When a ballet master asks a dancer to look in a mirror, the glance is usually intended to correct an out-of-place limb: an arm that should be raised, a leg that should be extended farther. That’s the sort of instruction Washington Ballet dancer Hyun-Woong Kim was expecting during a recent rehearsal for the ballet “Dracula.” Kim and visiting ballet master Denis Malinkine were perfecting the vampire’s entrance. Side by side, they stalked toward the mirror at the front of the studio, and when they reached it, Malinkine asked Kim, who was reflexively looking at his legs, to instead stare into the whites of his own eyes.
“Look,” Malinkine said, pointing two fingers straight ahead, “It’s like this.” Malinkine put one hand on Kim’s left shoulder and crossed his right hand in front of Kim’s face. “Your eyes have to go this way.”
Kim’s dark irises followed Malinkine’s trailing fingers, and the resulting sidelong glance conveyed fear, longing and unease. His eyes weren’t windows on an evil bloodsucker but on a tortured soul. That’s because Dracula, in this ballet choreographed by Michael Pink, is a complex protagonist rather than a one-dimensional villain. The story is tightly adapted from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel about love, lust and Victorian propriety. As a result, the ballet’s characters are more complex than in most story ballets.
“There are so many themes and so many layers to work on,” Malinkine said. “For us, it is an exploration of the characters.”
He rattled off a list of the characters — Mina, Lucy, Harker, Renfield — characters you may not know even if you’ve seen one of the many film adaptations. But in the ballet, the title role belongs to Malinkine. In 1996, he danced Dracula when Pink debuted the ballet with England’s Northern Ballet Theatre. The production ran for 13 weeks in London, and Malinkine became something of a sex symbol, with fans waiting at stage doors.
In the nearly two decades since, Pink’s “Dracula” has been performed across Europe, New Zealand and Australia. In the States, the ballet has been staged in Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, where Pink now directs the Milwaukee Ballet.
Malinkine, a lithe, 46-year-old Russian emigre, recalls being nervous when Pink told him about the role. “When he first said to me, ‘You are going to do Dracula,’ I wasn’t sure what to think. What was I going to do? Run around stage biting people? That would have been comical, in a way. But we have managed to overcome that.”
The secret, Pink said, speaking from Wisconsin recently, was to remain faithful to the novel. “We knew from the very beginning [that we had to] maintain the integrity of the book. . . . It has captured the imagination of generation after generation. We wanted to stay with it, otherwise we would veer off into the silliness of B movies, with fangs and heaving breasts.”
Pink wanted his “Dracula” to be serious theater. There are other vampire-themed ballets floating around, slinking onto stages each October. Some feature a corps of scantily clad vampire brides. Pink is fond of Mark Godden’s version for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet but thinks the others are rather schlocky.
Again, Pink points to the importance of sticking with the book. For example, in an early scene, three female vampires attempt to prey upon Jonathan Harker, the English solicitor who is visiting Count Dracula’s Transylvanian castle. The dance they perform is slow and seductive but never campy. As is the case in the novel, Dracula interrupts before it can become sexual and throws the dancers a baby to suck on instead.
“We tried very much to stay with the book to create the three acts, and it worked very well in terms of dance theater,” Pink said.
Pink uses the phrase “dance theater” deliberately. For local audiences, this Washington Ballet production may seem similar to the wordless dance-dramas of Synetic Theater (currently performing “Jekyll and Hyde”). While the Mariinsky Ballet’s colorful new production of “Cinderella,” which ran at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, features a dorky fanny-pack wearing monarch, many Prince Charmings don’t do as much acting as Dracula, Harker and Dr. Van Helsing.
“A prince in a story ballet is superficial and vacuous,” Pink said, chuckling. “He just stands there in a corner and does some posing.”
In rehearsal, Malinkine sometimes sounded more like a method acting coach than a ballet master. His instructions were often tied to an emotional state rather than a set of steps. For example, when Jonathan Jordan, who plays Harker, snatches a portrait of his beloved, Mina, out of Dracula’s hands and returns it to his trunk, he told Jordan not to walk over to the chest and slam it but to “close it like you want to keep it safe.”
“He is so, so precise,” Kim said of Malinkine, during a break. The dancer was shaking his head but smiling and speaking with help from an interpreter. Kim arrived in Washington in late August. During his seven seasons with the Korea National Ballet, he played many of those storybook princes that Pink would consider vacuous — Albrecht, Siegfried, Romeo. Kim described what makes Dracula so complicated: “He is physically strong but emotionally soft.”
Further helping Kim interpret the role: He’s read the book, which may give him an advantage over other company members. And he’s never seen a “Twilight” movie.
“ ‘Dracula’ can be a tough novel to teach,” said Jesse Oak Taylor, a scholar of Victorian literature who has taught the novel at Georgetown and the University of Maryland. “The students come into the class with so many preconceived notions about Dracula, starting with the Count on ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Taylor said. “It is so much more complex than people think, and yet people may be expecting another Halloween special.”
Stoker would probably be a fan of Pink’s ballet, Taylor speculated. He pointed out that the novelist had a day job managing London’s Lyceum Theatre. But more important, the book’s cinematic scope and myriad cultural, scientific and sexual subtexts leave room for interpretation and a choreographer’s imagination.
“Dracula” is not Pink’s only literary adaptation. He’s also tackled “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Peter Pan.” His newest work, “La Boheme,” debuted in Milwaukee recently and is a straight dance adaptation of the opera’s libretto. His goal, as it was with “Dracula,” is for storytelling to trump spectacle.
“For me, I have to be able to justify every movement. Two steps can mean far more than 20 steps,” Pink said. “I don’t want any unnecessary moments to justify the dancing. That’s the key: Stay with the bloody story.”
No exceptions. No excessive blood, guts and vampire sex. Not even when the bloody story you’re staying with is “Dracula.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
The Washington Ballet. Thursday through Nov. 4 (preview Wednesday) at the Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.