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Houston Ballet Delivers Lavish 'Dracula,' Marking Novel's 100 Years

In an era when vampires turn up in magazine ads, comic strips, and movies, Houston Ballet is celebrating the grandfather of them all, "Dracula."

Marking the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker's gothic thriller, artistic director Ben Stevenson has staged a three-act production of "Dracula" that mixes the poetic-fantastic mood of romantic ballet with the high technology of modern staging. The massive $500,000 production, which was co-produced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, is expected to travel widely when the Houston company begins touring. Its first showing elsewhere will be in Los Angeles in July.

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Stevenson's notion of a danceable "Dracula" had been in his mind for several years (it is not the only "Dracula" ballet). But the concentrated effort took 18 months, during which music was commissioned, enormous and complicated sets were created, and lavish costumes designed.

The world premiere of "Dracula," which opened March 13 and continues through March 23 in Houston's Wortham Theater Center, has proved to be a major box office draw. A ninth performance was added by demand.

The ballet makes use of a mere sliver of Stoker's epistolary novel, Stevenson choosing to keep his sleek vampire in and out of his ruined castle high in the mountains of Transylvania. The choreographer sees Dracula as a complex figure: a once-elegant aristocrat whose ghoulish blood-siphoning practices are indicated but not played up, and whose mesmeric sex appeal helps him attract the village beauties.

Stoker's Count Dracula made do with a handful of brides at home while he wandered the world for other conquests. But Stevenson kept his villain at home, seeing the possibilities of a string of wives, in fact, a corps de ballet.

The count is danced nimbly and well-acted by principal Timothy O'Keefe. Joining his throng is the red-haired Flora, delivered to the count by a sinister black coach with spectral horses. The scene is as fiercely chilling as the arrival of the evil Carabosse in "The Sleeping Beauty."

If the first act with the brides seems to run on too long and is in need of more choreographic fine-tuning, the second act brings a rush of fresh air.

The rustic townsfolk enjoy good-humored byplay as the lovely Svetlana (Barbara Bears) and her charmingly naive beau Fredrick (Carlos Acosta) pursue their courtship.

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The absolute highlight of Act II is the spectacular dancing of Acosta, the company's Cuban-born principal. His solo spins, great barrel vaulting turns, and sustained leaps are perfect in timing and style. His landings are flawless and smooth as satin.

This rare dancer whose erect and perfect body recalls the classic statues, was tenderly solicitous as a partner to Bears. She brings her own impressive technique to the stunning pas de deux.

Stevenson's "Dracula" is a thriller. The dreaded coach delivers the count to snare the beloved Svetlana and a complex third act provided an eerie battle scene back at the castle, with an eventual happy ending.

Possibly there is too much sameness to the folk dancing in Act II, and doubtless the company is tightening its uses of flying, which were not entirely effective on opening night. But the coup de theatre at the end, when as a bat Dracula flies to extinction, is a nifty touch of showmanship.

Conductor-arranger John Lanchbery, now a principal guest conductor of the Australian Ballet, who had worked on the Grieg score for Stevenson's "Peer Gynt," chose Liszt for Dracula. Cleverly selecting, orchestrating some and stitching all together, he provided a supportive score, well-played by the Houston Ballet Orchestra.

Tom Boyd, head of Houston Ballet's production staff, was the designer of the massive, moody sets. Atlanta-based Judanna Lynn designed the elaborate array of costumes, including Dracula's huge cloak, with elegant detail. Timothy Hunter designed the unusually sensitive lighting.

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