Review: Milwaukee Ballet’s Spine-chilling ‘Dracula’ is Eternally Ageless

Just in time for Halloween, the Milwaukee Ballet Company kicks off its 49th season with the triumphant return of Michael Pink’s ‘Dracula,’ through Sunday at the Marcus Center.

The balletic adaptation of Dracula, created by Michael Pink in 1996 for the Northern Ballet Theatre in the United Kingdom, first came to the U.S. via Atlanta Ballet. The show has a home in the rep of Colorado Ballet too, and is scheduled to make future appearances in Oklahoma and Ohio. But no group of dancers understands Michael Pink quite like those of the Milwaukee Ballet, a company he’s helmed for 16 years.

Most notable among the dancers, aside from technical brilliance, is their keen ability to convey a story, this one adapted from Bram Stoker’s iconic 1897 novel. Pink’s talent for translating a nuanced narrative with movement is unparalleled, particularly when he’s blessed with an original score by composer Philip Feeney, a trusted collaborator for more than three decades. Dracula was one of their first major full-length projects together. Yet movement and music are so symbiotic and naturally intertwined, it would be easy to believe this ballet had just been created.

Many of the traditional story ballets we know and love today were created around the time Bram Stoker was penning his masterpiece, and they tended to use a format which unapologetically halted the story for a series of variations aimed at displaying technical ability. In Pink’s Dracula, however, virtuosity is embedded in the narrative. Each solo and pas de deux serves to advance the story; every moment is intentional. For example, a character dance blending Romanian, Hungarian and Russian aesthetics – often gleaned for a ballet’s divertissements – are part of the plot, instead of party entertainment. The highlight of the evening is Dracula’s three main duets, anchored by an extraordinary performance from Davit Hovhannisyan in the title role.

A naïve real estate agent, Jonathan Harker (danced opening night by Randy Crespo), travels to Transylvania to close a deal with the ominous Count Dracula (Hovhannisyan). Harker is welcomed into Dracula’s lair, transfixed by three seductresses who are shooed away with a carnivorous offering so that Dracula might lure Harker and have him for himself. Indeed, Pink does not shy away from the homoerotic undertones which appear in the book, particularly in this tantalizing first act duet for the two men.

Performing the other two pas de deux with Hovhannisyan are the story’s two leading ladies: Mina (Nicole Teague-Howell alternating with Annia Hidalgo) and Lucy (Luz San Miguel/Marize Fumero). They don faint-inducing corsets and billowy, bustled gowns (by Lez Brotherston) and, above all, are at the beck and call of their men. But Lucy and Mina are not simply docile monoliths to the stereotypical Victorian woman. Teague-Howell and San Miguel offer complexity to their roles, further playing Stoker’s hand in how he subtly rebuked gender roles of the era by hiding his criticisms within fantasy and gore. As each is transformed from a blithe maiden into a hungry vampiress, she is unleashed from society’s expectations of women, freed from gentility and virginity, and given a justification to seek out whatever she wants. Of course, it’s a domineering man who bestows this newfound liberation upon them, but Hovhannisyan’s portrayal of Dracula is so deftly surreptitious that he’s a hard character to hate.

Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan; photo Nathaniel Davauer

The role of Lucy was Luz San Miguel’s first for the company when she joined in 2005. Her career comes full circle with this revival of the role, described as “engaging and sparkling” in 2015. It will be her last as a performing artist as she takes her final bow Saturday to assume a full-time role as one of two ballet masters for the company. She is as equally sparkling now as she was then.

Members of the Florentine Opera Chorus join the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, led on opening night by associate conductor Pasquale Laurino. Feeney’s score is merciless, putting every musician in the orchestra to the test, and using lesser-employed instrumentation such as marimba and harpsichord to support Dracula’s creepy vibe.

The third act convening of Nosferatu boasts Florentine’s artists performing a Romanian translation of the sung Catholic blood litany, locating the prayer in the heart of Transylvania, a real-life region of the eastern European country. Far different from their even-keeled, deceivingly sophisticated leader, Dracula’s savage underlings race to get their share of Renfield (Garrett Glassman), a deranged figure who idolizes Dracula throughout the ballet and becomes a sacrificial lamb to the Nosferatu. This is the ballet’s grossest part; as these mangy vampires dance together, their chins and fingers are dripping with blood. Harker, Arthur (Lucy’s fiancé, danced by Timothy O’Donnell), Quincy (a former suitor and trusted friend danced by Parker Brasser-Vos) and Dr. Van Helsing (Patrick Howell, who takes over the role of Dracula in the matinees) suppress their mystical foes with daylight and prevail by piercing a stake through Dracula’s heart. 

So, they (sort of) live happily ever after, and it is a palpitating climax for quite a long ballet. This work is paced so well, however, that the intermissions feel longer than the work itself. And it’s worth noting that, 20 years after its North American premiere, Dracula does not show its age. Sure, there are bells and whistles available now through projection design and updated effects that, if made today, Pink and his team might choose to utilize. And lighting designer David Grill has most certainly refreshed Paul Pyant’s work on the original production with more modern technologies. But like the Bram Stoker masterpiece, a gaggle of excellent film and TV adaptations and the main character himself, this Dracula is carefully crafted to endure time and age, indefinitely.

Go See It: Dracula at the Milwaukee Ballet | October 25-28