LAST EDITED ON 18-Jul-99 AT 02:43 PM (GMT)
Houston Ballet's "Dracula", Shatin Town Hall, Hong Kong, 17/7/99 - by Kevin Ng
Story ballets have been coming back into fashion in the past few years, as can be seen in the repertory of the top ballet companies in the
world. Take New York for instance. Even New York City Ballet, the heaven of the genre of pure-dance ballets as pioneered by George Balanchine, saw it fit this season to premiere a new production of "Swan Lake", which according to Joan Acocella of The New Yorker "had no reason for being....other than the fact that the company was having its fiftieth anniversary and had to do something splashy."
However there is no denying the preference of many ballet stars for narrative ballets. The late Dame Margot Fonteyn was quoted in a BBC documentary as saying:
"Real life often seemed so much more unreal than the stage. Or maybe I should say my identity was clear to me only when I assumed some make-believe character."
Well, this reviewer can quite sympathise with Fonteyn. After all, I sometimes feel that I don't know my real identity either except when attending a dance performance!
So to return to the main subject of this review. Houston Ballet gave three performances this weekend in Hong Kong of "Dracula", a three-act ballet choreographed in 1997 by its artistic director Ben Stevenson. Though Stevenson has over the years also created a number of plotless ballets, e.g. "Four Last Songs" which I saw in London in the early 1980s, he is far better known for his full-length story ballets.
His newest ballet "The Snow Maiden" which was created last year as a co-production with American Ballet Theatre was quite a box-office success. In
the interval, Mr. Stevenson told me that he has plans to create a new production of "Lady of the Camellias" for the Bolshoi Ballet.
Ironically the two biggest stars of Houston Ballet are in London this fortnight instead of in Hong Kong. Carlos Acosta was magnificent dancing in MacMillan's "My Brother, My Sisters" with the Royal Ballet, while its illustrious ex-Bolshoi star Nina Ananiashvili is now reunited with the Bolshoi Ballet during its current London Coliseum season.
In "Dracula" I applaud Stevenson's story-telling skills which concentrate only on the essential elements of Bram Stoker's story with a simplicity of means. Act 1 took place in the crypt of Count Dracula's castle in the night mist. There was in the beginning a dreamy group dance for the 18 girls of the 'corps de ballet' attired in long white chiffon night-gowns who represented Dracula's wives. Their eeriness reminded me of the Wilis in the white Act 2 of "Giselle".
Flying wires were used to enable Dracula to fly high in the air to tower over his wives. Later he danced a duet with his new bride Flora, at the end of which he bit her neck in vampire fashion. Last night, Dracula and Flora were danced by Philip Broomhead (a former principal of the Royal Ballet) and Lauren Anderson.
Act 2 transported the story to the village below the castle, and was the most pleasing of the three acts. It had an engaging old-fashioned rustic
charm seemingly derived from "Coppelia" and Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardee". The colourful scenery designed by Thomas Boyd was excellent. We saw beautiful thatched cottages with snow-capped mountains in the background, as befitting a Transylvanian village.
There was a joyful variety of classical and character dancing to delight the eyes. I enjoyed the ribbon dance for the villagers who wove
unexpected patterns with their ribbons at the end like in Ashton's "La Fille", as well as a virile
rod dance for the men.
There was humour in the mime scenes. I felt for the young villager Frederick, who was too shy to ask the innkeeper for the hand of his beautiful daughter Svetlana for marriage. This act was crowned by a classical 'pas de deux' for this innocent couple Frederick and Svetlana, before she was abducted by Dracula with his giant spectacular cape. However I found the choreography a shade repetitive here. And the two young lovers - as danced last night by Julie Gumbinner and Yin Le - did not quite convey a precious youthful radiance in their dancing.
Act 3 started off with solos for Flora, Dracula's bride in Act 1, who was also flown by wires at one point; and for Dracula's hunchback henchman Renfield convincingly played by Li Anlin. Dracula forced Svetlana to dance a duet with him, at the end of which his castle was stormed by Frederick and the villages coming to the rescue of Svetlana.
This "pas d'action" scene however was not gripping enough in excitement, and at times verged on the farcical side. There was a priest dominating the
proceedings by forever pointing his cross to scare away the vampirical brides. But the denouement with Dracula disintegrating atop the large chandelier was quite spectacular.
There was as expected a final 'pas de deux' with Frederick and Svetlana. But their dancing did not generate much bliss to be able to melt our hearts. Before curtain fall, Renfield kept running round the stage desperately having lost his master Dracula.
The recorded music score was selected from the works of Franz Liszt as arranged by John Lanchbery.