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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Review: Atlanta Ballet's "Dracula" lives on

OPENING BITE: The Atlanta Ballet brings its production of Dracula back to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through February 16.
  • Charlie McCullers
  • OPENING BITE: The Atlanta Ballet brings its production of "Dracula" back to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through February 16.
British choreographer Michael Pink seemingly approached Dracula as if he were the first one to ever tell the story. In his 1997 ballet adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, created on the 100th anniversary of that work, Pink managed to bring out all the original's creepiest elements, approaching the enduring myth as if no one had ever told it before, digging down to the primal imagery and universal fears at the story's core - infestation, domination, sexuality, infection, death - that have made the story such a sensation. It's one reason why the show remains fresh to this day, and when approached with energy and smartly intuitive acting ability, as in the Atlanta Ballet's latest production (at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through Feb. 16,) it's perfectly clear why it's remained a contemporary stalwart for so many ballet companies since its creation. This Dracula still has bite.

DRACS BACK: John Welker played Dracula on opening night, with Rachel Van Buskirk as a free-spirited but doomed Lucy Westenra.
  • Charlie McCUllers
  • DRAC'S BACK: John Welker played Dracula on opening night, with Rachel Van Buskirk as a free-spirited but doomed Lucy Westenra.
The show demands not just a wide range of dancing styles and athleticism from its cast, but dancers are also called on to bring lots of nuanced acting skills to the stage (it's just as much a work of theater as a work of dance), all of which the company handles expertly. Casts change during the show's run, with different dancers taking different roles, but on opening night veteran Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker shone in the lead role of Dracula. When welcoming Jonathan Harker to his Transylvanian home, he exuded an elegant Old World sort of grace, a sinuous prettiness that slowly transformed in the opening scenes into a mercurial, domineering violence. In Act II, he dripped from a stage balcony down to the floor and then slithered out after feasting on a victim - no stage fog necessary. By turns magnetically, irresistibly dominating, magnificently imperious and unhurried, then suddenly, convulsively quick and fierce, Welker brought a sense of supernatural strength and power to the role.

Nadia Mara brought innocence to the role of Mina Harker: When she goes en pointe, under Dracula's spell, there's a sense of lightness and vulnerability, totally under the power of a force beyond her control or understanding. Rachel Van Buskirk created a Lucy that was energetic, curious, and free-spirited: a fun and vivacious modern young woman who still can't resist Dracula's power. Philip Feeney's dramatic, pulsing score (the soundtrack recording has been something of a hit in its own right) came to life under conductor Gary Sheldon and the Atlanta Ballet orchestra: During a seduction scene, violin and cello, playing independently, had an eerie, weightless, breathy quality that perfectly highlighted the drama of the scene.

The show's three acts have a nice speed and structure, though I still find the second act's opening scene of London too long and its ice-cream-parlor cheeriness out of place. When Dracula does arrive, though, the transformation is effective: This Drac brings Transylvania with him wherever he goes.

There are so many versions of the vampire myth that it's easy to forget the story's original pull, but here they're brought back in a strikingly effective way: Dracula lures his vampiric brides away from Harker by offering them a baby in a sack; Renfield laps up a bit of Van Helsing's blood from the floor; Dracula's victims are seemingly powerless and submissive, almost irresistibly drawn to his power. For the Atlanta Ballet, the visceral, primal, universal draw of the vampire is eternal.

The Atlanta Ballet performs "Dracula" at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Atlanta Ballet.

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