The Atlanta Ballet’s Valentine’s Day offering, Dracula, plunged the audience into an old story given an updated presentation, and a world of evil surrounding people trying to do good. The ballet, by Milwaukee Ballet’s Artistic Director Michael Pink, is based on the 1897 classic Gothic novel by Bram Stoker, and the production did full justice to both the love story and the horror story in the original book.
The entire company gave an excellent performance of the ballet, both technically and artistically. However, there were three elements that made this ballet a not-to-be-missed event: The special effects, including the exquisite, but also functional, set design and the intricate lighting; Phillip Feeney’s rich musical score, played with enthusiasm and beauty by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra musicians (who were clearly having a good time in spite of the fake blood that spattered their sheet music by the end of Act III); and the complex characters created through movement and acting by Jesse Tyler, as the insane Renfield, and by John Welker, dancing Count Dracula.
The inventive, and frequently pyrotechnical, movement found in the dark scenes of the ballet was made darker by the bright social scene depicted in Act II, where the dancers were able to show off their classical ballet technique in a lovely representation of the genteel society of the Nineteenth Century. The Act II choreography was predictable but delightful, and there were some witty moments, particularly by Jared Tan as the Bell Boy. Rachel Van Buskirk’s flirtatious characterization of Lucy and Nadia Mara as the more serious Mina were also strong elements of the ballet, although Mina sometimes seemed a bit overly-dramatic next to the subtlety of Dracula.
Throughout the ballet, Jesse Tyler, as Renfield, foreshadowed, and later personified, the world of madness created by the Count. From Renfield’s first appearance in Act I, he exhibited the results of association with Dracula. His mannerisms were consistently unnerving; it was amazing that he could remain in-character so well while incorporating so many different, isolated gestures at one time.
But it was the Count who made this production unforgettable. John Welker, as Count Dracula, was simultaneously powerful, subtle, passionate, compelling, and sensual, able to travel between the world of upper class Europe, the superstitious existence of his Transylvanian peasants, and the supernatural realm of the undead, all of which he dominated. It was clear why people found the Count to be irresistible. The duets by Dracula, often danced with one of the other men, were the most unorthodox, physical, and electrifying. The choreography between Harker (Brian Wallenberg) and Dracula was particularly extraordinary, both in its creativity and its performance. One of the most intriguing devices was the repeated, fleeting symbolism of the bat within the Count’s choreography and the lighting design, which culminated in Dracula descending the Act III set while hanging upside down.
The end of the ballet included the demise of Dracula, conquered, with a stake through his heart. But the Count disappears in smoke and fog, leaving the audience wondering if perhaps he has really escaped death once again, and has rejoined his undead minions in Transylvania.
In fact, it is commonplace for a ballet cast to take curtain calls as themselves, with the audience applauding the dancers rather than the characters they danced in the ballet. This, the dancers did—except for John Welker, who stayed in character as Dracula as though he had truly become the immortal Count.
Horror stories, even those with love stories within them, are not usually my favorite genre. Nevertheless, I was completely entranced by the Atlanta Ballet production from the moment the curtain rose on the Prologue until it fell on the final curtain call, with the audience members out of their seats and clamoring vocally for more. Somehow, I managed to miss previous Atlanta Ballet productions of Dracula. I won’t make that mistake again.