Upping the blood count

Balletomanes may find it a pain in the neck, but NBT's latest offering has the Dracula Society licking its lips. By Stephanie Ferguson
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The Independent Culture
Sinister in black capes and crinolines, bat-wing tattoos and blood- red mouths, they gathered to do homage to the Prince of the Undead. And that was just the audience.

The Dracula Society turned out in force on Monday night for the premiere of Northern Ballet Theatre's spectacular new dance-drama and the result was a standing ovation and more floral tributes skimming down from the boxes than you'd find on an Olympic podium.

Artistic director Christopher Gable has deliberately set out to capture a new young dance audience with a total theatrical experience and it works. In these days of short attention-spans and youthful fascination for the macabre, he's on to a nice little earner and Dracula will doubtless end up with a cult following in Rocky Horror mode.

Overall, it's more theatre, less ballet. Newcomers to dance will love it, classical purists will hate it, but they should shed their blinkers and accept it for what it is: a ripping yarn simply translated from page to stage.

From the soaring masonry of Castle Dracula, with its forbidding gates and blood-red lanterns to the multi-level wrought-iron set, black as Whitby jet, Lez Brotherston's designs are breathtaking. Scudding clouds across a misty full moon, billowing muslin drapes, the lead-coffin horror of the Carfax Abbey crypt contrasting with the lightness, gaiety and tinkling teaspoons of the Whitby Winter Garden, he gives us a visually thrilling and chilling clutch of scenes all atmospherically right.

With a couturier's eye for detail, Brotherston's costumes are equally ravishing, Dracula almost flying down the staircase in sweeping red velvet or toying with his prey in rich black frock-coats cut as sharp as his fangs.

Choreographer Michael Barrett-Pink collaborated with the dancers to evolve the physical vocabulary and has created some extraordinary moves for Denis Malinkine as the Count, a mesmeric, sexually fascinating mix of serpentine undulations and awkward, predatory moves. As close to the old illustrations of wall-walking vampires you're likely to get, Malinkine hangs from the sanatorium balcony by his feet, putting the bat back into acrobatics, gradually unfolding his wings to slither down to his victim, uncoiling across the stage like a cobra. Saturnine, distant, hyper-controlled, Malinkine's Dracula is a master to die for, moving with such strange stealth he seems to hover above the ground.

The pounding heartbeat of Philip Feeney's score throbs through the ballet, with a strong Eastern European feel and a powerfully Satanic chorale for the Mass. Action hinges on three main pas de deux and the seduction of Lucy Westenra is an orgasmic bit of blood-letting, the Count biting hungrily at her wrists and throat, more Casanova than Nosferatu.

There's more than a hint of homo-erotica in Dracula's encounter with Harker, Omar Gordon flung about like a rag doll, heaved on high as if crucified, then seemingly spared the vampire's kiss.

Faithful to Bram Stoker's original novel, the choreography draws on the psychic spark between Mina and the Count, and their duo gives us a fleeting glimpse of the vampire's own frailty. There are spectacular lifts, Jayne Regan flipped around like an exotic cape or clinging on to him like a young bat to its mother. In a gory moment, the Count draws a nail across his chest and suckles his new bride.

The Whitby tea-dance is a brilliant bit of freeze-frame, the revellers suddenly trapped in slow motion as Dracula appears to the mournful toll of ships' bells. But the "Blood Mass", with its seething undead, is too Thriller-meets-Les Miserables for comfort and the final denouement too Hammer House of Horror. The vampire gets his chips with an overdone stake. Bram Stoker would have loved it.

n To Sat, Bradford Alhambra (01274 752000); then 24-28 Sept, Hull New Theatre (01482 226655); 1-5 Oct, Nottingham Theatre Royal (0115 948 2626); 22-26 Oct, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000); 29 Oct-2 Nov, Sheffield Lyceum (0114 276 9922); 12-16 Nov, Blackpool Grand (01253 28372)