Going Batty

In one of the most arresting scenes of the Houston Ballet's Dracula, the centuries-old vampire satiates his blood thirst by ravaging a young village girl who lives near his castle. In a hypnotic pas de deux, the svelte count is an erotic captor, seducing Flora into swaying her limp body against his until she falls into a trance, lying with throat exposed, mesmerized prey to the groping vampire. There's a parallel scene in the 1931 film, in which Bela Lugosi's Dracula visits Lucy's bedroom and sucks her blood while she sleeps. On screen, though, the effect is sordid compared with the allure of the dance.

The film seems ridiculously camp -- right down to the spider-web-laced Transylvanian castle -- compared to the ethereal magnificence of the ballet's current production. This show has plenty of spectacle: flying vampires, ghoulish crypts and the scampering, spider-eating madness of the count's sidekick, Renfield. Going further, though, artistic director Ben Stevenson brings out some of the thematic richness of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel through elegant choreography -- complemented by Timothy Hunter's lighting -- that contrasts the villagers' wholesome innocence with the pathology of Dracula's castle denizens.

To survive, Count Dracula must satisfy his blood lust. He sleeps by day and sniffs out the blood of his next victim by night. Principal Timothy O'Keefe's dancing Dracula is no different. After the curtain opens and a harem of 18 brides crowds the stage, O'Keefe enters as one virile monster, with an unsettling sexual power to lure his female victims. His movements are frenetic, revealing a deranged spirit. On occasion, he wears a huge, ornately embroidered cape that envelops his victims.

His automaton wives are completely submissive -- virginal in their zombie-like state -- clad in filmy, white gossamer gowns. Their sensual appearance belies the danger of getting too close. They move jerkily, their blank expressions suggesting spiritual imprisonment. In a compelling pas de trois, two of the brides (played by soloists Julie Gumbinner and Sally Rojas) allow the master to twirl them limply in his arms, appearing more like hostages than lovers.

Sleepwalking brides occupy the stage through several dances. While their balletic movement is effectively disjointed, they flutter on and off the stage repeatedly, and eventually their movements grow tiresome to watch. If this is the intended effect, it's still overly long and tedious.

Principal Carlos Acosta is a solid Fredrick, playing a very good overly eager suitor in his wooing of the beautiful innkeeper's daughter Svetlana, performed by veteran principal Lauren Anderson. She is instinctively aware of the need for subtlety in exercising her control over the opposite sex. When Fredrick moves too fast, she gives him a healthy dose of rebuffs that are refreshingly flirtatious. He responds with impeccable footwork in a series of solos that are extremely satisfying. Anderson effectively follows Acosta's robust solos with the subtle, softer, feminine pirouettes. The free expressions of wills in these two are a welcome antidote to the disturbed domination of the terrible count.

As vampire fans can predict, Dracula comes to wreak havoc on this pristine world of the living. No priests waving crucifixes can save the captured Flora (uncannily portrayed by Susan Cummins, who looks as if she walked off the pages of a Gothic novel) from her vampire initiation. Svetlana is captured next, destined to be the ghoul's newest victim.

Act Three culminates in a pas de deux between Fredrick's intended, who wears shimmering ivory, and the man/beast dressed in black-velvet garb. Svetlana sways smitten in the vampire's arms, falling for his sultry appeal. Here, O'Keefe's Dracula is a sly shape-shifter who is alluring one moment, deranged the next, his movements consistently as erratic as his nature. This is no B-movie, Bela Lugosi-style Dracula, either, but a creation of Bram Stoker's thoughtful antihero. Not horrible, but frighteningly sexual, and capable of inciting a masochistic longing in men and women who enjoy the vicarious surrender to a hunger both sexual and violent.

Throughout the drama, the disturbed gyrations of the mad henchman Renfield are cruel reminders of his master's derangement. Soloist Parren Ballard is ingeniously manic and compulsively gymnastic with his twists and jumps.

Composer John Lanchbery settled on the music of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, whose works he arranged for Dracula. Lanchbery saw in Liszt a range of simple, romantic music based on folk tunes of his native Hungary, as well as atonal music suitable for the morbid mood of the dark Gothic drama. Led by conductor Ermanno Florio, the Houston Ballet orchestra performs sequences from Liszt's "Dance of Death," including pianist Katherine Ciscon's solo movements, clearly identified with Dracula.

All of Stevenson's collaborators succeed in evoking the elegant dichotomy between the material and sinister supernatural worlds. Scenic designer Thomas Boyd's looming castle is Gothicism made to perfection, with more of an ethereal than a seedy quality. His scenes in the castle and Dracula's bedroom are satisfyingly surreal, always in darkness, and are inspired by his belief that the story of Dracula "is about transcending time, transcending death and transcending the moral structure of the era."

Costume designer Judanna Lynn deftly makes Dracula's brides seem apparitions, while re-creating a 19th-century-style realism in the costumes of the peasants. When Act Three opens onto Dracula's bedroom, the horde of brides is an impressive sight. They dominate the stage, lounging in wait for their master like ladies of the evening in a turn-of-the-century brothel. Scenes like this are uniquely stylized, while underscoring more profoundly that Dracula's horror has many faces.

The Houston Ballet performs Dracula with an alternating cast through September 20 at the Brown Theatre of the Wortham Center, Texas and Smith, 227-2787. $10-$84.


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