Consider Dracula––really consider him.
Despite what commerce and fandom suggest, the story of Dracula (any vampire, really) is hinged on emotional intelligence and moral complexity. To put a finer point on it, the reader or viewer is forced to confront certain issues in ways that challenge the accepted moral and emotional spectrums as set forth by society: good vs. bad, wicked vs. righteous, love vs. hate, domination and submission, sex and lust, tragedy and fortune. The lines between these contrasts are muddled, the-black-and-white of it all flung into greyscale chaos. Our compasses compromised. We root against Dracula, yet we take an almost perverse delight in watching his elegant misdeeds take shape. We love to watch him fail, yet secretly dread his demise.
We hate Dracula, but we empathize with him. Uniquely. And that's because, in so many unspoken ways that we push down hard to conceal, we are far more like him than we care to let on. (Which would also serve to explain our unusually pungent dislike for the character and our unceasing fascination with him, too).
It is here that last Friday's rendition of Ben Stevenson's Dracula separated itself from lesser love stories, even and especially from those of the watered-down vampire variety that have become so popular of late. The Texas Ballet Theater's delicately measured depiction embodied the knotted, grainy quality of Dracula that's so very disorienting to our traditional conceptions of right and wrong; more importantly, the portrayal made manifest the perverse allure, sickly beauty and surreptitious jealousy and melancholy we feel for the infamous figure, coercing us, above all, to question why we feel anything but hostility for what is by all accounts a twisted, pernicious monster. The performance was––and this is no small feat––a textbook example of art's capacity to have “real-world” consequences, to reach out and have a felt influence on spectators' lives outside the concert hall or gallery.
By contrast, the toothless, oversexed superheroes of narratives like Twilight––to pick an especially easy target––transform Dracula's nuanced complexity into shell characters––caricatures of a rich tradition motioned with all the subtlety of a hired clown. And so, in such instances, the crux of all intrigue is lost, at best tucked somewhere behind vapid teen lust and feel-good pay-offs. Why then is the bulk of modern culture so taken with this species of vampire tale? In short, it's simply far less challenging to see a cleanly delineated villain vanquished than it is to look in the mirror and see the same malefactor squinting back at you. The kids sleep better; you sleep better; all consequences stay neatly tucked on stage or in the DVD player; and there are no greater, residual philosophical issues to wrestle with once your device's stop button's been properly depressed.
In this context, in our current cultural state, it's all the more important that we have instances like this ballet to remind us that there's far more to this vampire thing than conciliation and entertainment. There are revelation and epiphanies to be had, too.
What really seems to be at stake in Stevenson's Dracula are issues of obsession, loneliness, greed, addiction, self-love, self-hate, and about a hundred dozen other unnameable qualities dealing with submission, domination, religion and sensualism. Or, more simply, the full gambit of hells and pitfalls that befall those fortunate enough to be born into the confines of a human body.
The curtains recede and the ballet opens to a setting in Dracula's castle. Dreamy, eerily still, cloaked in wintry purples and swampy turquoises, Dracula's lair is painted to life with all the realism of a richly imagined fairytale or horror story––the scene both deliciously textured and utterly convincing. It's no wonder that critics and patrons alike are wont to highlight the spectacle of Dracula's production. The feathered lighting, the engulfing, bleeding colors, the special effects, the million-dollar costume and stage designs––all transport you with ruthless efficiency to another space and time. But for all their glory these are but the skin of what is a truly remarkable and multi-dimensional piece of art, one stocked to the brim with layers of substance. And while no one's downplaying the beauty of Dracula's ancillary features, to zoom in on them at the expense of deeper considerations would be to miss out on a trove of higher order insights. Which, ultimately, would be not dissimilar to chucking out a five-star meal in order to admire its accompanying dishware.
To tick off the obvious boxes, the production was as advertised: stunning. The choreography and its performers were communicative and lithe. The music was, to pay it the highest possible compliment, imperceptible––so subtly and economically arranged as to fuse seamlessly with the actions on stage; I imagine for all his high standards, Liszt himself would have been proud.
Returning to the performance, back at Dracula's lair, the antagonist’s cohort of brides now litter the stage, elegantly but rigidly (these are undead brides, after all) constructing and deconstructing bodily patterns in unison like well-mannered marionettes or figurines set atop a jewel box. Porcelain, lifeless white, bloodless and wholly submissive, the brides dance their dance on a carpet of slithering, pooling mist to Dracula's delight. While audience reactions to this display could potentially span from brute entertainment to chilly thrills, this patron felt an urgent, if buried, sense of disquiet, dysphoria. Forgetting for the moment the obvious through-lines between Dracula's impotent, obedient brides and the phallic-centric staff-wielding gang of drunken men in Act II (the connection of which warrants an entire article in its own right), Dracula's one-way interaction with his company of wives came off more depressing than inciteful of animosity.
Like a selfish child whose world is limited to the sphere of his own thoughts, Stevenson's Dracula, more so even than most other depictions, is a personality bent solely toward the aim of pleasing itself––and what a lonely reality that constructs. There's no true connection in the character's relations, no real mutual reward: a character as case study in self-inflicted loneliness via obsession.
It's here, in what might easily be dismissed as the perversions of a monster––the traits of what's meant to be viewed as a reprehensible antagonist––where the genius of Stevenson's Dracula lies. The character isn't merely relatable, but painfully, shockingly so, something of an archetype of twenty-first century narcissism, and in turn a portrayal of the inevitable ruin that awaits egoism and self-absorption––a portrait of the megalomaniac as modern person. Which, again, aren't features exclusive to demons and villains, but traits prevalent to some degree in each of us, we of the “selfie” age.
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Let's be honest with ourselves, if granted the required faculties, who among us wouldn't be tempted to take whatever they wished whenever they wished it, even, yes, sadly, at the expense of others. Who hasn't at some point wanted more power, more lovers, more control over the acquisition of both, and a fortress-like escape to keep the demands of the world at bay? Who hasn't sought to mend loneliness and solitude with empty pleasures of the body, hoping against logic to cure intangible depressions with intoxicating consumption and jejune companionship? The number of people who would indulge in such activities, given the capacity, is another secret I imagine most of us would like to keep hidden deep down inside.
As Act III closes and the ballet winds down, Dracula is subdued and destroyed, meeting his end by way of sunlight and a brilliant explosion. Again, the result is bittersweet. With his death so too does a secret corner of ourselves symbolically die, a greedy, self-absorbed part that we not-so-secretly wish would die an actual death. And so, in that respect, Dracula's demise is rewarding. And, yet, in another way, in a way that both recognizes our kinship with this monster and sympathizes with his destruction, we mourn. Because, in a very real sense, it's a fate we're all just a few character flaws away from realizing ourselves, the inevitable end road of a worldview marked by inward fixation.
This article asked that you consider Dracula––really consider him. But Texas Ballet Theater and Stevenson's Dracula went one step further, does one better, and asks that you consider––really consider––yourself.
Dracula runs next in Fort Worth at the Bass Performance Hall, October 16-18. For tickets visit texasballettheater.org.