Opus Colorado

The beauty and evil of Colorado Ballet’s Dracula

To borrow a few words from Arnold Schoenberg and paraphrase them: Everyone associated with the Colorado Ballet feels the artistic necessity to have the stamina and courage to make everything connected with dance and music a very special case. 

Continuing the Colorado Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, “Dracula” was performed Friday night, October 15. It follows the novel written by Bram Stoker very closely. And what is so remarkable is that the members of this ballet company are so skilled not only in dance, but also in acting. They easily convey so many emotions: fear, passion, revulsion, and the grotesque. And once again, they have taken upon themselves the rather heavy duty of performing a ballet which is very far from one’s concept of what a ballet is. They also did that last year with their production of “Echoing of Trumpets.” I will quote Gil Boggs, who is the gifted Artistic Director of the Colorado Ballet: “While it does demonstrate the dancers’ classical technique, there is also a great deal of focus on characterization, music and costumes. These elements coupled with [Choreographer Michael] Pink’s mesmerizing and sensual choreography makes it seem much more like a theatrical production and offers something completely distinctive and in a class of its own.” 

Michael Pink is an internationally known choreographer. And I quote from the program notes: “Michael Pink began his tenure as Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet Company in December of 2002. Since that time, he has established himself as a prominent member of the Milwaukee arts community, demonstrating his commitment to the future of dance through education and collaboration. Mr. Pink’s dramatic production of Romeo & Juliet took narrative dance drama to a new level of interpretation. His new productions of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake both received critical acclaim. Other works for the Milwaukee Ballet include Solstice and The Red Dress.” 

Most of you who attend the ballet on a regular basis probably know that when a ballet is choreographed, that original choreography has to be followed to the letter. There are a few deviations allowed, to take into consideration the ability and strength of the dancer. If the original choreographer cannot attend the rehearsals, then an individual known as a Repetiteur coaches the dancers. In this case of Dracula, the Repetiteur was Denis Malinkine. I was fortunate to attend a studio rehearsal and I saw him work with the dancers. He is an excellent coach and communicated easily with the dancers in the company. Did you know that it takes one hour to choreograph one minute of dancing? That’s why the dancers in the Colorado Ballet practice up to six hours a day. Sometimes, in order to warm up for their practice, that time extends to eight hours. 

The score for Dracula was composed by Philip Feeney. “Philip Feeney studied composition at the University of Cambridge with Robin Holloway and Hugh Wood, and at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome under Franco Donatoni. His works have been performed extensively throughout Europe, and he is most noted for his work in ballet and dance. After a period as pianist/composer for the Teatrodanza di Roma from 1980 to 1984, he returned to London and has been Composer in Residence for the Central School of Ballet and Musical Director for their national tour ever since. It was for Christopher Gable and Michael Pink that, in 1996, he wrote the highly acclaimed score for Dracula.” The music for this ballet is absolutely sensational. I would hope that some of the local orchestras would perform some of his ballet music or other works. He is a marvelous composer. 

And speaking of the music, conductor Adam Flatt carries out his duties with consummate skill. And I use the word duties, because conducting a ballet is not at all like conducting a concerto with a solo instrument and orchestra. When a concerto is performed, the conductor can sense the phrasing and the agogics from the soloist. But in a ballet, the conductor has to be aware of every single movement the dancer makes. For example, certain movements have to be followed or accompanied very precisely by the beats in the musical score. If the dancer lifts another dancer into the air, that gesture has to arrive on a certain beat of the music. If one dancer looks over her shoulder to the male partner that she is dancing with and extends her hand for him to grasp, that “grasp” has to occur on a certain beat. Dracula has a complex score, and with such complex choreography where the movements come in rapid-fire succession, that Maestro Flatt’s abilities are taxed to the maximum, but he never fails. And, keep in mind that each performance is different because the dancers usually change with each performance; there is always a subtle difference between them. The Colorado Ballet Orchestra is excellent. There was some fine cello playing from Charles Lee and Evan Orman, in fact, the entire string section sounded spectacular. Michelle Orman and Deborah Wilber, the clarinetists, had some very rapid slides and gestures in the score. In fact, Feeney’s writing didn’t omit anyone in the orchestra; they all were able to demonstrate their consummate ability. 

There are several main characters in this ballet which, as I said, follows Bram Stoker’s novel very carefully. The ballet begins with Harker reliving his journey to Transylvania in a dream. He is tormented by three vampire maidens, Cara Cooper, Dana Benton, and Sayaka Karasugi.  All three executed exquisite port de bras. Harker, who was danced by Viacheslav Buchkovskiy, sets off for the region of Transylvania, where he has dealings with Count Dracula’s purchase of land in England. He is accompanied on his journey by Mina, danced by Sharon Wehner, and Dr. Van Helsing, danced by Gregory Gonzales. Harker witnesses a sacrificial ceremony conducted by the villagers which protects them from the dangers that threaten on All Souls Night. And from there, the story continues with all of the dancers: Jesse Marks as the insane Renfield, Christopher Ellis as Quincy, Alexei Tyukov as Arthur, and last but certainly not least, Maria Mosina as Lucy. One by one the characters are placed in a trance by Dracula. By his bite, he transforms Lucy forever into one of the undead. His main conquest is Mina, who manages to survive Dracula’s unspeakable horror. These dancers are so artistic in their depiction of emotions and drama that they truly create another world. And it is a world where the remarkable dancer, Igor Vassine as Dracula, rules with arrogance, terror, and an epicene sensuality. His haughty confidence is unmistakable, and he relies on his supernatural ability to suspend time – as in the slow-motion sequence in the Grand Hotel – to put all of those who interfere with his pursuit of Mina into a state of suspended animation. Igor Vassine slithered and coiled across the stage, sometimes reminding us of an evil viper that lives in permanent darkness and soil. And, likewise, Jesse Marks, who danced Renfield, and picked flies and blood off the floor, licking his hands greedily. Jesse Marks did an amazing pas de deux with Sharon Wehner as Mina, where he was in a straitjacket and could not use his arms. But he rolled Sharon Wehner across his back, lifting her from the floor, as he tried to warn her of the evils of Dracula and of Dracula’s pursuit of her, but each time failing because of his insanity. His earnestness and despair were absolutely palpable. And that is one of the aspects that make the Colorado Ballet so enthralling to watch. Their sense of drama allows every single dancer in the company to portray their character with great power. It does not matter whether they are dancing Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, Eventually, or The Nutcracker. This is one of the best ballet companies in the United States, if not the best. In my reviews, I have never said this before, but it certainly does no harm that every single female dancer is a raving beauty, and all of the male dancers are dashing. But I hasten to point out, that their dancing ability and their sense of drama far surpasses their physical attributes. 

Gregory K. Gonzales is the guest artist for this production of Dracula. He has spent the large majority of his career with the Colorado Ballet is a principal dancer and Choreographer in Residence. His portrayal of Van Helsing was desperate and frantic in his challenge to keep Mina, Harker, Arthur, and Quincy from falling under the spell of the evil Count. He has already lost Lucy, and is even more determined to save the others. Maria Mosina as Lucy, covered in blood in a terrifying scene, lures a small child to her death. Mosina always has power on stage, no matter what role she dances. 

I would encourage all of you who love ballet to support this company. And I would encourage all of you who have never seen a ballet to attend a performance because you will be amazed. The expenses of a ballet company are considerable. A pair of ballet shoes can be $75 and may last for only one performance. Typically, the Colorado Ballet spends $100,000 a year on shoes. Insurance, design royalties, and cleaning of costumes can be as high as $30,000-$90,000. The fake blood used in Dracula costs $500 per performance. If you attend the performance, you will clearly see that all of these costs are validated and necessary. Every individual in this company is worth every cent. 

I have seen ballet companies in Chicago and New York. Trust me. We are unbelievably fortunate to have this ballet company with these individuals in Denver.

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