strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I still have a veeerryy long list of book, film and TV reviews to write up, and maybe I'll get to some of those later today. But first, I want to write about the thing I saw last night while it's all fresh in my mind, and that is a contemporary dance production of Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company. As ever for these things, my companion for the evening was the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and of course for both of us the obvious comparator was the recent ballet version by David Nixon which we also saw together at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. We were in no doubt that both were amazing, but found it much harder to decide which we thought was best. In the end, obviously, you don't have to decide (though it's a fun and often quite useful way to figure out what you think of two different performances individually) - you can have both! But their takes on the story certainly were different, and would appeal to different states of mind.

Where the ballet was very romantic, with a heavy emphasis on unfulfilled longing, last night's version was much more brutal, visceral and ghoulish. As it happens, both chose to open with scenes featuring Dracula on his own, introducing their take on the character, and the contrast between those two scenes encapsulates the difference very nicely. Ballet!Dracula rose smoothly from his coffin in a cloud of mist, completely naked apart from a very small pouch, and strode with perfect poise and balance away from the audience and out through a dark Gothic doorway at the back of the stage. It was basically all about the eroticisation of a supernaturally-powerful male body. Dance!Dracula, clothed in a slightly industrial-looking cropped-sleeved black shirt and trousers, instead performed a number which had him at times revelling similarly in his supernatural strength and power, but at others lapsing into the shambolic zombie-like movements of a reanimated corpse. Meanwhile, strong side-lighting cast dramatic highlights and shadows across his face and limbs, emphasising his non-human nature as a spectral creature of the night.

So, a very different take on the character which persisted and developed throughout the show. Ballet!Dracula was tormented by his own bloodlust, approached his victims like a fairy-tale prince, and had a (cheap, stretch-velvet) billowing cape which he used to convey the batlike side of his nature. Dance!Dracula preferred a trench-coat, didn't muck about when attacking his victims, and conveyed his bestiality rather through snarls and contortions. And obviously the same logic and feel applied throughout the show - for example, in the contrast between the ballet version of the vampire brides, who moved powerfully yet fluidly in fine billowing white robes, and the contemporary dance versions, who did much more snarling and clawing and wore ragged blood-stained dresses (with the obvious implication being that they were too monstrous and inhuman to care about the stains). In fact, there was a lot more blood all round in the dance version. I'm pretty sure we never saw any in the ballet - it was all allusive and impressionistic. But in the dance, punches were thrown, victims bitten and stakes hammered home, all to distinctly gory effect.

Both productions definitely maxed out on the Gothic aesthetic, with wrought-iron arches, dry ice, and a very great deal of black. But this one played around a little more with its temporal setting. The music used was from various different eras, ranging from the baroque to the modernist, while although the costumes centred around the Victorian / Edwardian, they nodded towards something quite modern for Lucy and Mina, and (along with the music) also switched into the early 20th-century jazz era for some scenes involving the vampires. The first of these happened when Dracula caught Jonathan Harker with his brides in the castle, whereupon the audience of course expects anger and fighting, but this was actually played out by the brides handing Dracula a top hat and cane, and him dancing to what I've worked out this morning was Arthur Collins' 1905 hit The Preacher and the Bear, while Jonathan cowered in the corner. This sounds kind of ridiculous, and I wasn't quite sure about it myself at first. But it did work as a way to convey the evil of Dracula - not just attacking his guest, but toying with him via the juxtaposition between the jolly song and his own incongruously brutal appearance, and through lyrics which make it apparent that he treats hunting his human victims as a game. And it really paid off in the second half, during Dracula's attack on Lucy, when the three vampire brides could be seen dancing the Charleston in the background. By that time, the motif had really sunk in, so that the spectre of these ghoulish creatures dancing a jazz number as Lucy died horribly had become incredibly effective and properly unsettling.

There were all sorts of other similarly clever, creative touches along the way as well. Like in the scene where the team of vampire hunters find Dracula's boxes of earth in the cellars of Carfax and crumble holy communion wafers into them. Here, the three vampire brides crouched at the corners of the stage - not really 'there' in story terms, but present all the same - winding up mechanical rats and letting them loose to run across the floor. As with the jazz dancing, on paper that sounds too silly to work, but it really did, conveying the feel of a dank and creepy cellar alive with vermin beautifully. Also very good was the handling of chase scenes, which were generally conveyed by on-the-spot running which was somehow done so effectively that you almost forgot that it was on the spot, and simply embraced the sense of movement. This was done for the carriage ride taking Jonathan to Dracula's castle in the first half, and Dracula's retreat back home with the vampire-hunters on his tail at the end - no mucking about with scenes on trains or boats here, but just a straightforward on-the-spot foot-chase, which nonetheless managed to stand effectively for an epic journey through the night across Europe. In both cases, wolf-headed dancers also appeared at certain points to run alongside the carriage or the vampire Count, helping to build the sensation of a high-speed chase in the same way that Roman artists would put in eagles or hares to show that a person was moving quickly.

Then at the end, the eventual fate of the brides was to be captured by a vampire-hunter each and strung up on the wrought-iron Gothic arches of Dracula's castle, in a way which visually resembled both the impaled victims of the real Vlad III Dracula, and (as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out) the three figures of the Biblical crucifixion scene. Dracula himself, meanwhile, succumbed to the wiles of Mina, who embroiled him into an increasingly-frantic dance as the sun rose, so that eventually he could not escape its rays and crumpled defeated onto the floor. I always have a lot of time for Dracula productions which let Mina herself kill him (as for example in the version we saw at Kirkstall Abbey last summer the one I saw in Belfast in 2005 and of course the original 1922 Nosferatu), but with or without that the ending of last night's performance was certainly stronger than the ballet version, which I noted at the time slipped into a bit of an anti-climax after its wonderful love-duet between Dracula and Mina.

As for this production's take on the story, what I've already said above will indicate that it included some departures from the novel, but on the whole it was pretty true to the outlines of Stoker's novel. This is of course for largely the same reason as the ballet version - both stories were told silently through the medium of dance, so they relied on their audience knowing the basic story already, and any major departures from the original would be confusing. Like the ballet, though, it only had a limited time to get its story across, so some trimming was necessary. The Demeter was in this time (and was very well done), as was an excellent montage of vampire!Lucy feeding on little children, but Renfield and the asylum were out, and perhaps most surprisingly of all there was also no identifiable Van Helsing figure. Of course, this being a silent drama, none of the characters had in-story names, but the vampire-hunters were represented by three men - a doctor, a priest and a flamboyant wealthy gentleman, all of whom were suitors of Lucy and all of whom took a more or less equal role in the business of vampire-despatching. Obviously, the priest was the one whipping out crosses and communion wafers, while the other two map fairly closely to Dr. Seward and Lord Godalming, but Van Helsing was neither a priest nor a suitor, and also definitely was an outsider from the point of view of the rest of the group.

The dance style itself sometimes came quite close to ballet, including things like male-female duets in which the male dancer does a lot of lifting and supporting of the female dancer, dancing on pointed toes, etc. But there was a lot else in there this time - jazz-dancing moves, as I've mentioned, gypsy dances in a village on the way to the castle, ballroom-style dancing and all sorts of leaps and contortions which I suppose come under the general heading of modern dance. Like the ballet version we saw, this one also took advantage of the strength of its male lead to show the famous scene in which Dracula crawls head-first down the wall of his castle - but although it was clever and impressive, in all honesty this was something which the ballet version did better, both in terms of how the scene had been set up and the actual execution of the move. I think that is probably representative of the general difference between the two as performances, actually. I found myself more often wide-eyed in wonder at the technical skills and grace of the ballet performers than I did the contemporary dancers. But that is simply a matter of different genres, really, and both very definitely deployed the capabilities and motifs of their formats very well indeed to tell the sorts of stories they wanted to tell.

In the end, I mainly just want to see both of them again, which unfortunately isn't possible for live performances. I missed certain aspects of the ballet in last night's contemporary dance version - especially the homoerotic tension between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, and the vampire brides' sheer exuberance in their own femininity and vampirism. But I did enjoy the visceral brutality of this performance, and the clever creative touches like the mechanical rats and the impaled / crucified brides, while its Lucy was absolutely amazing and did get the exuberant enjoyment of her own vampirism which had rested more with the brides in the ballet. The romantic emphasis of the ballet probably reflects not only the tendencies of the genre (for all that it certainly pushed the boundaries of what ballet does very hard indeed), but also the fact that it was first developed in the 1990s, in the wake of Bram Stoker's Dracula with its Mina / Dracula love-story. By contrast, the Mark Bruce Company version is more obviously a product of the early 21st century, and reflects the grungy, visceral aesthetic which horror films have taken on in the interim (Hammer's The Woman in Black springs to mind, for example). I have room in my heart for both - though not, I should stress, for Bram Stoker's Dracula itself, which is Just Rubbish.

I included a trailer video of the ballet version in my previous review, so I shall finish by doing the same here for the Mark Bruce version:


See it if you possibly can.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this on Tuesday evening with notorious Dracula-enabler [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, and it was absolutely captivating. I'm not a big ballet-goer - in fact, I think the last live ballet I went to was a performance of The Nutcracker at the Birmingham Hippodrome with my mother during my mid- to late-teens. But when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out that this was on, recommended it highly based on having seen it previously, and suggested that we go along, I didn't take much persuading. Well, let's be honest, I'll find time for pretty much anything with 'Dracula' in the title right now. But I could see straight away how a ballet version of the story would have the potential to really bring out its fantasy, romance and visual spectacle - and I was not disappointed.

Ballet dancers, of course, can move in ways which most human beings cannot, and this is a great boon when playing supernatural characters. You can take for granted incredible feats of strength and agility and suitably animalistic movements on the part of all the vampire characters - Dracula, his three brides, and a transformed Lucy. More deliberately supernatural, and different from the human characters in this ballet or the supernatural ones in other dramatic performances, were two particular feats performed by Dracula himself - gliding side-ways, almost as though floating, and literally crawling out of a window head-first, exactly as described in the book. The latter can briefly be seen in this trailer video (at 0:25), which indeed is worth watching in full (it's only 1m15s long) for a good sense of the general splendour of the performance:


It was perfectly clear how both were done - the former by using the tight scuttling movement that ballet-dancers do (I don't know the technical term) while his feet were hidden below the length of his cloak, and the latter by supporting himself with powerful arm-muscles on two vertical bars running down either side of the 'window', while hooking onto the horizontal dividers of the frame with his feet. But still! I couldn't dream of doing either, and seeing another human being right in front of my eyes deploying what (to me) were effectively supernatural powers was an amazing experience. In these days of CGI special effects, it's easy to become blasé about seeing human beings doing apparently-impossible things, so that it becomes hard to relate to the combined fascination and repulsion which Stoker's characters experience on encounters with vampires. But seeing such physical feats being performed live gave a much more powerful sense of the strangeness of difference than I think any screen-trickery could ever quite manage.

Those weren't the only places where the strengths of ballet as a medium for story-telling were well-deployed, either. Other simple yet clever examples included the scenes where Dracula physically manipulated human characters like marionettes to represent hypnotically bending them to his will, or where Renfield's mental torment was conveyed through powerful contortions - not a case of supernatural movement this time, but another good use of a ballet dancer's exceptional physical capabilities to convey difference. And in a context where all of the characters were flowing and floating around the stage in a rather surreal fashion all the time anyway, and there was no dialogue, it also seemed very natural to convey one character's thoughts about another by having them appear at a slight distance. This was how we first met Mina, for example - as a 'vision' in a white dress dancing lightly across a corner of the stage, prompted by Jonathan's longing for her while he is imprisoned in Dracula's castle.

And oh, how well ballet conveys longing and yearning of all kinds! The absolute high-light of the piece was a love-duet between Dracula and Mina in the second half, which seemed to go on for ever, yet which I still wanted never to stop at all. But the early scenes in Dracula's castle of course offer lots of scope for homoerotic longing, too - "This man belongs to me!" and so on. There was some great business between Dracula and Jonathan Harker, where Jonathan would be sitting at a desk studying legal documents, with Dracula hanging over his shoulder on the brink of succumbing to the urge to bite him - but then Jonathan would notice and Dracula would shift smoothly into pointing out something on the page in front of him. Indeed, they had a proper male-male duet too, with Dracula guiding and steering Jonathan's movements in one of his mind-control sequences. That's something which ballet as a format, with all those finely-toned male bodies, has the potential to do incredibly well, and yet of course isn't common in classical ballet AT ALL because of the prevalent social mores at the time when most of it was developed. And much the same could be said for the vampire brides, where the strength of the dancers was used to show them as casually powerful, in complete command of their own bodies, and enjoying the hell out of playing around with a helpless Jonathan Harker. Sure, OK, so Dracula was always going to turn up at the end and tell them to quit it, but they got an extended scene of potent, jubilant femininity before that - a world away from the fragile characters female ballet-dancers are usually asked to play, and quite the most exuberant vampire brides I think I've ever seen.

As for how this ballet related to other tellings of the Dracula story, it largely follows the contours of the book, although it is inevitably impressionistic given the relatively short running-time (c. 1h 45m of stage time), emphasis on character moments and dramatic confrontations, and absence of dialogue. The perpetual dilemmas about where Lucy, Mina, Seward, Holmwood etc all live in relation to Dracula's castle become largely irrelevant when no-one in the story is speaking words like 'Whitby', 'London', 'Carlstadt' or whatever. Possibly Dracula travels to wherever-it-is by ship - but equally, the lashing wind and water which we hear may just be a storm outside Lucy's drawing-room window. It doesn't really matter. On this impressionistic level, the only identifiable 'departure' from the book was a party held to celebrate Lucy's engagement to Arthur Holmwood (at which she shockingly turns up on Dracula's arm!), but since that allowed for some very nice formal dancing scenes which gave roles to members of the company who otherwise wouldn't have been in the production at all, it seemed like a good inclusion.

The sets were probably closest to the 1931 Universal Dracula, in that they were neither realistic nor entirely abstract, so matched its expressionistic spirit. They were certainly really good, anyway - lots of broken castles and abbeys, but also lavish ballrooms and bedrooms, and an excellent carriage pulled through clouds of dry ice by burning-eyed horses. There are quite a few traceable footprints of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) here too - e.g. in Dracula's shoulder-length hair, the very Elizabethan-looking collar worn by Lucy after her transformation, the fact that Dracula and Mina's story is cast as a romance (though thankfully without any hints at reincarnation), and the portrayal of Seward as morphine addict ([livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan - I checked that one, and this is indeed where it comes from). But there was a touch of the rattish Nosferatu to Dracula's look as well, and of course the absence of spoken dialogue inevitably recalls the format of the 1922 movie.

Because nothing is perfect, I do have to note here that after the highlight which was Dracula and Mina's love-duet, the dancing did seem to fall into a bit of an anti-climax, especially as the team of vampire hunters dashed around the stage in search of Dracula with no obvious sense of purpose to their movements. And while the costumes were generally amazing (especially a long beaded frock-coat worn by Dracula to Lucy's engagement party), his standard attire of a long high-collared crushed-velvet cloak unfortunately looked very much like it had come from a cheap fancy-dress shop. But all in all, this really was a fantastic performance and a great night out. If you ever get the chance to see it, grab it with both hands.

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strange_complex: (Me Cornucopia)
Pre-Wendyhouse selfieI went out to Wendyhouse last night for the first time in about two years. The least appalling selfie which I took before going out is on the right, but it is physically quite difficult to press the right button on my phone-camera without dropping it or causing massive camera-shake, so I struggled to get one which showed what I was wearing without also capturing an annoyed and frustrated expression.

The Gentlemen of Leeds were obviously well-primed to make me feel good about myself once I reached the club, though, as I got several spontaneous and very charming compliments, all of which successfully steered well clear of Creepytown:
  • One made a special point of saying that he had liked my dancing. Always nice to hear.
  • Another told me that my outfit looked very expensive. In Yorkshire, this sort of comment can sometimes be code for "Well, you're a bit up yourself, aren't you?", so I quickly denied anything of the sort, but it turned out that he meant it in a very genuine "You look like a million dollars" sort of way.
  • And a third literally walked up to me, tapped me on the arm and said "Excuse me, would you like to dance?", which I didn't think was a phrase familiar to the Youth of Today. Furthermore, when I said that actually I had been just about to go and sit down for a while because my feet were killing me (which was true), he accepted that perfectly happily, pointed out the area of the dancefloor where I could find him if I changed my mind later, and walked away. Which shouldn't be a rare and noteworthy experience for a single woman in a nightclub, but sadly it very much is. If only all chaps would follow the same approach.
As for that bit about my feet killing me, I didn't understand why that was at the time. I thought the pair of boots I'd worn were trustworthy and comfortable, but by about half-way through the evening my toes and the balls of my feet were screaming in pain, and the dancing which I'd been complimented on earlier in the night had become more or less impossible to do. I wondered if maybe it was because I've just become even less used to wearing raised heels than I was last time I wore them, but when I got home into a properly-lit environment and took them off I discovered the truth:

Sad remnants Alas for the Shiny Boots of shininess They have danced their last

That mouldy-looking grey dust stuff on the floor all around them is the remains of whatever substance used once to fill the platform soles - some kind of synthetic foam-type material, I assume. I see how that would be a good filling for platform soles in the short term, as it would keep the boots relatively light compared to (say) wood, resin or plastic, in turn making them nicer to wear and move around in. But it has obviously degenerated with age since I bought the boots ten years ago, and last night was the night when it finally gave up the ghost, collapsed in on itself and began pouring out of the sides of the soles.

This means I spent half the night with the balls of my feet supported by the sorry remnants of an empty shell, rather than a nice solid platform. But because the heels remained solid and steadfast throughout, my feet were tipped forward much more than they were supposed to be, so it's no wonder that my toes hurt and the heels seemed so much higher than I'm used to than I was expecting. Today, the backs of my calves are aching rather for the same reason, and sadly the boots are clearly a total write-off.

Alas and alack for what were once a truly faithful pair of dance-floor companions. :-(

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strange_complex: (Fred Astaire flying)
10. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists (2012), dir. Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt

I saw this in Bristol while visiting [livejournal.com profile] hollyione and her family - which seemed very appropriate, given that that is the home of Aardman Animations. Ever down with da kids, it was my first ever viewing of a (modern) 3D film - which was much as I expected it to be, really. Fun, novel and perfectly effective, but I wouldn't say it added enormous amounts to the experience of watching the film. I think seeing a live-action film in 3D for the first time will be quite a different experience from seeing an animated one - and in fact maybe it is something that's better-suited to animated films anyway. But I'm glad I've got some idea of what it's all about now, and I'm sure I will get round to a live-action equivalent sooner or later.

The film itself was good stuff, packed with silliness, steampunkery and deliberate anachronisms, and including a particularly enjoyable turn from a plotting, scheming, Samurai sword-wielding Queen Victoria, lots of great jokes in the background (e.g. a dentist's surgery owned by one D.K. Ying), and a super-intelligent chimpanzee owned by Charles Darwin who talks by using flash-cards. It's heavily reliant on tropes and clichés, only some of which it really challenges, but I guess that's about all I was expecting from a light-hearted child-oriented comedy. I assume that a sequel is planned, as there was a running joke throughout about none of the pirates realising that one of their number was very obviously a woman in a bad fake beard which was never resolved. I'll see it if I get the opportunity, but probably won't go out of my way to do so.


11. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves

I saw this two years ago at the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend, absolutely loved it, and bought it on DVD soon afterwards. So when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was round at mine recently and we wanted something to watch, it was readily available, and seemed the obvious suggestion, given our shared appreciation of both vintage British horror films and its star, the delectable Ian Ogilvy. I don't think I have too much more to say about it beyond what I wrote last time, but it remains a real classic, boasting a winning combination of charming period detail, a genuinely compelling story, strong character-driven dramatic tensions and a really first-rate cast. 'Twas a pleasure to watch it, too, with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, who appreciated its finer features just as much as I did, and also very impressively worked out exactly how the story would resolve from a few fairly minor clues, long in advance of the actual denouement. This is definitely one I will keep coming back to, I think.


12. Ziegfeld Follies (1946), multiple directors

Finally, I saw this on the May Day bank holiday Monday, again in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. It's kind of at once both the glorious apogee and the dying gasp of the musical variety theatre show genre of vintage films. Wikipedia relates how the original Ziegfeld Follies were a series of real-life Broadway stage shows, inspired of course by the Parisian Folies Bergères, which ran from 1907 to 1931. This film, made after Ziegfeld himself had died, brings that show to the big screen - and in full technicolor. But while there are many films from the 1920s and 1930s which essentially import the theatrical song-and-dance show format into the cinema, most of them make at least some effort to tie the big numbers together with some kind of rudimentary plot. This one? Didn't bother. There was an opening vignette of the great Ziegfeld up in heaven, imagining what it would be like to produce one last show, but after that it was just dance number after song after comedy sketch, without even returning to Ziegfeld saying how marvellous it had all been at the end. It was simply a big-screen presentation of the same sorts of acts which (presumably) featured in the original show.

But what a spectacle, though! The sweeping ball-gowns! The fairy-tale sets! The hair-pieces! The bubble-machines! The underwater synchronised swimming! The horses with their hooves covered in glitter! And an all-start line-up including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer. In fact, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire do a duet at one point, which includes the two of them waltzing together - surely a thing few other films can offer. On the whole, I could have done without the comedy sketches in between the songs and the dances - although one about what it'll be like when television takes off was certainly very interesting in terms of revealing cinema's anxieties about the competition. It was all based around a spoof of a show sponsored by 'Guzzler's Gin', whose host kept on slugging back the stuff to his obvious displeasure, while getting increasingly pickled and insisting that it is 'a good, smooth drink'. The songs and dances, though - they could not have been any more extravagant and spectacular if they had been staged on a set made of pure diamonds.

But that's what I mean about it being both apogee and dying gasp. This genre really belongs to the 1930s, when it offered a form of escapism from the depression, and it has very obviously been taken to its logical extreme in this film. There is just nowhere else left to go. Plus, it was 1946! There'd just been a war - cities had been ravaged and men were returning broken from the trenches. People in Europe had already started making sombre black-and-white films about their experiences, and a huge musical song-and-dance extravaganza looks embarrassingly out of place next to all that, even at a distance of nearly 70 years. It was definitely time to hang up those dancing shoes by the time this film was made - but nonetheless I'm glad that the final waltz was captured for posterity in all its colourful glory.

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