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 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 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.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.