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Halloween seems to get more traction every year and a glance at the autumn schedules shows that pretty much every backwoods ballet company in the United States – Lewisville, Texas? Raleigh, North Carolina? – will be making a date with a vampire. The British dance scene is still some way off the pace but there are two versions of Dracula in revival this month: both very different; both rather good.
Northern Ballet’s 2005 version began life six years earlier when Canadian-born director David Nixon was still with BalletMet Columbus, Ohio. It had not been Nixon’s idea: “There was a marketing committee on the board,” he says, “and they felt that Halloween was a big event and that we just weren’t taking advantage of that.”
Working back from the bottom line is not always an aid to the creative process and Nixon was not immediately sold on the idea – until he read Bram Stoker’s novel and was haunted by its imagery. “Nobody reads the book but it’s interesting on so many levels and there were pictures that just stayed in my head.”
Bravura emotions such as anguish and bloodlust – so hammy and giggleworthy on screen – are often better expressed in physical terms and the Dracula story offers countless pretexts for steamy duets as well as a logical use for the corps de ballet (never an easy matter). For Nixon one of Dracula’s chief attractions was the sheer range of roles for different physical types. It was this generous impulse that led him to keep characters such as Van Helsing and Renfield, the fly-catching asylum inmate – although sticking this closely to Stoker’s story does not always make for the most digestible narrative.
Mark Bruce’s Dracula, winner of this year’s South Bank Sky Arts award for dance, is a far more streamlined treatment. As Bruce explains: “I read the book before I saw any of the films – I was probably about nine or 10 – and I wanted to try and capture some of its magic, but I had to simplify, to hack it down to what it’s really about. Structuring it took me a long time. There are so many traps in it, you can fall into cliché; it can become ridiculous.”
Like Nixon, Bruce found that his choices were being guided by the talent at his disposal. “Originally I thought I’d use an actor to speak the role of Dracula but Jonathan [Goddard] opened my mind to him becoming a far more physical creature. He was incredible to work with: the comic timing, the desperation, the vicious side of the character.”
Bruce’s 10-strong ensemble dance and act with great verve and versatility but it is Goddard’s mesmerising performance that gives the show its power. The 32-year-old dancer, a veteran of the Richard Alston and Rambert Dance companies, was an obvious physical fit for the role with his gaunt face and lean, muscular physique. Even so, Bruce tapped into dramatic abilities that few other dancemakers had ever troubled to exploit.
“I’ve spent my life in abstract work,” says Goddard, “so this was my first chance to hold a narrative. There are choreographers where you just feel like a cog in a machine; being a character gives me freedom.”
Goddard’s Dracula is a multifaceted, contradictory creature – aristocrat and thug, predator and victim – and Bruce conveys this in a magpie mix of movement styles including a brief burst of tap dancing as the count turns song-and-dance man. The production’s limelit, vaudevillian flavour was a key element of the original concept: “It’s Victorian,” says Bruce; “it doesn’t work otherwise. It’s all about the taboos.”
All of which gave set designer Phil Eddolls a fairly tight brief. “Mark works a lot like a film director,” says Eddolls. “He has a very set idea of what he wanted the shots to be: no vagueness – made my life a lot easier.” His black-on-black set of wrought iron screens allows the stage to morph seamlessly from one scene to the next. Three coffins do multiple duty as dining tables or drawing room sofas, requiring only bolt-on wheels and a bull whip to become the carriage that speeds Jonathan Harker through the mountains of Transylvania.
Eddolls’s fantastical, Gorey-ish design – what he and Bruce call “dirty Gothic”– looked its best in quirky spaces such as Bristol’s Old Tobacco Factory or the deliciously decrepit Wilton’s Music Hall in east London. This year’s tour offers less atmospheric venues but Eddolls remains confident that the set will still work its magic thanks to judicious use of the smoke machine and a masterclass in darkness visible from lighting designer Guy Hoare. “He can make the theatre disappear.”
All the best and scariest Draculas are in monochrome and it’s no surprise that both versions should share the same sooty palette. But the degree of overlap in their musical choices was unexpected. Back in 1999, David Nixon says, he asked the advice of Mikhail Popov, BalletMet’s rehearsal pianist: “Straight away he said, ‘Schnittke’” (cue comedy meerkat accent) “‘is greatest composer since Shostakovich.’” The choice proved inspired. The deviant classicism of Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No 1 and his haunting 1977 Requiem is a perfect fit with the material: “It sounds normal but then it gets twisted – like Dracula himself.”
Bruce was also drawn to Schnittke’s Requiem but threw his net far wider, incorporating Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Mozart’s Requiem, a couple of music-hall songs and large pinches of the avant-garde guitar work of Fred Frith, all deftly stitched together by Bruce’s own linking compositions. The result has real cinematic sweep and is a key factor in the production’s sellout success.
Bruce has spent 20 years in contemporary dancemaking but Dracula has been his first real crossover hit. He is already at work on a new narrative piece (also to feature Goddard) but has not so far been tempted by the obvious charms of a spin-off – although he agrees that his star would have made a perfect Dr Jekyll. Instead he hopes, a little optimistically, that his new audience will stick: “If they trusted you with one thing, maybe they’ll come back and see something a little more left-field.”
Annual revivals of Dracula are unlikely – not with Goddard, at any rate: “It’s a bit taxing psychologically to keep going into that place,” he frowns. “It’s a very dark part.”
Northern Ballet’s ‘Dracula’ September 5-13, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. northernballet.com
Mark Bruce’s ‘Dracula’ is touring the UK from September 26-December 4. markbrucecompany.com
Photographs: Farrows Creative; Merlin Hendy