Review: Royal Winnipeg’s Dracula has lots of bark but little bite

A scene from the Royal Winnipeg's Dracula. Photo: Réjean Brandt

A dozen years ago, when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet last brought Mark Godden’s Dracula to Ottawa, I found the ballet to be all style and no substance. The beautiful sets and costumes couldn’t hide the work’s flaws: irredeemably bloated, silly, pedantic, and, save for the Red Ballet section in Act II, choreographically dull.

Time hasn’t solved the ballet’s fundamental problems. Friday night’s performance at Southam Hall, the second of the three-night run with RWB, confirmed that Godden’s Dracula is all bark and no bite.

Act I features scenes from Stoker’s novel: Dracula’s preying on Englishwoman Lucy Westenra and her subsequent mysterious and alarming behaviour, ending with her former suitors pursuing her to her grave, where they drive stakes through her heart and decapitate her with a shovel. Act II jumps back to camp, with a Harold Lloydian pantomime of the tale, played for yuks. Next Godden inserts an abstract Red Dance, with Dracula in his wolf guise, depicting the vampire myth’s underlying themes of sexuality and animal instinct — the “inner beast” fighting against the conventions of a repressed society.  The work then flips back to the novel, ending with Mina and Jonathan Harker’s Transylvanian adventures and the eventual slaying of Dracula.

Godden crams so many contradictory ideas and treatments into his ballet that the audience is more confused than entertained. Is it a drama? A comedy? A parody? At two climactic points in Friday’s performance — when Lucy’s head is violently chopped off and when a billowing length of fabric is pulled back to reveal the Wolf-Man — instead of gasping in horror, the audience howled with laughter. Somehow, I don’t think this was the effect Godden was going for.

The choreography remains repetitive and unthrilling, particularly in Act I, which features a lot of women in maid costumes mincing around for no apparent reason. As mentioned earlier, the exception is the Act II Red Dance. Here at last we have Godden at his creative best: bold, sensual, egalitarian, with a sharp eye for smoothly integrating formal classical movement and more angular, aggressively physical modern shapes.

Friday night’s cast included Corps member Stephan Azulay in the title role. The Australian, who only joined RWB last summer, brought aristocratic lines, impressive jumping ability and a smouldering, Rudolph Valentino gaze to the role. With her Victorian pallor and long, expressive limbs, Katie Bonnell’s Lucy presented a fascinating descent from delicate English lady to feral vampire. Yayoi Ban was a soulful, trembling Mina, but there was little chemistry with Tyler Carver’s technically secure but cold Harker.  At least Yosuke Mino and the tiny but mighty, glittering Yoshiko Kamikusa brought the heat, as the devouring Wolf and his equally predatory Red Riding Hood.

Dracula’s design is pure Gothic romance, all frothy chiffon, fog machines, and shadowy corners. The scene in Dracula’s castle crypt is especially atmospheric, lit first by crossing shafts of golden overhead light and finally by the harsh, steampunk glow of the rescue party’s flashlights.

The ballet’s score is a patchwork of movements from Mahler’s First, Second, and Ninth Symphonies. It’s gorgeous, but Mahler was already so programmatic, prescriptive and obsessively detailed about what his music was meant to convey that anyone familiar with the symphonies will find it difficult to listen to them with a second, arbitrary, unrelated narrative imposed on top.

NACO has been doing a lot of heavy lifting onstage and in the pit in the past few weeks, and there were signs of fatigue, especially from the brass. The transitions and tempi shifts in the third movement of the First Symphony sounded particularly disunited (although the famous bass solo was beautifully articulated by Joel Quarrington).

Dracula has one more performance on Saturday night.


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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.