Who knew he sent erotic fan mail to Walt Whitman? In one letter, Stoker described his own physical appearance in great detail, including his, wait for it, “sensitive nostrils”.

Man, I think. Poor Bram. Imagine living in homophobic late-Victorian England. Must have sucked.

Of course, Stoker didn’t invent the vampire in his 1897 gothic novel Dracula. Folk stories about bloodsucking creatures of the night had circulated in Europe for centuries. Often vampires served as a metaphor, representing the fears and obsessions that could not be openly discussed in literature or “polite society”.

Stoker modelled Dracula on pleasure-seeking aesthetes, exploring what happens when “deviance” from the norms of sexual morality are unleashed. The novel suggests not only the dual nature of humans but society in general – how respectability is doubled with degeneration.

Since Stoker’s novel, vampires have stalked literary and popular culture with abandon.

The character at the heart of this stunning ballet, rightly restaged by West Australian Ballet (WAB) following its acclaimed premiere in 2018, is recast from lustful bloodsucking monster to a damaged romantic hero. No, really.

Aurélien Scannella as Old Dracula with Chihiro Nomura as Lucy Westenra. Photo: Bradbury Photography

It’s a revision established in the 1992 feature film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Likewise, this production – the vision of WAB’s artistic director Aurélien Scannella – begins with a prologue spelling out Count Vlad Dracula’s tragic origin story.

It’s the 15th century and Dracula is off at war, defending his native Transylvania. When rumours of his death reach his wife Elizabeth, she leaps to her death from the castle tower. Dracula arrives home in one piece but is soon broken hearted. To add insult to injury, the church refuses burial to the suicide victim. This forces Dracula over the edge, too. He renounces God and humankind, transforming into a cruel vampire.

In the casting viewed, Scannella returns to the stage as Old Dracula, the mirrored role to Young Dracula, danced by principal Matthew Lehmann. Both exude power, elegance and seductive charm.

Celebrated Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor imbues Dracula with a contemporary edge. Highlights for me included the erotically-charged sequences of the three brides in black lace, Jesse Homes’ captivating Renfield, and Oscar Valdes brilliant portrayal as the vulnerable and conflicted Jonathan Harker.

Carina Roberts reprises her role as Mina (and Elizabeth), for which she earned a Helpmann nomination in the 2018 season. Mina’s will to resist Dracula, to whom she is inexplicably drawn, crumbles in the final scene of Act II, after he shows her the portrait of his beloved wife Elizabeth. Mina now understands the Count’s heart and his pain and surrenders to him.

(In the novel, Mina’s intelligence and resourcefulness guide the vampire hunters and are key to defeating Dracula. This Dracula-as-a-romantic-hero version sucks the life out of Mina, in my opinion. But this is a minor misgiving. Dear Ballet Creatives: Please create a ballet titled Mina. Thank you.)

Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula with Matthew Edwardson and Oliver Edwardson as the Phantoms. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Chihiro Namura impresses with her versatile performance of the multi-faceted Lucy. Her relentless sleepwalking on pointe is thrilling.

Among the other soloists, Christian Luck, Adam Alzaim and Julio Blanes do fantastic work as Dr Seward, Professor Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood. Collectively, these vampire hunters inject levity and eccentric style.

Matthew Edwardson and Oliver Edwardson display fabulous poise and athleticism as the Phantoms.

Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith’s set design is striking. Pictured is Aurélien Scannella as Old Dracula. Photo: Bradbury Photography

The most striking aspects of Dracula are the atmospheric set design and exquisite costumes, designed by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith, and enhanced by the Jon Buswell’s sensitive lighting. They truly are magicians, transporting the audience from Castle Dracula in Transylvania and an elegant drawing room in London, to a padded cell and a cemetery. Highlights include a spiral staircase and the illusion of crumbling stone and wrought iron lacework.

Jessica Gethin conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, who deliver a spine-tingling auditory journey, from composer Wojciech Kilar. The score consists of pieces from the aforementioned 1992 film, music from other film scores composed by Kilar, and some of his concert repertoire. The inspiring story of Michael Brett’s work to formulate the score for the new production (some non-existent scores were transcribed by ear from the original audio recordings) is a must-read in the program.

Kilar’s score is typically cinematic and at times I felt as if I was watching a silent movie. The live music, impossibly beautiful dance and absence of dialogue had a sort of hypnotic effect – transporting us to a place of pure emotion.

Who needs words (like, ever) I wondered?

Dracula plays His Majesty’s Theatre until 26 September 2020.

Pictured top is Oscar Valdés as Jonathan Harker with Alexa Tuzil, Glenda Garcia Gomez and Claire Voss as Vampire Brides in Dracula (2020). Photo: Bradbury Photography

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Author —
Xan Ashbury

Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.

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