The tiaras were out in force last week to greet a famous foreign nobleman, newly arrived in London. Not just tiaras, but flowing capes, Victorian bridal lace, powdered bosoms, black lipstick - the full regalia of the Vampire Society, whose presence has become as much a first-night fixture for Northern Ballet Theatre's touring Dracula as the merchandise stands selling boxed garlic in the foyer.
It has taken three years for the show to come to the capital. It was conceived by Christopher Gable, NBT's late director, to mark the centenary of Bram Stoker's novel in 1996. The film-maker Ken Russell, a friend of Gable's, had advised him that "in 100 years, Dracula has never once failed the box office". Maybe so, but it's a mark of this production's faithfulness to the book that it has been so heartily endorsed by connoisseurs. After three years on the road, it has changed a lot, and all for the better.
Its key strengths remain, notably the fabulous orchestral score by Philip Feeney, which draws on the full range of shivery horror effects, takes in romping Bulgarian folk music and Victorian tea-dance tunes, and masterfully ratchets up the tension with tubular bells and Carmina Burana-style choirs. Lez Brotherston's sets are magnificent too: massive stonework for Dracula's castle, a Whitby tearoom of billowing net curtains and wrought iron, then full-on Gothic horror in a rotting crypt.
On its first showing in Leeds, this inspired framework had seemed to overpower the dramatic content of the piece. Now, the performance has grown in clarity and purpose to match it. Denis Malinkine's Count is remarkably fine: grizzled yet athletically powerful, with a snakily sexual charge. Michael Pink's choreography serves him especially well in his terrifying duet with Harker, in which the ghoul attempts to overcome his house guest with violent leaps and lifts and sinewy, vulture-like swoops. Dracula enters the stage in various animal guises - upside-down like a bat, slithering on his stomach like a snake - and after he has made a conquest, vanishes as if sucked violently into a black hole. I've no idea how they do this, but it's clever.
The drama proceeds at a seat-gripping pace, and the dance never snags the action. The character of Lucy, Dracula's first victim (Charlotte Broom), is beautifully developed through her vivacious partnerings and pirouettes. And Mina Harker's charitable pas de deux with a lunatic in a straitjacket adds just the right note of uneasy weirdness. There are minor obscurities: is the gibbering Mr Renshaw a vampire or just a nutter? Is Harker's encounter with the vampire women a fantasy or a flashback? Why oh why does he not wake up to prevent his wife "suckling" from Dracula's teat (yuk!) in his own bed? But these are worries a tweak of the synopsis could put right.
More importantly, the spectator's spine tingles on cue, the horror never tips over into farce, and the sense of repressed Victorian sexuality is unrelenting. Some moments are so good, they should carry a health warning. As the dead Lucy suddenly resurrects from her hospital bed as a snarling Nosferatu, as the tension mounts to the deafening stake-through-the-heart climax, I'm not sure that a dicky heart could take the strain.
Over at The Place, the Spring Loaded season showed dance of a more subdued temper. The choreographer Mark Bruce, whose works have made a feature of rock music (memorably with the singer P J Harvey), produced a solo to selections from Tom Waits's album Kid Drinking Fire. Dancer Diana Loosmore cut an alluring figure in tight snakeskin jeans, and her moody hip twitches, thrust-out breasts and caressing hand movements added to the floorshow theme.
I supposed it was meant with irony, but like Waits's gruffly macho songs, it felt furiously incorrect. Can a girl wiggling her bum at you for minutes on end make any worthwhile comment about titillation and laddish culture? This only seemed to endorse it.
Two pieces by Colin Poole were more clear-cut, though the nonsense programme note about "startling cosmic relationships" was off-putting. The first, danced by the lustrous Joanne Fong, was simply a well-developed sequence of dances focusing on the upper body. Poole's solo for himself was snappier and all to do with the feet, whose agile but large-strided patternings were like a frenzied needle on a dial. The final work, by Arthur Pita, should have been more amusing than it was. Conceived on the lines of "Sparky's Magic Piano", it meant to show the fun that comes of a dancer's unabashed response to music. Veteran dancer Diana Payne Meyers, looking like Miss Havisham's great aunt, did a marvellous job of responding like a five-year-old to the classical pops the said piano churned out (Beethoven's Moonlight, a spot of Chopin), but was hindered by fey interferences from minor characters. The lasting impression was that Sparky's batteries had run flat.
`Dracula': Sadler's Wells, EC1 (0171 863 8000) to Sat; then touring to Leeds and Glasgow.
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