The Royal Winnipeg resurrects Mark Godden’s Dracula

A scene from Dracula. Photo: Réjean Brandt

Mark Godden fell in love with Canada when he first came to take ballet training with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

He had moved from Dallas, Texas, in the 1980s and really never left the country.

“I have spent more of my life in Canada than I ever did in Texas. It’s almost like I grew up here, artistically any way.”

That’s an understatement. Godden is a prolific choreographer and teacher whose work is performed around the world. The Royal Winnipeg will present his very first full-length ballet this week when when Dracula returns to haunt the stage in Southam Hall. But more about that later.

In the beginning Godden started with a dream of becoming a drummer like Buddy Rich. Then he decided he wanted to be an actor and he took that desire to study theatre to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Dance was not in the picture until “I dated a girl in a musical. I was in the acting program. She was in musical theatre. A couple of times a week I would watch her take a ballet class and I just loved it.

“I was like most people I thought you had to start ballet as early as Shirley Temple, that was the image in my head.”

After graduation he headed home to Dallas intent on a European tour with a buddy when he drove by a dance studio.

“I thought to myself, ‘I want to take a ballet class.’  I went in and I took a class and I just fell in love with it. I was mesmerized with the discipline behind it. It had music, it had drama. It involved my body; everything was there.

“It turned out I had potential.” Who knew?

Mark Godden from YouTube.

It’s really almost a Billy Elliot story with an older male lead. Not only had he walked into a studio and discovered his passion for dance, the teacher was the kind of person who could spot talent.

In fact, Godden says, the teacher, Hugh Nini, was actually supposed to go to Winnipeg to dance. He had been hired by Arnold Spohr but before he was to leave he was involved in an accident.

“He still danced but he was in a lot of pain,” Godden said.

After the class finished, Godden told his teacher of his plan to go to Europe and said he would be back to take more classes.

“He got angry at me and said ‘I thought you wanted to dance’. He then said ‘You have talent. If you want to see the world join a ballet company’.”

Godden listened and it turned out to be the best decision of his life. Through his teacher he was introduced to the Royal Winnipeg and was enrolled in the ballet school.

He landed in Winnipeg on a student visa with only a very few dollars in his pocket. He stayed at the YMCA and taught classes in movement, in jazzercise and ballet all to make ends meet.

It was at this time that Godden was introduced to choreography.

“A local mall hosted fashion shows and they started asking dancers from the ballet school to come out. We did a couple of shows and they loved us because we could move. We were fit and we hammed it up and we spruced up the show.

“One of the ladies who put together the shows asked me to organize a show. It was the first thing I ever did. I tons of ideas. I put it together and a couple of teachers from the ballet school heard about it and came to see it. They said after, ‘You should try your hand at choreography’. ”

He feels that his original love of music helped turn him towards choreography over the evolution of his career.

Dracula is part of that progression.

In the late 1990s, Godden was approached by André Lewis, the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg, to do a version of the Bram Stoker novel for the  100th anniversary of the novel which was published in 1897.

“When André called me up I was adjudicating a competition in Mexico. There had been several other Draculas including one that was really popular that I had never seen by Ben Stevenson and Houston Ballet. It was basically like Swan Lake with a vampire.

He was asked if he was interested. “I said yes. I always say yes first and then decide later whether I really want to do it. I hung up and I thought ‘Do I really want a dancer running around, wearing a cape, biting everybody on the neck.”

He says he had not read Stoker’s book because Dracula had always seemed to be from movie culture.

So he got a copy and was immediately fascinated.

“My god, what an amazing book. It’s not really about Dracula; it’s really about all these other people. … the vampire slayer, the women who wanted Dracula in their lives. There was lots of repressed sexuality. I was hooked then and I thought I really wanted to do this piece.”

It captures that turning moment from the 19th to the 20th century, he said.

He believes the story and his ballet remain relevant today.

“When we did the ballet, we were just amazed when people showed up dressed in gothic wear. Women would wear white makeup and lace skirts.”

People want to come and be transported by the immortal beast, he says.

“It was my first full length ballet. I had to produce a complete evening with a theme. The biggest problem with Dracula that I saw was that first image I had in my head of the vampire wearing a tacky cape and biting everyone in the neck.”

He decided to get the bite over with right away.

As he was describing the ballet to colleagues and friends, Godden says he developed a shortened synopsis.

“It got faster and faster in the telling. When I was doing that I suddenly figured out that I wanted to do an old fashioned pantomime lasting five minutes to start the second act.”

He hired a Winnipeg actor named Richard Hurst to write a script and tell the story in a very camp style.

There is also another section known as the Red Dance which is a Bacchanale before the story resumes to bring the ballet to a close.

Godden always chooses his music with care and for this piece, he picked Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as the Resurrection symphony — an appropriate piece of music when thinking of a vampire.

Godden, who has lived in Montreal with his wife and two sons, since the 1990s, hasn’t seen the work performed in awhile but he will get that chance in Winnipeg in rehearsals and in Ottawa. He’s looking forward to it.

Right after, though, he’s off to Lima, Peru, where he is working on a piece and then he’ll be doing a new Carmen.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents Dracula
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 12-14 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.