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Monday, March 9, 2009

Atlanta Ballet's Dracula moves to the music of the night

click to enlarge THE MAN IN BLACK: Atlanta Ballet's 'Dracula'
  • THE MAN IN BLACK: Atlanta Ballet's 'Dracula'

The Atlanta Ballet’s current show begins with a skin-crawling prologue. Wolfish, costumed dancers surround a sleeping man’s bed; a happy wedding repeatedly turns into a mournful funeral; and booming, insistent knocks resound throughout. The rapping sounds suggest Poe’s raven tapping at the chamber door. The images evoke Goya’s nightmarish paintings, and the whole disturbing tableau dispels any preconceived notions you have of ballet as a genteel performing art.

The surreal, sideways introduction to the Dracula ballet provides a fresh interpretation of one of our culture’s most familiar stories, like putting new blood in an old bottle. The Atlanta Ballet’s production proves ideal for audiences who don’t like dance — or don’t realize that they actually enjoy ballet.

John Welker embraces the animalistic athleticism of the cadaver-thin Count, flinging back his arms in bat-wing positions and even hanging upside down several times. Welker has fun with the character — even his posture seems unnatural — while infusing Dracula with an eerie dignity. Following his Kabuki-style entrance, Dracula has three seductive, neck-biting dances with a different partner each time throughout the show, and it’s interesting to contrast the choreography.

In Act 1’s Transylvanian castle, Dracula entwines hapless realtor Jonathan Harker (Brian Wallenberg) like a cross between a boa constrictor and a hypnotic cobra. Compared to Harker’s semi-date-rape, naïve Lucy (Anne Tyler Harshbarger) seems more willing to receive Dracula’s attentions. The pair sways more gracefully in tandem, like two bodies becoming one. At times Dracula seems to avoid the lighting, so Lucy shines while he resembles a shadow. With Harker’s young but strong-willed wife Mina (Christine Winkler), the dance more resembles abduction, with lots of lifting and physical opposition.

Director and choreographer Michael Pink (who co-created the original production with Christopher Gable) draws on the kind of silent movie traditions that retain the fright factor of the 1922 film Nosferatu, while lending themselves to dance, as in 2002’s Dracula: Pages of from a Virgin’s Diary, director Guy Maddin’s surreal collaboration with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Philip Feeney’s score, conducted by Dan Allcott, suggests an especially lush rendition of a melodramatic silent-era soundtrack, and ingeniously interweaves such sound effects as booming heartbeats and rodent-like shrieks.

Sometimes the stylized movement flirts with unintended comedy in the would-be horrific encounters: At one point I imagined Dracula saying to Harker, “I will knee-walk to you, in your shirtlessness.” Since Bram Stoker’s original novel unfolds like a series of chamber pieces, the ballet has to stretch a bit to justify big group dances: gypsies and lurching Cossacks in the Transylvanian village; upper-class swells at a seaside hotel in Act 2; and the Goth-dressed undead in Act 3, whose sequence resembles a classical version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

Some of the dances' orgiastic qualities perfectly suit Dracula’s theme of the tensions between lust and death (while providing a welcome rejoinder to the Twilight franchise’s vision of chaste, bite-free vampire love). Jesse Tyler provides one of the show’s most weirdly memorable moments as Dracula’s deranged human agent Renfield, who conveys his emotions to Mina with herky-jerky dancing in bare feet and a straightjacket. The Atlanta Ballet’s Dracula shifts the audience’s attention on the dancers: For this show, their supple necks may be even more crucial than their feet.

Dracula Through Feb. 15. $11-$115. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Feb. 7, 2 and 8 p.m.; Feb. 14, 8 p.m. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 404-817-8700. www.atlantaballet.com.

(Photo by Charlie McCullers)

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