Halloween and Dracula

by Rob Tiller

Halloween is the strangest holiday. Its primary theme is death — normally a taboo topic. Even more amazing, children are encouraged to play with images that cause great fear, like skeletons, blood, and spiders. Although there is humor and sweetness to some of the customs, like trick or treating, the core of the holiday is not sweet. It is not had to imagine it’s descended from bloodthirsty ancient religious rituals.

Our floor at Red Hat is getting its Halloween decorations, in preparations for the employees’ little kids to come through collecting candy. There are lots of skulls, spiders, and witches, and lots of orange and black crepe paper. It’s sweet, but also a little unsettling. I think it’s a good idea to spend some time regularly thinking about death, but I’m not used to doing it on the way to the coffee machine.

When I first heard that the Carolina Ballet was going to do a new ballet for Halloween called Dracula, I had my doubts. I understand that the company needs to bring in an audience, and it needs to reach people who aren’t already committed to the art form. And it makes some sense to find a seasonal theme. But Dracula? I enjoyed the novel when I was a teenager, but the I thought that every bit of human blood had long ago been wrung out of the story.

It turned out not to be so. Sally and I went to the show last night, and heard the choreographer, Lynn Taylor-Corbett, give a talk prior to the performance. We’d previous seen a number of her ballets, and liked them all (especially Carmina Burana), but hadn’t seen her speak. She was really impressive — smart, funny, and thought-provoking. She’d started with the Bram Stoker novel and derived something of a feminist interpretation (though she didn’t call it that), which emphasized the importance of the main female characters. She took questions, and unfortunately for her and us, most of the question time was consumed by an audience member from Transylvania with a strong accent who launched into an extended-but-almost-incomprehensible exegesis that seemed to have to do with the historical Dracula.

Anyhow, the ballet was really good. Taylor-Corbett used a narrator to keep the story clear. The set was simple, but the lighting conveyed a variety of gothic moods. As in prior T-C ballets, the crowd scenes had a wonderful kineticism, but with a warm, human quality. And there were some memorable characters. Lara O’Brien was outstanding, so strong that it was hard to focus on anyone else during her scenes, which ran the gamut of emotional extremes. I was sad when she died — both times! Pablo Javier Perez was funny and scary as the mental patient. And Attila Bongar was a wonderful Dracula. There is usually a remote and serious quality about Bongar, and T-C played to his natural strengths. I found some of the business with crosses and stakes a bit goofy, but aside from that, it was entrancing.

We also liked Ricky Weiss’s new ballet that began the evening, the Masque of the Red Death. Again, I had my doubts about the idea, but it turned out to be inspired: a costume ball in the midst of the plague led to powerful drama. The production had a great look, with particularly beautiful and startling costumes.