Madison Ballet Goes Dark with ‘Dracula’
If you tend to equate Madison Ballet with sugarplum fairies and dancing snowflakes, the company’s latest production will rock you out of any preconceived notions.
Dracula, running March 8–10 at Overture Center, is artistic director W. Earle Smith’s brand-new creation—a seductive, dark, edgy and decidedly adult ballet that melds an intriguing variety of influences, from classic vampire tales to steampunk style to rock and roll.
Smith recently took some time out to discuss the new work.
How did the idea for Dracula come about?
To be really honest about it, my Little Brother from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program was talking about the latest Twilight book he was reading and wanted to go see Blade and Van Helsing. I read Anne Rice’s books years ago and [the concept of vampires] has always been very intriguing to me. Also, I had worked in New Orleans and stayed in the French Quarter; that whole ambience just gets to you. I always had in the back of my head this fascination with vampires.
I started doing research—I’ve been working on it for four and a half years. I researched the history of vampires and how they were portrayed in literature, theater, poetry and movies and really had a fun time seeing what the different concepts were, what the different stories were.
What story did you end up focusing on?
I started with Bram Stoker and went full circle back to Bram Stoker. It’s a classic, and what I got out of it most was a love triangle.
It’s actually a very complicated book—with letters and journals—and you can get a little overwhelmed [turning it into a ballet]. How do you translate that story with movement and no words?
What I had to do is really strip it down to the basics—the love triangle between Harker, Mina and Dracula. Harker’s love for Mina is very different from Dracula’s love for Mina. Dracula’s after blood, and there’s something very seductive about it. Everyone wants to be bitten by a vampire—and it’s sexual in nature, scary but appealing.
What are you doing for music?
I decided to go with original rock and roll music. [Madison singer, songwriter, pianist and producer] Michael Massey is writing the music, and a rock and roll band will be playing onstage.
And how about costumes?
The story takes place in the late 1800s. That genre is all about corsets and high necks and long skirts—now, that’s not very conducive to ballet!
I started pulling imagery, looks from the internet that were appealing—looks from Van Helsing, imagery from avant garde fashion, just really bizarre stuff. My costume designer said, “What about steampunk?” I said, What is that?” That was three years ago, and now the whole production design is steampunk.
What exactly is steampunk?
Steampunk is a very creative and imaginative twist on the Edwardian and Victorian period. There are a ton of different definitions and a ton of different genres, and it’s mixed with steam—gears and clocks—hence the eyeglasses with gears and protrusions.
We’re going to use different types of steampunk [in Dracula].
Is the man in the publicity images the dancer taking on the role of Dracula?
No, the guy in the poster is actually a lead guitarist in a band. We wanted to brand Dracula with a look—sort of an androgynous look. Dracula will have long hair, though. All the mothers in our school asked about him—is he going to be in it? Don’t worry, there will be plenty of eye candy.
What’s it been like to work on this project?
It’s an amazing journey for me … This has been the culmination of everything I’ve been doing. This is truly me.
It must be a refreshing change from more traditional productions.
There’s only so much you can do with Nutcracker, Cinderella, Swan Lake …
This is allowing me to move into a more contemporary style. I’m neoclassically trained, which is a little more athletic and stylistic than classical ballet. I started out in jazz and modern before ballet, so this is really allowing me to hit my contemporary roots.
People say, “What is contemporary dance?” and to me it’s a fusion of ballet, modern and sometimes other types of dance. I’d put Dracula into the contemporary rock ballet category.
Do you think Dracula will set the stage for what you’ll do in seasons to come?
I would hope so. You can’t always be doing something of this magnitude and this new. But I always hope [what we do] tears down those preconceived notions of what ballet is. It’s not pink, it’s not cute and it’s not fluffy.
When I moved here fourteen years ago, ballet didn’t have the presence that opera and symphony had. It’s been a very slow evolving process—but it is slowly evolving.
People have this delusion that opera, symphony and ballet are for older, white, upper-income people. This is a form of communication. The arts is how we define our community. I always want to be challenging myself, my dancers and my community.
What do you hope audiences get from seeing Dracula?
I’ll put it in a quote. I want people to leave the theater and go, “Wow, I didn’t know ballet was so kickass!”
Dracula runs March 8–10 at Overture Center. For more information, visit madisonballet.org.
Photo courtesy of Madison Ballet.