By Jasmina Wellinghoff/Special to the Express-News
Growing more confident and ambitious, Ballet San Antonio has not only expanded its programming from two to four productions this year, it has also tackled a brand new show, developed and realized almost entirely by San Antonio talent.
True, they have chosen a familiar theme — the story of Dracula — but who can blame them? New works are always risky in the arts, so linking the new with the familiar is a good recipe for success. Judging by the large audience at the Lila Cockrell Theater Friday night (Oct.14), San Antonians are ready to respond. The show is also a debut of sorts for BSA’s resident choreographer Gabriel Zertuche, who is better known for shorter dances with a more contemporary flair. “Dracula” is a full-length story ballet in the classical vein. That’s an accomplishment in itself. Relatively few choreographers get a chance to develop such elaborate works nowadays, so kudos to Ballet San Antonio for attempting it.
That the result is a fine piece of theater in every regard — choreography, staging and dancing — is proof that the company is on the right path.
The eloquent score was written by English composer Philip Feeney in 1996 for England’s Northern Ballet Theater’s “Dracula.” Thus Zertuche already had a framework to work with as the music was created with defined dramatic scenes in mind.
When the ballet opens, we see John Harker (Carlos Hopuy) at a London train station parting with his fiancee Mina (Sarah Aujon) before taking off for Transylvania and Count Dracula’s castle. Not much dancing here, just some passengers milling around and the young couple engaging in tender promises. But the effort that went into the staging is already in evidence: There’s a realistic- looking railroad car on stage, the lighting creates the right mood and the travelers’ attire looks authentic.
The sets and costumes, respectively designed by Karen Miller and Raul McGinnes, and constructed by Boerne-based SRO Associates, are fairly impressive throughout. Dracula’s castle looms ominously in the darkness when John comes to conduct a real estate transaction there, and there is a lovely ballroom scene in Act II which takes place in a hotel in the small English town of Whitby. What’s more, scene transformations are smooth
This is a dark tale, so the stage is often dark — sometimes too dark. When John gets to Transylvania, for example, he first encounters a bunch of villagers at the market. This should be a daytime event even in Transylvania, albeit with a shadow hanging over it. Instead, it’s very much night on stage and ultimately there’s little contrast with the following scene at the castle. Also, when Dracula, portrayed by Ian Morris, and John perform a dance in which Dracula endeavors to dominate his guest, their moves don’t stand out as they should simply because both are clad in dark clothes against a dark background.
Nevertheless, both are great dancers and we have other chances to see them in action. Both men have strong duets with Aujon who, as always, is light and lithe, with liquid extensions and gorgeous pirouettes, in one case turning with arms raised and hair flying around like an animated porcelain figurine. Morris, who hardly looks like Dracula from the movies, nevertheless realizes a convincing characterization of the evil nobleman but can’t help but be more sympathetic than the usual vampires. Thanks to Zertuche’s choreography, his final partnering with Aujon when he abducts her from her room — and ultimately gets killed by John and friends — is strong and expressive as well as daring. Ballet San Antonio should be congratulated for getting him back. Both he and Hopuy also regale the audience with clean high leaps and grand jetés across the stage.
Another fine dancer is Saki Yabumoto as Mina’s friend Lucy, who gets bitten by Dracula and turned into an “undead.” That scene, when she reawakens as a vampire and “screams” (the scream is incorporated into the score) while her bed whirls across the stage is great fun. Her three suitors– Ernesto Lea Place, Dylan Duke and Jarrin Overholt — lend capable support to many scenes, most notably in the ballroom segment. And Place also enlivens the market goings-on as a supposedly frightening but really rather alluring Gypsy who distract the villagers while his partners steal a kid.
The choreographer has also added a corps de ballet of Dracula’s brides, all in white in the best classical tradition, who don’t contribute much to the plot but add visual complexity to castle scenes, sometimes appearing to float because of smoke swirling around their feet.
On the whole, this is a handsome and satisfying production that we hope the company will bring back next year.
“Dracula” repeats at 8 p.m. today (Oct. 15) at Lila Cockrell Theater, 200 E. Market. Tickets range from $15-$60. Call 210-404-9641 for more information.