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'Dracula': Special effects, classic ballet and a bloodthirsty story

Published October 14, 2011 5:20 pm

Dance • The dance of the season includes high-flying movement, athletic lifts and a bevy of bitten brides.
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In the same way "The Nutcracker" signals the coming of Christmas, this year Ballet West's performance of "Dracula" heralds the approach of the not-so hallowed evening of All Saints Day — known to most of us as Halloween.

Dracula is one of the season's stock characters that visit our doorsteps and haunt our imaginations, and the bloodthirsty count takes center stage in choreographer Ben Stevenson's 1997 ballet.

It was quite an undertaking to bring the family-friendly production from the Houston Ballet to the Capitol Theatre stage. Houston's gargantuan Brown Theatre accommodates supersize sets, which had to be trimmed and adapted to fit the Capitol's smaller dimensions.

And then there are the special effects, which required hiring a team to oversee flying dancers across the stage, and even getting an OK from the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

"We've hired the Flying Foys, who do the big shows on Broadway and in Vegas," said production stage manager Michael McCulloch. "They send a person to measure and hang to the size of the stage — he'll train the crew so we can run the show."

Other effects include flash pots, smoke, haze and dry-ice fog, elements audiences might expect to see at arena rock concerts. "For the dancers' safety, we've had to bring in a special machine to measure the particulates in the air," McCulloch said. "Simple things like that are taking a lot of extra time."

Last month, when dancer Li Anlin came to town to stage "Dracula," the company seemed to be enjoying the process of developing their characters while learning the intricate choreography during rehearsals.

"This is very daring and very scary," Anlin said, "There are many different personalities to the characters. The dancers have to connect with the audience, or it's just another dance."

Anlin danced the part of Dracula's creepy sidekick Renfield, so he understands the complexity of Stevenson's ballet. "Ben is so good with taking the classical dance and classic story and adding to it," Anlin said. "There is a lot of movement, so no down time in this ballet."

Many of the male roles require building extra stamina. "The Act II pas de deux takes a lot of endurance," said principal artist Michael Bearden of his role as Frederick. "The best way to build the stamina is to run it daily."

Peasant scenes and a grand pas de deux will remind dance lovers of classics such as "Swan Lake" and "Giselle," with direct references to both. For example, instead of the well-known swans (or wilis), the corps fills the stage with Dracula's bitten brides.

The music for this Gothic tale also borrows from the Romantic period, in this case composer Franz Liszt. Orchestrator John Lanchberry drew upon Liszt and the way his music reflected the Romantics' fascination with the occult, the supernatural and virtuosity, said assistant conductor Jared Oaks.

After all, Liszt was something like a rock star of the era; women threw their jewels at him when he played, Oaks said. "People thought that if a person were so talented to produce great work, that must mean they had sold their soul to the devil to have such virtuosity."

At a rehearsal recently, Easton Smith, who dances the role of Dracula, demonstrated the dramatic chops he developed while performing in "Billy Elliott" on Broadway, while his partner Christiana Bennett's transformation from maiden to vampire seemed otherworldly.

Stevenson cut Bram Stoker's original story in order to add a psychosexual modern twist, not unlike the recent blockbuster movie "Black Swan." But this version is far more subtle, and younger members of audience might be more likely to make comparisons to the "Twilight" series. The Capitol Theatre might seem otherworldly, too, if audience members take up Ballet West's invitation to enter the spirit of the season ­— and the story — by attending the ballet in costume.

No matter how contemporary the special effects might seem, this ballet draws upon classic storytelling as it focuses on one old bat with staying power.

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Fangs for the memories

P Ballet West presents the Utah premiere of Ben Stevenson's "Dracula," set to a Franz Liszt score. "It's just a great story," says artistic director Adam Sklute. "It's full of special effects, but also full of classical ballet dancing. It's just scary and provocative enough for adult entertainment, and not too scary or too provocative for kids to see." The company invites audience members to come in costume, if they wish, for the Halloween-season run.

When • 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21-22, 26-29, 31 and Nov. 1; with 2 p.m. shows Oct. 22, 29 and 30.

Tickets • $18-$74 (plus facility fees) at http://www.ArtTix.org or 801-355-ARTS; special prices with purchase of "Nutcracker" tickets ($19-$130).

Learn more • For background about Bram Stoker's original tale, visit http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~emiller.

I want to take your blood

Donate blood at the "Make the Vampire Go Hungry" drive.

When • 2-7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17

Where • Capitol Theatre lobby, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.

Info • Visit http://www.redcrossblood.org and enter sponsor code balletwest, or call 1-800-REDCROSS. Blood donors will receive $5 off "Dracula" tickets.

Haunted places

Ghost Hunters of Utah with Wasatch Paranormal Investigators talk about the state's haunted places.

When • 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18

Where • Capitol Theatre lobby

Info • Free

Bloody double feature

Salt Lake Film Society's "Dracula" double feature, featuring Werner Herzog's 1979 production of "Nosferatu," followed by Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 thriller based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (starring Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins and Winona Ryder).

When • 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $8.75 at the door