Next year marks the centenary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If prior to Stoker’s novel the vampire had been a potent figure in nineteenth-century culture – gothic, romantic, decadent – in the twentieth century the Count has flourished in countless forms: books and comics, occasionally in theatre, and especially in film. And now a ballet.
Northern Ballet Theatre’s Dracula is not the first dancework seen in Britain to deal with vampires – London Contemporary Dance Theatre did Daniel Ezralow’s Irma Vep in 1987, the Royal Ballet of Flanders performed Stuart Sebastian’s version of Dracula in 1993 – but it’s certainly had the highest profile. Given the proximity to the centenary, the cultish popularity of vampires, the mainstream successes of two recent films (Interview with the Vampire and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and the simple fact that almost everyone knows something about vampires, Northern Ballet Theatre must have felt they were backing a winner with their new production (produced and choreographed by Christopher Gable and Michael Barrett-Pink).
Dracula was duly well promoted. The press were sent packets of garlic and mirror postcards, and we were treated to (or subjected to, depending on your constitution) a press launch in the murky vaults of the truly terrifying London Dungeon. Members of the public were invited to sponsor a costume, or a capsule of blood. And there was a special Dracula Information Line you could ring, with suitably spooky background music – its effect unfortunately neutralised by the dismayingly banal voiceover.
And Dracula has certainly managed to entice audiences beyond the usual dancegoers, from the merely curious to the positively cultish – shows were regularly attended by a smattering of horror-fan goths, anaemic in pale make-up and clothed blackly in velvet or satin, laced, perhaps, with a touch of leather. But if their appetites were whetted by the story, the genre or the publicity, I suspect that none of these groups was fully satisfied by the fare that was offered.
the disturbing qualities of a dream, a collage of splintered phantasms that haunt Harker’s imagination.
The ballet opened promisingly enough when I saw it at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal: the chattering audience is silenced into a collective intake of breath as it is plunged into darkness: the house lights are cut instead of dimmed. A brief prologue depicts Jonathan Harker’s (Omar Gordon) feverish visions as he lies in a sanatorium: of Transylvanian peasants, of the madman Renfield (Jeremy Kerridge), of a wedding disrupted by the morbid figure of the Count. The prologue effectively evokes the disturbing qualities of a dream, its separate images merging into one another as fragments of scenes are repeated and overlapped, a collage of splintered phantasms that haunt Harker’s imagination.
But the following courses don’t, for the most part, live up to this taster. Act I opens with Harker’s departure from Charing Cross Station to Transylvania. Inexplicably, Dr Van Helsing (Daniel de Andrade), the vampire killer, is there to see him off – as if Harker is being despatched to fetch the vampire rather than journeying into the unknown. Renfield also appears, throwing a minor fit before being carried off by police. This is equally inexplicable – and the rest of the ballet doesn’t enlighten us. Renfield, in fact, remains the most puzzling character throughout, forever cropping up for no clear reason.
In Transylvania, the next scene, a group of lumpen, flex-footed peasants enact a ritual sacrifice of a wolf in a rather ragged circle dance. Harker arrives, and a woman, hysterical over her dead child, portends doom! doom! to Harker; but of course he nevertheless sets off for Castle Dracula.
The Count (lanky Denis Malinkine), with his long grey tresses and red coat, is more akin to Coppola’s Dracula than to the familiar black-caped, slick-haired incarnations exemplified by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. He divests Harker of his bags, and leaves him to retire to bed. Two vampire women then slink into his room, while a third seems almost to materialise next to the prone Harker, issuing like a nocturnal emission from the bedsheets (another reference to Coppola, though in the film she emerges, more strikingly, from between his thighs). The seductresses remove Harker’s shirt and caress his body with obscene insinuations. Naturally Harker’s pulse quickens at this not just three but four-in-a-bed fantasy: he’s a redblooded male after all and it’s his blood they’re after.
But their coitus is interruptus by the intrusion of the Count, and Harker’s wet dream turns nightmarish as the alluring females are replaced by the predatory Dracula, who pursues his hapless, shirtless quarry around the bedroom. Just as Dracula overwhelms him, the scene is interrupted once again, cutting to Harker waking from his nightmare in the sanatorium, crying out for his wife Mina (Jayne Regan); and Act I closes.
Though it is not explicit in Stoker’s novel, several commentators have noted the element of ‘homosexual panic’ in this scene. NBT’s production is more explicit, but the actual moment that Dracula ‘takes’ Harker is wisely left unrepresented: implying rather than stating what has passed suggests that it is unspeakable, and so more horrifying – or more thrilling. Or more teasing.
Many horror stories are brewed from the staple ingredients of titillation, terror and moral rectitude, and it’s a common scenario for a character to be lured into sexual transgression only to witness, at the very moment of fulfilment, the object of desire transform into a monster. The monster, in this case the vampire, appears as an eructation of dangerously polymorphous perversions (‘haemosexuality’, as Christopher Frayling calls it) that must be overcome for moral order to be restored – hence Harker’s cry for the wifely Mina; and in the end, of course, the Beast Must Die. The theme is continued in Act II, in which Mina’s flirtatious friend Lucy is seduced by Dracula. Here, however, the scenario, being conventionally heterosexual, is closer to the moral order that it disrupts – and therefore representable.
At a ball in the Grand Hotel, Whitby, Lucy (Charlotte Broom), a frolicsome, careless young girl, dances gaily with not just one, but two men – an excess of appetite which is to be her undoing, for the ball is overcast by the shadow of the Count. (Unless you’d read the book you wouldn’t know why Dracula has come to Whitby, of all places – nor indeed why Harker went to Transylvania to start with.) The transition from a genteel social gathering into the haunt of the supernatural is effectively rendered: as the light fades, the dancing couples gradually move into slow motion, to a woozily out-of-tune score that sounds as if it’s been cranked out of an old pianola. Lucy is drawn towards Dracula, a spotlight illuminating her while Dracula remains in darkness, his face away from the audience throughout their long duet. At its climax, Lucy arches back, arms outstretched in the figure of an inverted cross, Dracula leans over her, and… well, to quote another literary source on this archetypal scene: ‘the girl has swooned, and the vampyre is at his hideous repast!'
the dancing couples gradually move into slow motion, to a woozily out-of-tune score that sounds as if it’s been cranked out of an old pianola.
Until now the ballet has focused on set-pieces, but from here on it sinks into a mire of storytelling, packed with incident, though little else (there’s an awful lot of naturalistic mime), and mostly very confusing. Here, in outline, is what happens.
Lucy is taken to the sanatorium, where she is treated by Dr Van Helsing. But Dracula returns that night, and she is vampirised. Act III begins with Van Helsing visiting Mina, only to he attacked by the escaped Renfield, for some reason. After Renfield is confined again, Mina pays him a visit, and they seem to have an altercation over something. Perhaps she too wants to know why he attacked Van Helsing. Whatever it is, she writes it up in her diary – so we’ll never know – and it seems to cause her some distress, for she breaks off and slumps over her desk.
While Mina lies in a stupor, vampire Lucy crosses the room, enticing a young child with a red ball. Once again, unless you’d read the novel, or perhaps seen a film which refers to this scene (most don’t), you wouldn’t know that this is supposed to he a kind of inset in the ballet, rather than taking place in Mina’s room. In a novel or film this would be easy to convey, but this is a ballet: something the choreographers seem, by now, to be forgetting.
Meanwhile Dracula has appeared again, descending batwise down some scaffolding towards Mina. Van Helsing, Harker and Lucy’s two men burst in, but they’re too late: Dracula has already come, and Mina has gone.
The final crypt scene is… cryptic.
The final crypt scene is… cryptic. The undead crawl out of their catacombs, just like in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Dracula, facing Mina, places his palms against hers as they both raise their arms –perhaps an insider’s reference to that secret greeting in The Rocky Horror Show? Lucy and Renfield appear together – why together? – and Dracula kills Renfield to feed the undead. But once again Van Helsing, Harker and the boys burst in, and this time they stake out the Count, though one of the boys dies in the process. The survivors stand around exhausted but relieved after their ordeal. I sympathise: I’m relieved too. I can’t remember what happens to Lucy.
Dracula, as the posters say, is ‘based on Bram Stoker’s gothic romance’. This, ironically, is its main problem, for it focuses on literary intentions at the expense of danced effects. Stoker’s novel gains much of its impact through its form: written as a series of diary entries by its characters, it comprises a patchwork of different viewpoints, often in conflict, and always partial none of the characters is certain about what is happening – which engenders a profound sense of unease as the reader is shifted from one uncertainty to another. Recognising that this is a uniquely literary form, the choreographers have opted to adapt the narrative.
But the ballet feels more like an illustration of a story than the medium of its telling – as if we’re flicking through the pictures in a storybook without being given the corresponding text; hence the many points of confusion in the narrative, and the excess of mime. Apart from the archetypal scenes (seduction, staking), you really need to know the basic Stoker story to get a grip on the stage action.
And besides, a narrative amounts to little more than a listing of what-happensnext unless it exhumes some underlying themes buried within its plot. There are certainly plenty to be had in Stoker’s story, with its intimate conjunctions of the bad and the beautiful, science and superstition, desire and disease. Or there’s the symmetry between Harker, the three vampire women and the authority figure of Dracula on the one hand, Lucy, her three male suitors and the authority figure of Van Helsing, on the other – except NBT’s production gives Lucy only two suitors.
The ballet does actually hint at another symmetry: the wolf sacrificed by the peasants as a counterpart to Renfield sacrificed by the vampires – but there’s nothing in the choreography itself to bring this out. NBT’s production gets so bogged down with telling the story that the really interesting part – telling us about the story – gets left out.
And here is the heart of the matter: with the exception of the dream-like prologue and Lucy’s seduction scene, the overly literal choreography doesn’t show us anything beneath its surface. (The scene with the vampire women relies mostly on ready-made effects rather than on the choreography, its underlying themes being more or less built in to the vampire genre.) Though the ballet is well served by Lez Brotherston’s splendid sets and Philip Feeney’s horror-film music, and is enthusiastically performed by its cast, it needs an infusion of choreographic blood if it is to raise Dracula from the text in which he lies dormant. Ultimately, it is the evocation of something ‘beneath the surface’ the hidden, the occult – that forms the very lifeblood of vampire stories: the irruption of the supernatural into the everyday, the frisson of repressed desires, the paranoia of external appearances that belie inner natures; and NBT’s finger isn’t on that pulse.
 In Vampyres: From Lord Byron to Count Dracula (1991), Frayling’s study of the vampire in nineteenth-century literature.
 James Malcolm Rymer’s Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, Varney, The Vampyre (1847).