Have you ever been at the theater and stopped and wondered, “How the heck did this show get put together?” If not, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
A good ballet, musical, or drama will cause you to become so thoroughly lost in the story that you won’t stop to ponder such things. That’s what you have us for! We like to stop and ask ourselves how our ballets and productions came to be.
Our Halloween season is highlighted by our increasingly annual production of Charles Bennett’s Dracula. Those of us here at California Ballet Company love this show because it is so far removed from traditional ballet as to have a wonderful appeal to the general public while making our dancers stretch not just their legs, but their acting chops. But, how did the dance-drama’s creator, Charles Bennett, assemble the eclectic choreographic masterpiece?
As with any story ballet or dance production – our Dracula is not truly a ballet, but rather a dance-drama – you need two things before you can even begin to think about choreographing: the story and the music.
Well, the story was no problem for Mr. Bennett. Bram Stoker‘s tale of vampires and romance was a tried and true horror story by the time Charles Bennett began work on the dance interpretation in the late 1980′s. There had been several movie adaptations, reinterpretations of the vampire mythos, and a burgeoning reawakened love of the occult by the public in general. Add to that the fact that the dance world had never seen a staged interpretation of Dracula, and Charles Bennett was ready to go! He just needed to find a score.
For a history of Dracula, check out Toe-2-Toe’s post HERE!
Mr. Bennett spent quite some time finding just the right musical pieces to bring his gothic vision to life, and ended up going back to source material for inspiration. He used music that was popular at the time of the novel’s publishing – such as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Massenet’s Thais. These pieces are beautiful and haunting, but only a small part of the show. For further inspiration, Mr. Bennett turned to the dance stylings of the time and the ethnic traditions involved in the story itself. At the time of Dracula‘s publishing, the Tango was all the craze in upper-class circles. Well, who was Charles Bennett to argue? Feeling inspired, he choreographed a gorgeous and light-hearted tango set to authentic music.
And ethnic traditions? The show opens with a lively gypsy dance. The choreography was inspired by real ethnic dance and the music is authentic Gypsy Cymbalo (brass music).
The rest of the score was pieced together with music that would create the necessary atmosphere. The music ranges from neoclassical to Hollywood horror. While it’s not performed live, the original composite score was so lovingly tailored and carefully assembled that it becomes a living, breathing, indispensable part of the dance-drama.
So we have a story, and we have music, but those are only part of a ballet! A dance performance requires . . . well, dance!
As we already mentioned, the Tango and the Gypsy scenes were inspired by Bram Stoker’s novel itself. Guess what? So was everything else! Charles Bennett was a master of turning the written word into a visual art form. He alone masterminded some of the most popular story ballets in California Ballet’s repertoire (Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Romeo and Juliet). So in creating the rest of the dance-drama, he drew inspiration from Bram Stoker’s colorfully painted characters.
In Charles Bennett’s own words:
“Renfield’s movements are based on those of mental patients suffering from severe motor-psychosis but extended and theatrical. Dracula’s movement continuously winds inward, drawing those around him to his persona for his gratification. Lucy, of a generous spirit has centrifugal, spiraling outward movements. Mina, is religious, with movement that his generally contained, resistant, slightly reserved but very nearly broken. In short, each character and situation was approached as much as possible as a unique event. Dracula’s nightmare brides are deceptively seductive. Diversity in approach to character and situation has been the intention.”
Every motion, every gesture was lovingly crafted and choreographed – specifically tailored for each character. Each dance number and pas de deux serves a purpose: furthering the storyline and setting the atmosphere of a scene.
In assembling the dance-drama, Charles Bennett then went on to draw further inspiration from silent film. He created striking vignettes which propelled the story forward. Each vignette was then flawlessly stitched together to create smooth transitions that feel like the cross-dissolving of scenes in films. The show is underscored with sound effects, flames fly across the stage and fog clouds your vision with special effects. Even the progression of time is felt as projections are used to show the moon slowly climbing through the night sky.
What you end up with is a theatrical experience unlike any other. It’s a hybrid between ballet, drama, and silent movies.
Charles Bennet’s Dracula was the very first dance-interpretation of the gothic novel ever created. It premiered in 1987 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, performed by the California Ballet Company. Many other ballet versions have since been created, and Mr. Bennett’s original interpretation has been performed all over the country by other companies, but it started right here in San Diego!
Join us this Saturday and Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre for this year’s production of Dracula. Tickets are still available, but going fast!
Go online to www.californiaballet.org/dracula
or call (858) 560-6741.