Washington Ballet’s ‘Dracula’ swoops, slithers with blood-curdling style
By Sarah Kaufman,
With the growing threat of an invisible swirling menace in the air, poised to suck away our power and leave us huddled in the dark, the mood this weekend was perfect for “Dracula.”
Hurricane Sandy had already spooked us. So on Saturday night, we were well on our way to Creepsville even before the titular vampire took his first steps in the Washington Ballet’s production of the Gothic ghost story.
But what frisson-inducing steps they were. Surely no stalker, living or undead, has prowled the stage with the mesmerizing slinkiness of new company member Hyun-Woong Kim. He perfects the slow-poured, hip-forward strut of a flamenco dancer, every motion emanating from the small of his back, and he matches this with a no-nonsense look in his eyes that’s at once blistering and icy cold. In Kim’s hands — and legs, and blood-streaked pectorals — this all-too-familiar melodrama just got all sexypants.
His Dracula hungers not only for blood but also for sadistic torment and omnisexual domination. But he’s a sensitive demon, too. When he kisses the hand of anemic solicitor Jonathan Harker (Jared Nelson in the thankless role of earnest victim), the scent of flesh sends Kim into meditative raptures. Here is Dracula as a Byronic hero; his blood lust stems from an affliction of the senses. Is that so wrong?
That the villain can prompt a little sympathy as well as fascination and revulsion is a testament to the strength of Kim’s portrayal. But it’s not for nothing that the work, which the Washington Ballet performs through the weekend at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, is named for this character. As crowded as this production is — choreographed by Michael Pink in 1996, and based closely on the Bram Stoker novel — few of its other personages possess such dramatic interest or are portrayed with equal force of personality.
I haven’t gotten to the dancing yet, and that’s deliberate. This is a work of physical theater more than pure dance, and it is told less through the conventions of ballet than through natural and stylized actions and gestures, helped along by ample design cues. Philip Feeney’s richly atmospheric score provides shrieks and screams at appropriate moments, and Lez Brotherton’s Victorian costumes and scenery, on loan from the Atlanta Ballet, plunge the dancers into a world of moldering decadence.
I don’t want to give the impression there is little dancing — there is quite a bit, and it’s large in scale and exuberant, particularly the first act’s whirling, stomping folkloric show that fuels a Transylvanian wolf sacrifice, and its second-act counterpart, the high-society Tea Dance where Dracula ensnares pretty, vapid Lucy.
But the dancing is, for the most part, incidental to the plot. The spinning ballroom couples and occasional stage-filling solos, especially Maki Onuki’s flirtations as Lucy, command our attention. The episodes of exposition . . . not as much.
This work cried out for a theater director — not just an overseer of the choreography, but an expert in theatrical storytelling — to make sure the emotional moments were landing. For instance, Onuki played directly to the audience as she whirled from one partner to another, scarcely glancing at her beaux, and an opportunity for narrative tension was lost. This is just one of the occasions when the acting was unconvincing. Yet smart fixes ought to be well within reach. (Even without them, it’s worth bearing in mind that with its vivid nightmare scene, brief episodes of violence and the blood-spattered aftermath, this production may be too intense an experience for young children.)
With its dramatic demands, “Dracula” is vastly different from the Washington Ballet’s regular roster of familiar classics, and it’s not surprising that it feels like a rough draft. But in future seasons, with effective direction, it could prove to be a valuable growth opportunity. Kim, in the title role, has benefited beautifully from the most preparation. Spread that level of attention to the rest of the cast, and you’d have a truly wonderful horror.
This production repeats Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. with cast changes.