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N.C. Dance Theatre looks beyond the monster

Choreographer gets to the repressed desires and passions inside Bram Stoker's 'Dracula.'

Steven Brown
The Charlotte Observer

When the idea arose of building a ballet from the world's best-known vampire tale, choreographer Mark Godden figured he had a handle on the story.

"I just thought, Dracula - bogeyman," he says. "I took it on face value - that this was great fodder for horror flicks, for scaring the bewidgets out of people."

Then Godden went back to the source - Bram Stoker's novel. He looked into how its admirers interpreted the book and its characters - not just the undead Transylvanian count, but the two women who gravitate toward him, Lucy Westenraa and Mina Murray.

"I found it was a wonderful novel about all these characters and their repressed desires and their passions," Godden says.

His incarnation of them takes over the Knight Theater on Friday, when N.C. Dance Theatre opens its season with Godden's "Dracula."

Godden has a knack for offering new looks at familiar stories. In "Constructing Juliet," which NCDT has featured recently, he transforms "Romeo and Juliet" by peering into the workings of Juliet's family. The beginning is offbeat. But what unfolds is as lush and powerful as the Tchaikovsky music that drives it.

While "Constructing Juliet" runs 20 minutes or so, "Dracula" is full-length. Godden again draws on great orchestral music: stormy, poetic and sometimes macabre symphonies of Gustav Mahler.

Godden see his "Dracula" - created for a Canadian company in 1997 - as rooted equally in Stoker's novel and traditional classical ballet.

On a superficial level, he says, ballet deals in "beautiful dance between two people or 12 people." So his job includes taking advantage of the dancers' poetry and technique. At the same time, "we're trying to make beautiful images that stand for something."

That brings him back to Stoker's characters and the resonance they hold for viewers. Dracula, Godden says, is "a scion from the past," embodying humanity's primitive urges. Godden warms even more to the subject of the two leading women.

Lucy is an aristocrat who sequesters herself in her mansion, where three suitors vie for her attention. She's "a dynamo of extremes," Godden says. Her proper Victorian-era morals battle her inner urges set loose by the sight of Dracula.

"She has this world where she finds great comfort in her servants and her suitors," Godden says. "But at the same time, she feels claustrophobia and oppression from that.... I liked the idea of building this character who was bouncing back and forth between her own internal ambiguities. "

Lucy represents "the old ways," he says. Mina - who meets Dracula after her fiance visits his castle - is a different kind of woman. Unlike Lucy, she reads and develops her mind. Rather than existing simply to be wooed by men, she has capabilities of her own.

"It seems to me that that's part - not just of the modern woman, but the modern person," Godden says.

Links such as that between the characters and today's real-life people, he adds, give "Dracula" resonance beyond thrills and chills.

"These themes are there," Godden says, "and I wanted... to put them into the context of a classical ballet. I wanted to make sure those images are alive."

So he works from two vantage points in rehearsals. One moment, he focuses on ballet technique, coaching the dancers playing Lucy and Professor. Van Helsing - the vampire expert - on how he can lift her smoothly. In another spot, he guides Dracula on the exact pacing of taking Lucy in his arms, admiring her neck, then striking.

Creeping up behind Lucy earlier in the scene, Dustin Layton - one of two dancers taking turns as Dracula - aims at her a dark-eyed, ferocious gaze. It suggests that you wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley in Transylvania.

At NCDT, Godden says, he's reliving a discovery he made when he created "Dracula" for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

"There are real actors and actresses in our business," Godden says. "I have the great privilege... to be able to come into the studio and watch them up close. Their faces convey a whole world."