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Northern Ballet goes for the jugular

Top hats were de rigueur at the Bradford Alhambra on Monday, along with opera cloaks, rip-me bodices and dingy silk crinolines. But you knew it wasn't a re-run of The Good Old Days by the preponderance of black lipstick. The Dracula Society had rallied up north for the first- ever full-length ballet devoted to its idol. And Northern Ballet Theatre's marketing department was having a ball too. They were even selling bulbs of garlic in the snack bar.

A sense of gothic ludicrousness infused the premiere of NBT's Dracula with fun, but in fact director Christopher Gable has aimed for a thoroughly serious account of Bram Stoker's novel of 1897 - a book which pursues its theme more grippingly than any of its myriad film versions. But how to reduce 300 pages to three acts with all the detail crucial to the plot? I presume it was Gable's own good idea to cut the main locations down to two - Transylvania and Whitby - but the development of narrative he left in the hands of his cast. This proved to be a weakness and a strength.

Gable is no ordinary dance-director with a starry past. His stage experience in straight theatre (with Peter Brook) as well as ballet has left him an enthusiastic advocate of actors' improvisation techniques as the basis for all preparation. In Dracula this pays off magnificently in the strength and subtlety of the acting. The neatly suited Jonathan Harker (Omar Gordon) is every bit the small-town solicitor, nervously newly wed and anxious to please. When, at Castle Dracula, three gorgeous, throat-fixated woman launch a voluptuous assault on his chastity, he responds as would a well brought-up Victorian forced to confront pornography - scandalised, but reluctant to forgo the pleasures.

His wife Mina (Jayne Regan) develops convincingly from innocent bride to semi-complicit cohort of the Count - a nice ambiguity that is left unresolved. Even when she finally falls prey to Drac's deadly embrace, her whole-body spasms as he whirls her violently about his shoulders might just as easily be from the ecstasy as from her fear. In the mental asylum, Jeremy Kerridge, as the pathetic schizophrenic Mr Renfield, achieves the grisly distinction of making us want to cry rather than laugh as he "dances" in his straitjacket.

Where NBT's committee approach falls down is in the plain telling of the story, the logic of the plot. Harker's homoerotic struggle with the Count in Act I may be theatrical shorthand for mental domination and physical incarceration (and it makes an excuse for some nifty leaps and spins), but those who haven't read the book are left confused as to whether our hero has been fanged or not - a fact crucial to the rest of the plot. And perhaps someone can tell me why, when Mina's friend Lucy falls ill after being vampirised (unbeknown to every character on stage), her doctor immediately thinks to surround her bed with garlic.

But Phillip Feeney's score and Lez Brotherston's designs make such scruples seem petty. Starting from blocks of sound such as an amplified heartbeat, tolling bells and high-pitched swooning vocalises, Feeney erects a majestic structure of staggering complexity, building long arcs of tension that hurl the action on and through each new and exhausting climax.

Brotherston's designs match the music for grandeur, yet dovetail into each other with such economy that we shift from Charing Cross Station to a village inn to a gothic castle in the blinking of an eye. Most seductive scene of all is the tea dance in Whitby - all tinkling silver spoons and white ironwork-like lace doilies - which becomes a freeze-frame wasteland when a storm breaks, the French windows smash, and the spirit of Dracula comes whiffling in on a thin blue beam of light.

Ballet lovers may be disappointed by the relatively small amount of dance in Dracula. The talents of Denis Malinkine as the Count are particularly underused, though his snake and bat impersonations are intriguing, and his sexual presence terrific. But ballet lovers would in this case be missing the point. Gable and his team have gone for whatever means serve their story best. They've gone for theatre. And they've gone for the jugular. I'm a complete sucker for it.

New Theatre, Hull (01482 226655), Tues-Sat; then touring to Nottingham, Edinburgh Sheffield and Blackpool.