Working in ballet for nearly 50 years, Texas Ballet Theater’s artistic director Ben Stevenson is a modest legend who has always focused on telling a story with his art. Dracula: Dangerous New Terrain was first performed in 1997 in Houston and has now become a seasonal ballet, like The Nutcracker during Christmas, although it is not unusual for audiences to show up in costumes. Dracula is a massive production with three large casts, a huge stage crew and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It makes great use of costumes, lighting and stage design to create a sinister ambience.
The ballet is scored with the music of Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer from the 19th century. With a sound that reflects a fascination with the supernatural and the occult typical of those times, it is a perfect match for a ballet about a vampire. Stevenson was pleased to hear that the music arranger, John Lanchberry, wanted to go with Liszt, who he also thought was the practical choice. “When you listen to the music it’s like it was meant for the ballet,” says Stevenson. “It’s really romantic, but at the same time sinister.”
Of course, Dracula is adapted from Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel, but this version leaves out London and focuses on the village and castle in Transylvania. “I had to read a lot and see movies and put together a story the audience could understand,” says Stevenson. Without words, the challenge was to tell the story visually. “I think Dracula and his brides are a good thing for a ballet,” he says. Indeed, Dracula has eighteen brides; turning them into ballerinas is a natural fit.
Stevenson retains the frightening aspects of the novel for this production, but also portrays The Count sensually, even exhibiting a bit of sympathy for his otherworldly condition, which reduces him to drinking human blood to survive. The psychosexual element is not ignored either. “When he does bite someone it’s sort of sexual,” says Stevenson. After all, Dracula could survive on the blood of a man or woman, but in this case he is seeking beautiful ladies from the village. “It’s a mixed thing between his sexual appetite and his bloodlust,” Stevenson continues.
Dracula walks a fine line between its dark content and family entertainment. “I don’t think Dracula is for 4-year-olds,” Stevenson says. But he remembers watching Dracula films when he was 11 and 12. Years later, he came up with the idea to bring the fangs to ballet while watching the character being portrayed by Bela Lugosi on a television in a New York City hotel room. After percolating for years, the project eventually came together in Houston. When the production appeared in Los Angeles, Lugosi’s son actually showed up in costume.
This production also marks the first collaboration between the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Texas Ballet Theater. “I’m crazy about the orchestra,” says Stevenson. “I think they are one of the great orchestras.” Between the orchestra, cast and stage crew it takes about a hundred people to put on the performance each night. Among the three casts of principal dancers, some are doing leading roles for the first time and others have performed Dracula in the past. The production strives to place the spotlight equally on important young talent and seasoned dancers.
Performing as Dracula is a unique challenge because the enormous cape actually weighs about thirty pounds. Stevenson, who is also the choreographer, remembers the considerable adjustments that had to be made in preparation for the first production back in 1997. “We were rushing around with this flowing cloak made of silk,” he says. But when the costume cloak arrived, it caused some serious changes, slowing down some of choreography. But with a focus on storytelling, Stevenson was happy to make adjustments for such a great costume, which also works well as wings when Dracula flies.
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Stevenson is known for putting a big focus on acting, requiring at least a basic understanding of acting from his dancers. “I personally don’t think there’s a ballet without a story,” says Stevenson. “If you don’t have any feelings or imagination going with the music it’s really boring.” In his mind, ballet has been heavily influenced by silent films and evolved into a more subtle approach, catering to audiences that show up for dancing as well as those who want a story. After all, the company is called Texas Ballet Theater for a reason.
With a huge budget, Dracula will look like a million bucks for good reason. Expect massive props, undead characters flying through the air, and an elaborate set design that draws you into the atmosphere of a castle or village. Lighting is especially important to this production. It may be minimal, when candlelight is used to suggest a dark dungeon or Dracula’s bedroom. But stunning bright lights are used for different settings and also play a huge part in conveying the ballet's action.
Dracula is a particularly grueling production for the dancers. The five weeks of rehearsals were necessary to build up enough stamina to run through an entire performance. The ballet starts off with an exhausting first act and continues to gain momentum until the very end. But Stevenson says it was a labor of love for all involved. “I love what I’m doing,” he says. “I love working with dancers. I’ve been lucky all these years to be doing something I really like.”
Dracula: Dangerous New Terrain runs from Friday, September 4, thru Sunday, September 13, at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Tickets are $15-$110. For more info, visit texasballettheater.org.