If the perennial “Nutcracker” is designed to showcase Ballet Arkansas’s glittery grace, “Dracula” is meant to show its fangs. To the soundtrack of classical music’s greatest creepy hits — Liszt’s “Totentanz” and Ciprian Porumbescu’s “Ballade” among them — Ballet Arkansas put on a world premiere to ring in its 40th anniversary, with original choreography by new executive and artistic director Michael Fothergill. Even before the first toe was pointed in the debut performance (at Reynolds Performance Hall on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway), fog curled out from under the curtain, hinting at sinister tensions to come.
First things first: This premiere was a daring endeavor. Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel “Dracula” is a tangled web of transactions and betrayals, and making a ballet out of the thing was both a daunting task and a boss move. What plot points we didn’t get from dancers — or from the pristine costumery from the closets of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and Ballet Arkansas — we got from intermittent expository text, doled out to us courtesy of Ballet Arkansas-neighbors-and-collaborators Cranford Co., in that up-and-backward crawl the original “Star Wars” movie got us all accustomed to. (How else are you supposed to advance a plot that was originally told through ship logs and diary entries?) The rest was left to a few props and to Fothergill’s image-painting, a blend of modern and classical styles that Ballet Arkansas’s versatile dancers meshed seamlessly. Family-friendly as the ballet manages to be, those who know “Dracula” know it’s all about sex and power, and Fothergill’s choreography speaks in the lunging, lurching language of Stoker’s narrative.
A quick glance through the list of dancers and their tenures suggested a cohesive company ethos, one that evidently inspires talented dancers like our protagonist Paul Tillman (playing Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, though casting alternates each night) to stick around for as many as nine seasons — a substantial swath of time in a dancer’s career. As Harker’s fiancee, Mina, much was asked of Deanna Stanton; the leading lady must act as well as she dances. Stanton delivered, telegraphing both Mina’s stately good nature and her tortured conscience as her loyalties waver. Stanton, too, always seemed keenly aware of the “picture” she was painting for the eye — draping her long body over a bench to weep, for example, creating an impossibly lovely still frame.
Stanton’s frequent counterpart, the ethereal Zeek Wright, played the titular (and surprisingly emotionally multidimensional) vampire, alternately decked out in a Sun Ra-esque robe and a crimson red shroud. Wright was, as the curtain call proved, nothing short of a delight to watch, managing to eke (eek!) out audience empathy even as he reduced his nubile victims to blood banks. He’s somehow simultaneously athletic and willowy, and his bombastic height was an asset unto itself. When Dracula curled a menacing finger your way, it felt as if his arm might reach all the way to Row M and around your throat, and when he found himself surrounded by his petite siren brides (Megan Hustel, Lynsie Jo Ogden and Amanda Sewell, seductively), the contrast in body scale as he scooped them up in his arms was Tolkien-level cartoonish. Not to be overlooked were the ensemble members who provided respite and texture — sixth-season dancer Lauren Bodenheimer Hill, for one, with her fantastically theatrical face and expressions that translated with clarity to the back of the hall.
All that said, I admit one misgiving. Cranford Co.’s role in the production, in part, was to be a series of rich backdrops against which the dancers’ profiles could be seen. Those translated marvelously. The other part involved a handful of close-up shots of the costumed dancer’s faces, put up on screen for … effect? For visibility from the nosebleeds? Conceptually noble as the collaboration and image integration was in theory, the close-ups — and their timing — rarely served the production well in practice, often distracting the eye. I’d have been happy to take the 10 percent of my attention I spent on those images and hand it right back to Stanton, Tillman, Wright, et al., or to the more gorgeously symbolic video elements, like the distant moon or the wilting rose.
Catch Ballet Arkansas’s “Dracula” at UA Pulaski Technical College’s Center for the Humanities and Arts, 3000 W. Scenic Drive, North Little Rock, 7 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Oct. 19-20; 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun., Oct. 20-21, $15-$35. Get tickets at balletarkansas.org or by calling 501-812-2710.
And, get spooked/pumped for Ballet Arkansas’s “Dracula” with our companion playlist of excerpts from Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and other gems on the ballet’s soundtrack: