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It is a Dracula to die for. Houston Ballet's newest ballet burst into view in March. Jointly produced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for $1 million--every penny of it well spent--this Dracula has to be the last word on magnificent spectacle.

As have a zillion moviemakers, cartoonists, and Halloween tricksters before him, artistic director Ben Stevenson takes his inspiration from Bram Stoker's B-grade novel, published exactly one hundred years ago. He's cleverly simplified the story, tossing out England, earnest scientists, and many subplots, the better to home in on the sinister, disquieting Count Dracula himself. All the action takes place in Transylvania, with the first and third acts set in the Count's grand and chilly castle and the second in the cozy village below. The cast is reduced to a manageable handful: Dracula, his spider-eating henchman, Renfield; and the villagers Flora, Svetlana, and Fredrick. On the other hand, Stevenson beefs up the number of wives from the original three to eighteen to make a proper corps de ballet.

The result is fascinating and fantastic. If the ballet doesn't match the novel's pervasive mood of dread, it makes more explicit the erotic undercurrent of Dracula's blood lust and the chilling dynamics of sexual domination. In a swift, dazzling scene of seduction, Dracula (Timothy O'Keefe in the opening cast) sets upon his victim. In quick succession, she recoils, freezes, then wilts in his arms, and he spins her limp body in ever more delirious arcs, her legs and arms tracing lovely spirals in the air.

The transformation of maiden into nightmare creature is equally appalling--a transformation that Susan Cummins, as Flora, registers with crazed eyes, manic grin, and lurching step.

For contrast, another pas de deux, this time between the village couple Svetlana (Barbara Bears) and Fredrick (Carlos Acosta), echoes some of the same spatial dynamics and heightening of mood while also offering an innocence and tenderness conspicuously absent in the castle.

Most of Stevenson's choreography is fresh and imaginative, particularly the increasingly ecstatic pas de deux, Dracula's feverish solos, and the manic forays by Renfield (Parren Ballard) across the floor. Less successful are the village dances (obviously meant to recall a Giselle-like pastoral wholesomeness, but which are rather ordinary) and the set pieces for the brides. These last are fascinating for their characterization of the brides, first as mothlike zombies, then as vile, wormy creatures who ooze and rise and fall and rise again. But the set pieces are too long and fail to advance the action.

Adding to the splendor are wonderfully atmospheric costumes, sets, and lighting by Judanna Lynn, Thomas Boyd, and Timothy Hunter, respectively. Best of all is John Lanchbery's score, a masterly arrangement of Liszt charged with foreboding and spasms of feverish excitement.

Houston Ballet takes Dracula to Los Angeles in July; Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre premieres it in Pittsburgh in October.
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Title Annotation:Houston Ballet, Brown Theater, Houston, Texas
Author:Putnam, Margaret
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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