ROYAL WINNIPEG BALLET
Artistic Director: Andre Lewis
Choreography: Mark Godden
Set & Costume Design: Paul Daigle
Lighting: David Morrison
Music by Gustav Mahler
Lucy Westenra: Tara Birtwhistle
Dracula: Zhang Wei-Qiang
Mina: CindyMarie Small
Van Helsing: Jorden Morris
Jonathan Harker: Johnny Wright
Lucy & Dracula
Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg Manitoba, 21 Oct 1998
Commentary on the Performance by Elizabeth Miller
[I should point out at first that I am not a great fan of the ballet. I have attended probably only 5 or 6 ballet performances in my life and I hardly consider myself a critic of the art form. But what I am lacking in that area I make up for (I hope) in my familiarity with Dracula. It is from that perspective that I write this commentary.]
Let me begin by saying that what I liked most about this production was that it was a cross between ballet and theatre. The lead dancers acted as well as danced, and movements on stage were choreographed with both in mind. Consequently one had a strong sense of narrative as well as visual spectacle. And the narrative that was projected through dance, movement, facial expressions, body language and sets was that of Stoker's novel. The choreographer obviously knows the novel well, and chose to use it, rather than countless Dracula movies, as his source of inspiration. There were a couple of points when I could detect the influence of the films (such as letting in the sunlight and having the Count destroyed with a wooden stake). But the story as Stoker told it is what controlled the "narrative" of the dance.
ACT 1 opens with Lucy front stage, frozen. Introductory text is projected to set the story: arrival of Demeter in Whitby, Lucy's condition, her suitors and Dr Van Helsing's role. Then Dracula comes from behind out of the darkness and takes Lucy with his dark kiss. One Winnipeg critic noted that this happens too early, that there should be more of a preamble. I disagree. Unlike the initial readers of Stoker's novel, we know what a vampire does to his victim, so the suspense is not as essential an element. The focus in this production is on the aftermath - how, in this case, Lucy responds to Dracula's influence and the futile attempts of her friends to counteract it.
Scene changes into Lucy's room. [I was impressed at how scene changes were handled throughout: they were done while the dancers continued, often in slow, fluid motion to give the sense almost of a shape-shifting of the surroundings, providing an eerie feeling to what we were looking at.] There are sequences of Lucy's illness, the arrival of the three suitors and Van Helsing, Lucy's strange behavior, blood transfusions (an intravenous pas-de-deux), another visit from Dracula, Van Helsing's consultation of his books, his use of garlic. Dracula at one point shapeshifts into a bat, while gargoyles are creatively used to suggest the gradual overpowering of Lucy by the forces of darkness. Lucy's death, funeral and resurrection as vampire follow in succession, and we are treated to a superb dance sequence with Dracula (seducer) and Lucy (pliant victim). The scene ends with Lucy's second death.
ACT 2 has two parts. The first is a brilliant set of "program notes": a plot summary of Stoker's novel, with the dancers performing a pantomime (with touches of humor) while a voice-over reads the summary. The pacing was crucial to the success of this piece, and it was flawless. This alone is worth the full price of admission to the performance.
From this we are treated to a bacchanal, inspired by the traditions of both classical and folk dance. Led by the wolf (which emerged from the Dracula of the preceding scene), we are taken through several aspects of Dracula and his seductive influence on the world. While one could be tempted to suspect that this was included to give the "purists" of the ballet some of what they would expect, it did lift the narrative element to a more archetypal level.
ACT 3 returns us to the narrative, this time the focus being on Mina. She arrives at the Budapest convent to be reunited with Jonathan. The antecedent action involving Jonathan (his stay at Dracula's castle and his encounter with the three female vampires while a prisoner there) is handled as a sort of "flashback" as Mina reads Jonathan's journal (in itself a nice touch, in light of the epistolary style of Stoker's novel). Mina soon has her own meeting with Dracula and begins to fall under his spell. Unlike Lucy, however, she seems more aware of what is happening to her (just as in the novel) and has both the strength and intelligence to resist. The hunt climaxes in the castle as Mina (the men are all somewhat incapacitated) overcomes Dracula's power through sheer will. The dazed men revive, surround the Count, and destroy him.
A superb rendering of Stoker's novel, the RWB's Dracula played to full houses for all seven performances in Winnipeg. It has since toured across Canada.
RWB'S DRACULA SELLS OUT ALL PERFORMANCES
(Winnipeg, Manitoba; October 26, 1998) - Eight performances. Eight sold-out shows. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's world premiere of Dracula could not have been a bigger success. Both audiences and critics raved about the new ballet.
All performances played to sold-out houses at Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall, with 16,857 people making their way through the RWB's turnstiles from October 20 to 25. Dracula also helped the RWB to sell 4,259 subscriptions, over 1,000 more than the previous season.
Audiences all week left the theatre buzzing about what they had just seen. Following the student matinee performance, children were hanging out of bus windows screaming, "We love you Dracula." And the critics were just as ebullient:
"What Godden and his designer Paul Daigle have accomplished in terms of theatrical effect is proof that imagination and ingenuity are more important than a fat wallet. The kids in the Winnipeg audience squirmed with glee when Lucy got her head chopped off with a spade and as for the death of Dracula...well, it's not fair to give away too much. Suffice it to say it's really scary. With Dracula, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has a genuine hit on its hands...an original, made-in-Canada, full-length story ballet that combines wit, intelligence, theatricality and fine dancing in one very entertaining package."
(Michael Crabb, CBC Arts Report, October 26, 1998)
"Utterly seduced...brilliantly conceived...there's a sensuality in Godden's dance that I find absolutely startling. This is a crowning achievement for a choreographic career."
(Robert Enright, CBC Radio, October 22, 1998)
"The RWB's Dracula is not the horror story we've become accustomed to. It's a mesmerizing, intimate and multi-layered portrait of a deeply tortured soul, danced by Zhang Wei-Qiang, whose vampire is both a picture of courtly elegance and menacing force. Symbolic of those nameless, faceless fears that lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce, this Dracula is an ominous, elusive power whose presence is as everlasting as Stoker's myth. Accompanied by the appropriately mysterious and foreboding music of Gustav Mahler, Dracula is the balletic spectacle dancegoers expect from RWB. Set and costume designer extraordinaire Paul Daigle has pulled out all the stops, creating some eye-popping, non-traditional special effects and costumes. The overall effect is a neo-classical work wrapped in an exciting, hip and unusual package."
(Riva Harrison, Winnipeg Sun, October 23, 1998)
"Godden's choreography is varied; he's not afraid to incorporate just about any theatrical trick or staging technique, right down to the flying bat - much to the delight of the audience. One section narrated by actor Richard Hurst puts the dancers through an absolutely side-splitting quickie review of the plot that's worth the admission price in itself. And the piece's movements are often mesmerizing, at once powerful, sexual, grotesque - even animal. But there's also a large dose of more traditional ballet movements echoing the classical overtones of the story. Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) and Mina (CindyMarie Small) shine throughout the evening. In fact, it's hard to separate the two - each dances with awe-inspiring artistic skill, acting ability, and technical prowess."
(Kim Coghill, Winnipeg Free Press, October 23, 1998).
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