PBT dancers give 'Dracula' some bite

Dance Review

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A lot has happened since Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre last presented "Dracula" in 2004. In the meantime, the count from Wallachia has been challenged (at least temporarily) by a more romantic and sensitive Edward of "Twilight" fame.

No matter -- it seems that people can't get enough of vampires.

But it appears that PBT has had enough of its orchestra. For the first time in four presentations since the ballet premiered here in 1997, the company elected to go with a recorded accompaniment. But the score by John Lanchberry, inspired by the luscious abandon of composer Franz Liszt and which sounds far better live, had too many key musical segments that simply faded away. Friday night's enthusiastic audience was left without a cue as to when to applaud. And being without a conductor to smooth transitions left the production with awkward gaps, sapping energy away from the full impact of the ballet.

But then, this was always a flawed dynamo of a production. Houston Ballet's now-retired Ben Stevenson was, for a time, the only choreographer who put his own contemporary lens on traditional full-length ballets. Recognizing his ability, PBT brought in "Cinderella," then co-produced "Dracula" and "Cleopatra" with the Texas company.

"Dracula" could be seen as a Cliff Notes version of the Bram Stoker tale, tapping the most recognizable images of the familiar story and transferring them to the stage -- a foggy crypt with the ubiquitous flying vampire and his bevy of brides, a peasant village with a careening stagecoach driven by a crazed, flailing Renfield and, in a diversion, the sprawling castle bedroom, where Dracula's spectacular fate is sealed with the help of a giant chandelier and, of course, some very large windows.

As with his other ballets, the strength of Mr. Stevenson's "Dracula" is in the production values, his vision bolstered by Thomas Boyd's brooding scenic design and Judanna Lynn's costumes.

Yet, given such an iconic character as Dracula, this production is still too mindful of other traditional ballets but with an inferior approach to the choreography. Dracula's brides are so numerous that they resemble the Wilis in "Giselle," although they play more with their gauzy gowns (magically lit by Christina Giannelli) than execute choreography. The peasant village could be viewed as the dark side of "Coppelia," although the inclusion of Maypole and stick dances tread more on Tamburitzan territory.

Although the choreography itself is the weak link, there were numerous performers who rose above the material to satisfy dance fans in the audience.

As the "Coppelia" ballet is mostly about Swanhilda and Franz, the dance interest in "Dracula" is mostly given over to Svetlana and Frederick.

The petite Alexandra Kochis, sporting a black wig, looked larger than life as the piquant Svetlana, adding this role to a recent series of memorable portrayals. Christopher Budzynski (Frederick) was in fine form, his aerial jumps looking charismatic and his turns dizzyingly effortless.

After being bitten, Julia Erickson (Flora) entered the village, fantastical as a seemingly broken rag doll and making a remarkable transition into a luxuriously evil bride. While Nurlan Abougaliev (Dracula) looked unusually restrained (he could easily have opted for an over-the-top silent screen villain), Makoto Ono came out of his shell as the certifiable sidekick Renfield, almost in the mold of such former notables as Willy Shives and Daisuke Takeuchi.

It's a good thing they were all there at the end, adding human pyrotechnics to one of the most exciting spectacles in the usually prim and proper world of ballet.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net . She blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com .


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