United Kingdom Northern Ballet’s Dracula: Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon and broadcast live from Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre to Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 31.10.2019. (JPr)
Music (orchestrated by John Longstaff) from Alfred Schnittke, Rachmaninoff, Arvo Pärt and Michael Daugherty
Choreography, Direction & Costume design – David Nixon OBE
Set designer – Ali Allen
Lighting designer – Tim Mitchell
Dracula – Javier Torres
Old Dracula – Riku Ito
Mina Murray – Abigail Prudames
Lucy Westenra – Antoinette Brooks-Daw
Jonathan Harker – Lorenzo Trossello
Renfield – Kevin Poeung
Van Helsing – Ashley Dixon
Dr John Seward – Joseph Taylor
Arthur Holmwood – Matthew Koon
Brides of Dracula – Rachael Gillespie, Sarah Chun & Minju Kang
I am not sure I have ever seen a performance by Northern Ballet before and watching their absorbing production of Dracula there is much I must have missed over the years that I would have equally enjoyed. In the eponymous role was Premier Dancer Javier Torres who was originally from Cuba. He is a Northern Ballet stalwart and seems the exciting type of dancer who I would have enjoyed seeing in many other roles. In an interval pre-recorded profile Torres succinctly summed up what all dancers – whether contemporary or classical – should do: ‘One of the most difficult things to get as a dancer is, I think, that connection to the audience. You can be an amazing dancer, you can do amazing tricks, amazing jumps and turns, but if you do not connect with the audience your job is, kind of, pointless.’ How true is that: over my lifetime the list of technically proficient dancers who have shown that much-vaunted connection with the audience – like Torres – is significantly smaller than that of those who never do.
David Nixon’s Dracula has been around for some time and was originally created in 2005. His two acts together last only a little over ninety minutes so there is a cinematic approach to his version of Bram Stoker’s seminal 1897 novel which has spawned numerous films. Indeed F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and Tod Browning 1931 Dracula are obviously Nixon influences. Torres’s charismatic portrayal of the Count is undoubtedly based more on Bela Lugosi’s suavity than the more lugubrious – and wooden – Christopher Lee of 1950s and 60s Hammer fame. Some knowledge of this origin story from the novel or one of the films would be good otherwise you might find yourself a little confused as – with a few narrative leaps and changes – Nixon races through Jonathan Harker’s arrival in Transylvania (courtesy of a carriage drawn by two ‘horses of the night’), his attempted seduction by Dracula and his three – strangely appealing – brides, followed by the Count sailing to England in pursuit of Harker’s fiancée, Mina. Eventually because he is initially hampered in his pursuit of Mina, Dracula takes his revenge out on her best friend, Lucy, and drains her blood. Enter famed vampire hunter Van Helsing (Ashley Dixon) who for the rest of the story is in pursuit of Dracula along with Dr John Seward (Joseph Taylor) and Lucy’s suitor, Arthur Holmwood (Matthew Koon). Van Helsing eventually dispatches him (spoiler alert!) with the sunlight of a new dawn which also releases Mina from Dracula’s influence to which she had eventually succumbed.
Strangely for a complicated story swiftly told there are still some longueurs, especially at the start getting Old Dracula (a splendidly writhing Riku Ito) into his younger self. Then there is our introduction to insect-eating Renfield, the most troubled of the drug addicted Dr Seward’s patients in his asylum. This scene goes on too long and his connection to Dracula is not particularly clear at this point despite allowing Kevin Poeung an engrossingly tortured vignette. The music (orchestrated by John Longstaff) is a potent and expressive soundtrack mashing up Alfred Schnittke’s post-modernist profundity with some Rachmaninoff, Arvo Pärt and Michael Daugherty. A highlight is when the melodic minimalism of Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ emerges from all the Schnittke angst for the Act II Dracula and Mina bedroom duet where Nixon appears to pay homage to Kenneth MacMillan. This builds and builds through balances and an erotic intertwining of limbs as ‘predator’ and ‘prey’ sensuously fall under each other’s spell and give into animalistic desires. Dracula is sated and Mina is left exsanguinated with legs akimbo.
I was gripped throughout by the sexual tension of Nixon’s MacMillanesque neoclassicism whether it was between Harker and the Brides, or Dracula with Harker, Lucy or Mina. Leeds Playhouse’s refurbished Quarry Theatre seems to have an intimacy all its own that brings the audience into unusually close proximity to the performers. This was heightened by Ross MacGibbon’s closeup camera work for the screen which had characters often staring down the lens.
Overall it was a very accomplished company achievement and even if some of the roles are slightly underdeveloped – given the shortish running time – everyone brought their characters to life. They appeared to be all technically gifted and talented dance-actors: Rachel Gillespie, Sarah Chung and Minju Kang were ideal as the sexually rapacious Brides; Antoinette Brooks-Daw’s Lucy began all prim and proper and descended into erotomania; Abigail Prudames’s Mina starts off demure and then become insatiable for Dracula towards the end; Lorenzo Trosello’s Jonathan Harker is rather guileless on his Transylvanian sojourn and Nixon has him remain a rather confused presence throughout.
Best of a strong ensemble was Javier Torres whose portrayal as the infamous bloodsucker was the very epitome of ancient evil. Often as Torres brandished his cloak I was absolutely convinced they could be bat wings. His Dracula was clearly someone who was capable of being inhumanly cruel most of the time, but Nixon gives him just enough human emotion for him to be genuinely conflicted about Mina and for the audience to be drawn into their somewhat-perverted ‘love’ story. Torres did what he said he wanted to do, and I felt the ‘connection’ he wanted and hopefully this was the same for the audience in the Quarry Theatre, as well as, everyone watching live in cinemas.
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