The Dayton Ballet is readying their new production, Dracula: Bloodlines, about the world’s most famous vampire: Dracula. The challenge is how the ballet will bring this centuries-old story to longtime fans and entice new ones.
In the Dayton Ballet’s production space, two costumes hang side by side: the first is a furred garment embellished with coins and ornaments, designed for a 15th century prince and warrior. The second is a long, sleek black cloak, lined in blood red, meant for a man who’s walked the Earth for centuries and seen all of its evils. These are the two sides of Dracula that the ballet presents: the mortal man, and the immortal nightmare.
“We wanted to do something fresh for the Halloween season. You can’t do Dracula in February,” says Ray Zupp, the production and costume designer for Dracula Bloodlines. He says that previous versions of Dracula have often lacked is understanding for its main character. “We look at him as kind of a sympathetic character, in a way. What would drive you to lead that kind of life? And the thing we kept coming back to was love.”
In this case, the love of a woman — a love that Dracula loses.
The Dayton Ballet’s Artistic Director and Dracula’s choreographer, Karen Russo Burke, figured that the best way to stir up sympathy for this villain, was to tell his origin story.
“The concept of having kind of a prequel was my concept,” says Karen. “And I worked with my son on it, my older son, who knows a lot about folklore and mythos. But I also knew that people really would be looking for the Bram Stoker version as well.”
Bram Stoker introduced Dracula to the world in his 1897 Gothic novel. The ballet moves from far in the past into the present day, and includes some of Stoker’s familiar characters, and some new ones, like Lilith. Based on a figure from Jewish folklore, she’s cast here as the Mother of Vampires, as old as time itself.
“Everything she’s wearing looks like it’s made out of creatures,” says Ray. “She’s got a ribcage that’s exposed, and it’s on top of this leather, reptilian corset. She looks like she’s just been around for a very long time. She’s a creature of the woods.
Creating a brand new ballet from the ground up obviously takes time, and this one was created quickly.
“Even the Royal Ballet takes a year, a year and a half, two years to develop something like this, and we’re doing it in under a year. Which is crazy. And awesome, and fun and terrifying,” he says.
The Dayton Ballet is hoping that this fresh content will also help draw fresh blood, as it were, into the audience. In general, says Karen, ballet audiences tend to be older, “I think some young people have a preconceived notion of what ballet is.”
Many think ballet is boring, old-fashioned. Dracula has challenged these notions in its promotional materials, which are dark and sensual, with Ray’s avant-garde costumes at center stage.
“I know the reason [Karen] brought me on is because I’m younger. I have a younger sense of design. Definitely not classical; there’s very few things you’ll see in this ballet costume-wise that look classical,” he says.
The Dayton Ballet has also paired up with Miami Valley arts education organization Muse Machine to introduce a new generation to ballet.
“We’re bringing in a lot of kids on opening night, and they’re about high school age, about 14 and 15 and above,” says Karen. “I think if we can get kids that age to see a live performance, it may open up a lot of what they think is out there.”
Karen says the ballet has worked hard to draw the audience into Dracula. Three opera singers will act as a kind of chorus, telling the story. As the dancers perform, the opera singers will communicate the thoughts and desires of the characters to the audience by singing in English.
“If you feel as though you’re not going to understand it because it’s ballet, you have three art forms telling this story, and taking it in will not be a problem. I think you’ll understand it, I think you will sympathize with some of the characters and be moved by the end of the evening.”
The music featured in this story comes from the ballet’s second act, was was composed by Austin Jaquith, who also composed the ballet’s libretto.
Dracula: Bloodlines runs Oct. 20–23 at the Victoria Theatre.