West Australian Ballet, Dracula (2021)
Written by Sheldon Ang, contributions by Nadia Backory
“Who wants to live forever, when love must die?” – These words, spear into tortured, decrepit heart of Dracula as he finally succumbs to the sweet repose of death.
For most evil foes, the journey to malevolence sparks from the torment of a personal tragedy. Their anguish fuels an overpowering rage, that nurtures evil within their taint their souls. The urge to inflict suffering upon their nemesis and innocents alike becomes uncontrollable.
So too, is the story of the Dracula whose character in the West Australian Ballet production (in association with Queensland Ballet), is portrayed by two dancers; Aurélien Scannella as the brutal and vengeful “Old Dracula” and Matthew Lehmann as the sensitive “Young Dracula”. This construct of Dracula’s character is a heartfelt reminder that his seemingly inherent evil, was once birthed from the inconsolable heart of a grieving Nobleman. Both styles were decisively crafted through the choreography of Krzysztof Pastor, whose world class dance interpretation does justice to the integrity of this complex and tragic love story.
From the prologue, Lehmann takes us beyond neoclassical style to incorporate elements of contemporary ballet. Draped in a 15th century wardrobe he casts an emotional and staccato charged expression as he fends off the sword wielding Turks. The scene ends with the audience in a state of limbo that accurately reflects the purgatory of life and death.
Dracula’s beloved wife Elizabeth (Carina Roberts) throws herself from their castle tower, upon hearing rumours of his death in the battle. Dracula renounces God and mankind when the clergy refused burial.
The set then transformed into late 19th century London, with the stage painted in bright orange lights, casting a spectrum of optimism into the Victorian-era set. Solicitor Jonathan Harker (Oscar Valdes) plans to leave for Transylvania to seal a real estate deal for the mysterious Dracula, but not without a revelry of the upper class. The audience was dazzled by a collection of dancers in waltz, enchanting them through a showcase of technical and artistic repertoires.
Upon Jonathan’s arrival in Transylvania, the mood reverts into a twilight world of evil, with the added dramatisation from the recorded orchestra (conducted by WA Symphony Orchestra’s Jessica Gethin). Lehmann and Valdes challenged in a tango; their energy and passion defined by sharp, staccato like movements. The stalking and sneaking qualities of their dance brilliantly embodying the battle for control and dominance in their forthcoming mind games.
Jonathan’s fiancé Mina (also performed by Roberts) shares an uncanny resemblance with Elizabeth, that naturally arouses Dracula’s uncontrollable fascination and infatuation. Roberts personifies Mina’s gentle, dignified essence with a graceful and poised performance. Her delicate yet robustly crafted moves include a collection of flawlessly executed lifts. She maintains a soft yet statuesque like stillness in each elevation showcasing her technical prowess and exceptional form.
The audience was drawn by the likes of Scannella, Valdes and Roberts, but it is Melissa McCabe (performing the role of Lucy) who wins the golden buzzer. McCabe’s spine-tingling movements across the stage resemble that of the ghostly, evil characters in many iconic Asian horror flicks. Her Pas de Couru sends shivers across the capacity filled venue as Lucy appears to hover unnervingly across the stage. Moving on pointe at an astonishing pace, McCabe’s movements incorporate swift, exacting footwork, beneath a seemingly lifeless yet expressive upper body. This juxtaposition epitomises the clever choreography fashioned to illustrate Lucy’s wild nature, and successfully depicts the essence of a woman possessed after bitten by Dracula.
Adam Alzaim, Julio Blanes, Christian Luck, Jesse Homes and Kassidy Thompson as Van Helsing, Arthur Holmwood, Doctor Jack Seward, Renfield and Mrs Westenra (respectively) are integral to the success of the production, either as soloists, demi-soloists or parts of the Corps de Ballet. Identical twins Matthew and Oliver Edwardson return as the Phantoms, performing with a characterised idiosyncrasy and impeccable synchronicity.
The costumes and set were painstakingly researched and crafted by Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith, who had to considered even the details of a country in mourning of Queen Victoria’s death. Thus the lace and jewellery needed to be black against the backdrop in the London set. Dracula’s Transylvanian castle is depicted with crumbling masonry against the eerie backdrop. Jon Buswell, a veteran lighting designer of over 100 productions worldwide, created the vibrant yet sombre mood of London and the otherworldly, mystique of Transylvania.
The “Old Dracula” – was performed by WA Ballet’s Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella, who returned to the stage after 10 years in retirement for the role. Each of his movements exuding a pronounced blend finesse and poetic brutality that injects life (no pun intended) into his character.
We caught up with the super sleek Scannella after the show. When asked how he prepared for his role he revealed that he lived and breathed the story of Dracula, through movies, books, music and any other way he could find to immerse himself.
Upon being congratulated on a stunning production that effectively captured the essence and minutiae of the storyline, Scannella attributed this to the productions dance choreographer and musical composer whose collaborative talents made this possible. He added that because the story is complex, the choreography needed to be done intricately – in a way that could tell such a complex story. He also praised the choreographer Pastor – and said it was done in such a way that successfully captures the essence of each character – which wasn’t an easy job. He also praised Libretto Pawel Chynowski for his work on Dracula
When asked about the music, Scannella reveals the selections were mostly inspired by the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s cult movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Scannella credits Michael Brett (Head of Music of WA Ballet) for the sense of flow consistency throughout the show. Wojciech Kilar was selected as the only composer for the production to strategically instil the subliminal and unremitting sentiment that kept the audience entranced.
What’s on the horizon for Scannella? He hinted, “2023”.