Dancing in the Dark

The out-of-town dance critics who flooded Houston last week weren't here just because they admire the Houston Ballet (though that's part of it). They were here because, with Dracula, Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson is offering up something truly rare: a brand-new full-length story ballet. Over the last few decades, new story ballets have been few and far between, and Dracula makes clear why that's a shame -- we could use more of the freshly evocative choreography and luscious looks of this Dracula. Still, there aren't a lot of Tchaikovskys and Stravinskys out there burning to compose ballet music these days, and that's tragic: Music can act as an artistic salve, massaging the other creative elements into a whole and lending a production unity by creating character through leitmotif, mood through instrumentation and, perhaps most important in terms of story ballet, a sense of pacing. Though Dracula is full of Stevensonian style, the lack of music written expressly for it is a disappointment and, finally, the work's greatest weakness.

Luckily, there's much to make up for it. It's not strange that Stevenson chose the story of Dracula for his new ballet. Dangerous, sexy and powerful, Dracula is the closest that '90s popular culture has come to reinventing an antihero, the sort of compelling character needed for story ballet. And, of course, the recent fascination with Bram Stoker's novel and its various progeny is evident everywhere, from Freudian literary theory to popular fiction and film. Interest in the vampire isn't, as is often suggested, a mere celebration of the novel's century mark. What Dracula does for us, especially in his current seductive shape, is stir up our subconscious desires for pleasure and immortality. And wonderfully, for the most part Houston Ballet's Dracula stays true to that libido-charged version of the story.

What ends up haunting this production is the score: an arrangement of various Franz Liszt pieces that often provides sweet melody where gloom is called for. This unwieldy orchestration is evident early in Act I, when Dracula's 18 brides, costumed in flowing white gowns, dance in his crypt. Designed to recall the Wilis in Giselle, the brides are ghostly sleepwalkers. Their chiffon sailing behind them, the corps knits patterns in the crypt with such tenacity and at such length that it is a relief when 12 finally depart, leaving six sisters on-stage to twirl about their lair. Pared down in number, the brides' patterns are lovely, and a duet, rare in corps work, is an especially nice touch.

With the spectral brides, the spooky mood is set. But then it's set again, and again. It's difficult to say why it takes so long for Dracula to arrive on-stage; it could be that Stevenson, in his best showman's fashion, wants to tantalize the audience and build anticipation for the evil moment. More likely, the romantic vision of the brides proved too seductive to depart from -- indeed, one balletgoer wondered later if the brides might come over to his house and run about from room to room. But seductiveness aside, the corps' lengthy dance becomes tiring and repetitive.

Adapting Stoker's novel for the stage, Stevenson wisely chose essence over faithfulness. This is a simplified version of the tale, separated into three locales: Dracula's crypt, where he bites his first village maiden, Flora; the village below his castle, where people celebrate unaware of the danger that awaits, and where Dracula kidnaps a maiden, Svetlana, who's recently engaged; and his bedchamber, where he attempts to feed on Svetlana, and to which villagers rush to her rescue. Despite its dark mood, the story occasionally loses tension; the opening night cast compensated with a handful of inspired performances. Most notable were Susan Cummins as Flora and the normally reserved Barbara Bears as the warm, feisty Svetlana. Dracula, danced by Timothy O'Keefe, was especially magnetic as well -- drawing his victims to his embrace with the power of his outstretched hand, and sweeping them across the floor like the broken rag dolls they become after his bite. As much a seducer as hunter, O'Keefe's Dracula relishes his prey. The genius of Stevenson's choreography, far and away the highlight of the evening, is wonderfully evident in the vampire's feeding scenes. Even as she struggles to get out of Dracula's grasp, Flora offers her neck for his bite, while chaste Svetlana succumbs to his embrace and to the whirlwind-like power of his swooping cape.

Though the choreography is rich and textured, Liszt's music for Flora's solo is the least fitting the first act has to offer. Gentle and romantic (even tinkly), the piece reflects none of the wicked possession evident in Cummins's character. Prancing gingerly toward her new mate, her feet often snapping up into a casual passe, Cummins, unable to break her focus on the vampire, is entrancing as she crosses the bridge to evil. It is in this solo, too, that the choreography introduces a contemporary feel -- Flora's foot flicks will resonate later, when Svetlana is introduced. Housed in the gothic structure of Romantic ballet, this kind of movement invention offers a newness that Romantic ballet often lacks. The choreography is both human and tangible, grounded in character -- a far remove from the airy visions of the stiff classical movement vocabulary.

Despite its unevenness in terms of suspense, Dracula offers a dancer such as Cummins the moment to become great; it also offers other dancers roles that are ripe for the sophisticated acting style that has come to be expected from the Houston Ballet. Barbara Bears, whose classic, lithe line is one of the company's best, has such a role in Svetlana. In her foot-slapping village solo, Bears dances radiantly, and in a manner that suggests she's coming into her own as a performer. Noted by fellow dancers as a technical perfectionist with a wonderful sense of lyricism, Bears has never really glowed in the emotional roles. That changed last Thursday when she danced Svetlana.

Well-acted and movingly danced, Dracula's third section is the best. The score accelerates the sense of doom, the shape of the story is sure and tight and Dracula finally gets a big chunk of stage time. As the story circles to a close, the brides' choreography eerily reflects the cycle of Dracula's feeding. Turning and falling to the floor, the rows of women are symbolic of Dracula's endless intent: to suck dry the innocence and, indeed, very life of his victims. While the corps work is finally tightened down to size, the ending is decidedly anti-climactic. So many villagers arrive to save Svetlana that it becomes clear Dracula doesn't have a chance. Then again, what makes this Dracula interesting is that he is closer to being a man than he is a supernatural bat -- a quality that's emphasized in his carnal feeding. Laying his victim on the floor, he slowly dives down, his legs opening then closing as he dines.

Dracula's premiere coincides with the Ballet's announcement of a national tour, its first in eight years. As it turns out, this ballet may be well-served on the road, where Stevenson can iron out the rougher edges: corps work that drags in the first and second acts and a temperamental score that doesn't always fit the story. Held together by a cast of strong leads who have as impressive a grip on their characters as they do on their choreography, Dracula is a solid production. After a few months on the road it should be an even better one.

Dracula plays through March 23 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-2787.

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Megan Halverson