Extravagance of Dracula continues to thrill

20 August 2021

If you’re looking for glorious escapism, then look no further. West Australian Ballet’s Dracula is it, says Nina Levy.

Dracula, West Australian Ballet ·
Crown Theatre, 19 August 2021 ·

Why are vampire stories so beloved today?

From Buffy to Twilight, there’s no doubting the power these mythical creatures have over us humans living at the turn of the millennium.

Just as the rise in popularity of Gothic horror fiction – including Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, Dracula – is thought to have been a reaction to the rapid urbanisation wrought by the Industrial Revolution, perhaps we too find some sort of escape from our increasingly digitised and virtualised lives in these garishly chilling tales of ancient supernatural beings.

Based on Stoker’s novel, West Australian Ballet’s Dracula provides that escapist extravagance in spades.

The brainchild of WAB Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella, Dracula was created for the company in 2018 by Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor. From the sombre yet opulently detailed sets and costumes by UK design duo Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith, moodily lit by Jon Buswell, to a score that could double as a highlights reel of work by Polish film composer Wojciech Kilar (including selections from his 1992 score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Scannella’s production of Dracula feels like the embodiment of “the spirit of extravagance”, to which Susan Sontag refers in her famed 1964 essay Notes On “Camp”.

The dancers of WAB rise to the occasion, with performances that would make Sontag proud.

Like turn-of-the-century fans of Stoker’s Dracula, Perth audiences have responded with fervour to the ostentatiousness of this production. This is Dracula’s third outing in just three years and judging by the excitement of the opening night audience, enthusiasm is far from waning.

This third season is taking place at Crown Theatre rather than the company’s home theatre, His Majesty’s. It’s a canny move, not just for the chance to reach new audiences. In comparison to the Maj, the extra space at Crown – on stage and in the auditorium – gives the design and choreography room to breathe.

A small disadvantage? In the gloom of Transylvania, the extra distance occasionally made it hard to see some choreographic details.

Another regret is that the grandiose score is played from a recording rather than live. Though beautifully rendered by West Australian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jessica Gethin, a recording cannot match the nuances of live performance.

These are minor quibbles, however. This production continues to be a resounding success.

With the casting little changed from previous seasons, it is a pleasure to see dancers given the opportunity to reprise roles.

Returning to the stage one last time as Old Count Dracula, Scannella gave an opening night performance as heart-rending as it was chilling as the vampire who has mourned his lost love for centuries. As his alter-ego, Young Count Dracula, Matthew Lehmann exuded a dangerous charm, smooth and suave in both technique and manner.

As the hapless but handsome Jonathan Harper, Oscar Valdes gave an exemplary performance. His moments of soaring grande allegro – in particular his double saute basques – are a treat to watch. Act I’s pas de deux between Young Dracula and Jonathan is a highlight of the ballet and was danced with precision that teetered delightfully on the edge of outright comedy by Lehmann and Valdes.

Marvellously melodramtic in her final role with WAB: Melissa McCabe as Lucy with Julio Blanes as Arthur Holmwood. Photo by Bradbury Photography

In the role of the Elizabeth/Mina, Carina Roberts shows herself to be a dancer who continues to move from strength to strength. Notable here for her glorious lines and fluid adagio, she is a touchingly poignant figure, even as she forsakes her Jonathan for Dracula.

Melissa McCabe, as Lucy, made a marvellously melodramatic transition from frivolous flirt to wild-eyed vampire. After a 20-year career McCabe retires from the stage at the conclusion of this season and her charismatic presence will be greatly missed.

Also worthy of mention are Matthew and Oliver Edwardson, whose sharp synchronicity as Dracula’s Phantoms was impressive; and Jesse Homes, whose ability to cross the boundaries between tight technical control and an insouciant looseness of limbs made for a compelling performance as asylum patient Renfield.

Much has been said about the increasingly distressing news that we are receiving from around the country and the world this week. If you’re looking for some glorious escapism, look no further – Dracula is it.

Dracula plays Crown Theatre until 24 August 2021.

Pictured top is Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula. Photo by Bradbury Photography

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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