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The Daily
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Madison Ballet's Dracula puts a steampunk spin on an 1890s horror story
Dance to die for
For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Andrew Weeks

A vampire's minions pound out a tribal rhythm with their feet. One man counts out the beats. Three women spin forward in a series of bourées, their pelvises undulating. You can almost feel the blood coursing through their veins.

This isn't a deleted scene from Twilight or a sketch-comedy sendup of True Blood. It's Dracula, a rock 'n' roll ballet based on Bram Stoker's famous gothic-horror novel. The sensual hip circles come from Madison Ballet's Rachelle Butler, Katy Fredrick, Shannon Quirk and Cody Olsen. Their guide is W. Earle Smith, Dracula's creator and the company's artistic director.

You won't find Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson here, but there is a Twilight connection. About five years ago, Smith got the idea for the production from his Twilight-loving protégé in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. At the time, the boy was enamored of books by Stephenie Meyer and Anne Rice and films such as Blade and Van Helsing.

"I had in the back of my head that I would do Dracula someday, and he reignited my interest in it," says Smith, who will premiere his work March 8-10 at Overture Center's Capitol Theater.

Smith did extensive research for the storyline, starting with Stoker's tale.

"I looked at the way vampires, witches and werewolves were treated in literature, film and folklore and immersed myself in everything," he says.

Ultimately, he decided that Stoker's story was the best of the bunch. Now it was a matter of taking it from the page to the stage.

A locally sourced score

In the studio, Smith serves as choreographer, narrator and technical adviser. He steps in when needed for a variety of roles. But he might be most excited about the rock score, a labor of love with Madison musician-composer Michael Massey.

Smith teamed up with Massey to create a 20-minute ballet a few years ago. When Massey heard about Dracula, he asked Smith if he could be considered for composing duties. Smith was skeptical at first, not realizing that Massey, whom he thought had more of a jazz and soft-rock slant, played in rock bands in his youth and spent time in Los Angeles pursuing a music career.

Composers in New York and Los Angeles were being considered when Massey made a case that as a local composer, he could work hand-in-hand and face-to-face with Smith. He put together three song snippets that Smith says "captured Dracula perfectly." He and Smith have been working on the music together for more than two years.

This is a rare opportunity for a local composer to score a full-length ballet. Smith says he's most impressed by the music's depth, especially given the length of the production.

"A two-hour ballet with a 20-minute intermission needs an hour and 40 minutes of music," he says. "It's like me choreographing. How do I choreograph an hour and 40 minutes of dance without it all looking the same?"

Massey identifies a different set of challenges.

"Maintaining a continuity of emotion and sentiment while differentiating between pieces was a challenge," he explains. "I went in with the goal of providing an identifiable melody or theme for each of the main characters, and with Earle's help and direction, I think we've accomplished that."

While the score's length didn't intimidate Massey at first, it did start to wear him out near the end.

"I didn't really feel the massive scope of the project until crunch time, when the deadline for a finished score was looming," he says. "I was fortunate to have a burst of creativity to finish a few of the major pieces, and they have become some of my favorites."

Coming to a shared definition of "rock ballet" was also a learning experience. Specific bands came up in the duo's early conversations, but their vision evolved as they talked through their ideas. One thing was for certain: The music had to have an edge.

"It was more a vision of genre than specific bands, although Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were referenced early on, and flavors of both found their way in," Massey says.

A few early attempts were scrapped because they sounded "too orchestrated," he adds.

Creative differences are notorious for causing artistic projects to fold. Luckily, Smith and Massey have figured out how to get along even when they disagree.

"We have a huge professional respect for each other," Smith says. "We're friends, and it's like family. You love each other all the time, but it doesn't mean you're nice all the time."

A costuming challenge

When Smith started sharing excerpts of the score with his creative team, he also showed them images that had gotten him thinking about the show's aesthetic. There were closeups of a jaguar's eyes, ornate spider webs, castles, stills from Van Helsing, cyborgs from Star Trek, and wild, grotesque things such as road kill.

Before long, costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore let out an emphatic, "Oh, steampunk!"

Smith didn't know what she was talking about, so he asked her what it was. When she told him about the hybrid of Victorian and futuristic elements, he was instantly attracted to the idea. He started researching steampunk fashion, literature and music. Once again, he was immersed.

"I've looked at it all, and I'm just in love with it," he says. "It's not just fashion; it's a culture and a lifestyle, and it's very interesting."

Smith explains that one of the biggest hurdles is conveying the time period of Bram Stoker's Dracula without being too literal.

"I wanted the look of the period, but not really, because with Victorian or Edwardian clothing, the dresses go all the way down to the floor, the sleeves go all the way to the wrist, and the collars go all the way up the neck for women. That is certainly not a very good way to showcase a ballet dancer," he says.

Luckily, Brown-Larimore knew how to solve the problem. She has been costuming for Madison Ballet for more than five years, but this is the first time she's collaborated with Smith from concept to completion. She carefully watched the choreography to make sure that when a dancer gets lifted or rolls on the ground, the costume stays in place and won't tear.

Brown-Larimore says a costume can be beautiful as a sketch, but if it can't move properly, it's not going to work.

She's designed a variety of impressive pieces for Dracula, so many that it's hard for her to choose a favorite.

"I'm excited about them all," she admits. "I'll see one at a fitting and say, 'I love it; it's my favorite,' and then see another I love."

She says there will also be lots of accessories and embellishments, like brooches for the women, watch chains, gauntlets and leather. She's pushing things into an avant-garde realm with asymmetrical cuts and full skirts on men's coats.

"[We're] taking things a step further than normal steampunk would," she says.

Dracula's sultry side

On the other side of the studio, Marguerite Luksik works on a technically demanding solo. Her movements are angular and contained, and her shoulders roll inward with a subtle shimmy. There's something erotic about this ballet, but it feels natural given the subject matter. As Smith says, Dracula is "just sexy."

The movements Smith creates often have a lush, sensuous feel. But while Dracula features rippling hips and intertwining limbs, one of the most startling moments in rehearsal is when Smith, standing in for Dracula, grips Luksik around the neck with one hand. The gesture is aggressive and suggestive but not gratuitous.

The entire company has just joined the smaller group of dancers who reside in Madison year-round. Usually, the dancers who aren't rehearsing will grab a bite or leave, but today they're hanging around in the studio, watching.

The dancers rehearsing look quite comfortable with the edgier steps. Smith senses that they're seeking a challenge.

"As a dancer, you're looking for that stuff that will really push you," Smith says, "so [we're] pushing them into uncharted territory."

Smith knows that dancers must be versatile to sustain their careers.

"Dance, especially ballet, is the shortest career of all the performing art forms, so you have got to keep yourself marketable," he explains.

That's one reason he's supplemented Dracula with movements that fall outside the traditional realm of classical ballet. It takes security in your technique, your body and yourself to perform these elements. Smith hopes this confidence will help propel his dancers throughout their careers. And he knows it will help their stage presence when they perform his new ballet.

Smith also considers a dancer's look and movement style when casting. Initially, the only performer cast was principal dancer Luksik, who will portray Lucy, the character Smith calls "a sassy spitfire." When thinking of whom to cast as Dracula's brides, he wanted dancers who are "slinky, sultry, very flexible" and "long-limbed with spidery arms." Dracula needed to be tall and commanding.

Setting the stage

Scenic designer Jen Trieloff has created an impressive set with huge platforms, gears and a large, round screen for video images. Smith muses that people have become accustomed to seeing lavish, large-scale productions like The Lion King, and that too often ballet and opera rely on just two-dimensional drops for backgrounds. That's why he decided to up the ante.

"I wanted to do something with platforms and steel, and use videography and technology to enhance that theatrical experience," he says.

Minnesota Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet have recently offered their own versions of Dracula, but Smith's additions of a steampunk aesthetic and an original, live rock score set his apart. He hopes these distinctions, and the ambition of the production, will draw a broader-than-usual audience.

There's just one problem: The word "ballet" can be a liability.

He's joking, but he's got a point.

"People get these preconceived notions that it's stuffy, pink, all tutus and boring," he says. "We'd probably sell a hell of a lot more tickets if we didn't have 'ballet' in our name."

Then again, the prospect of seeing Dracula dance may help fill seats with warm bodies. And the surprises that unfold onstage could lure them back to the ballet for years to come.

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