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Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011

A 'Dracula' to Die For at Milwaukee Ballet

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Michael Pink makes fine use of ballet traditions to expose the heart of Bram Stoker's late-Romantic masterpiece, Dracula. The opening-night performance, with a wonderful score by Philip Feeney and first-rate designs by Lez Brotherston and Paul Pyant, was met with well-deserved cheers from a packed house at the Marcus Center. When this 15-year-old ballet was performed in Milwaukee in 2005, some of the audience wasn't prepared for its blood lust, I'm told. Clearly, we are ready for it now.

It's a sad thought that we had to wait years to see it again. Certainly in David Hovhannisyan, and quite possibly in Joshua Reynolds (I haven't seen him dance the role), Milwaukee has a sublime Dracula. On opening night, the other major roles were beautifully danced by Valerie Harmon (as Mina), Ryan Martin (Harker), Luz San Miguel (Lucy) and Petr Zahradnicek (Renfield). If I'm more likely to dream of Hovhannisyan, it's because Pink keeps the others on a (mostly) human scale, despite exceedingly difficult choreography. The Count is otherworldly, an animal (several, actually), dead but physically powerful, disturbingly erotic and, as embodied by Hovhannisyan, well, to un-die for.

The drop-dead gorgeous duet for Dracula and Harker at the climax of Act One left me and the stranger beside me gasping, "Wow, unbelievable!" It's unsurpassed in the show, and it follows on the heels of another knockout passage in which Harker is seduced by three tattered vampire brides. But Pink's excellent ideas keep coming.

The British class system is smartly skewered: Dancer Barry Molina gave a fine debut performance as a bellboy who forgets his place, and the blood-smeared undead dance an echo of an earlier high-society gavotte. The sometimes-complicit colonization of women by men is another subject. Ballet's traditional steps serve these themes because ballet was built on similar assumptions regarding class and gender. Oh, yes, and on the overwhelming passion to know the most intense feelings—to grasp divinity and, in some sense, to become divine—and the attendant dangers, cost, losses and forces that work to dull imagination and kill possibility.
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