Madison Ballet’s newest work steps about as far away from sugar plums and snowflakes as it’s possible to go.
With a pounding rock score, sensual, contemporary movement and an undead protagonist who preys upon the living, “Dracula” marks a movement toward the mature that has been a long time coming for the 30-year-old company.
“‘Dracula’ is the culmination of a lot of interesting things we’ve done,” said artistic director W. Earle Smith. The new piece’s “innovation, style and creativity will hopefully … get us out of that ‘Nutcracker’ image.”
Smith knew for years that he wanted to compose a ballet based on “Dracula,” going back to his roots in contemporary ballet. There is no shortage of “Dracula” ballets, including works produced by Royal Winnipeg Ballet (1998), Inland Pacific Ballet near Los Angeles (2002) and Michael Pink’s version for Milwaukee Ballet (1996).
But Smith wanted to do his own choreography, and the classical compilations most ballets used for their “Dracula” scores didn’t appeal to him.
So Smith read Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, watched movie adaptations and got in touch with Michael Massey, a local composer and performer, to write original music. The pair eventually decided to strip the story to its “bare essentials” — the love triangle among Mina Murray, her fiancé Jonathan Harker and the vampire, Count Dracula.
“We can’t tell everything in the story because it’s no words, all movement,” Smith said. “For me, what came out was the whole sexuality of it. There’s something very appealing about a vampire.
“It would be cool to get bitten, or to live like a vampire for a while. But then you shy away from it. Dracula, in my ballet, just being close to him … there’s something seductive about him.”
The story of “Dracula” is familiar to many: The vampire count travels from Transylvania to England, where he preys first upon Lucy (Marguerite Luksik), a young friend of Mina’s (Jennifer Tierney).
Dismayed at her symptoms, Lucy’s doctor calls in Van Helsing (Jacob Ashley). Ultimately, it is too late for Lucy, who turns into a vampire, but when Mina is threatened, her fiancé, Harker (Brian Roethlisberger), and Van Helsing team up to capture and kill Dracula for good.
Matthew Linzer, a 6-foot-4 dancer from San Francisco, plays Dracula, whom Smith envisions as a dark, magnetic presence. He has also added a corps of gypsies and minions who respond to the count’s demands, for a total cast of 10 men and eight women.
Massey, a pianist and songwriter, composed the drum- and synth-heavy rock score that drives “Dracula.” A former frontman for the bands Boys in White and Chaser, Massey last worked with the ballet on “An Evening of Romance” in 2011. This is the first time he’s composed a full ballet.
“I’ve always loved ballet,” Massey said. “It’s been a joy. The opportunity was a godsend. Our relationship was such that it came about very easily.”
The “Dracula” pit — violin, guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboard — includes several of Massey’s old Chaser bandmates, including Michael John Ripp on guitar and Tony Cerniglia on drums.
Contemporary dance often starts with movement and adds music later, but that’s not how Smith works. The choreographer George Balanchine, whose style informs Madison Ballet’s repertoire, believed in “music first,” a philosophy Smith subscribes to.
“The music dictates the characters, and I layer on top the movement,” Smith said, recalling a collaborative week with Massey at the former artist residence Edenfred in 2010.
“They have a beautiful piano at Edenfred,” he said. “We fleshed out some short melodies for some of the characters.”
Some pieces in “Dracula” evolved and changed; others got scrapped completely. At one point, they looked to classic horror for inspiration.
“We listened to a bunch of horror movie scores, like ‘Saw’ and ‘The Exorcist,’” Massey said. “Not for content really, but for emotion and sentiment. And I came back with ‘Lucy’s tomb.’ It’s probably my favorite piece in the ballet.”
Designers involved in the production have been “champing at the bit,” Smith said, to bring this new “Dracula” to the stage. Set designer Jen Trieloff used steel columns to create a gothic feel. Costumer Karen Brown-Larimore found that steampunk, a kind of Victorian/modern style, was a perfect fit for the ballet’s ancient-yet-modern aesthetic.
“It has enough of a Victorian feel, but girls can have short skirts and corsets on the outside — things that are more danceable,” she said. “I wanted to push it.”
Brown-Larimore outfits the dancers in dark reds and earthy colors. The leather pieces still allow them to move, and the look is angular — vests are longer on one side than the other, skirts on both men and women are “fuller than historically accurate.”
Because steampunk is a visual mash-up of the 21st century and a previous era, it gave the costumer more freedom.
“My interpretation of steampunk is, if electricity had never been created and the world ran on steam, what would (Victorian dress) be like today?” Brown-Larimore said. “It would have evolved.”
Brown-Larimore’s approach to costumes resembled Smith’s approach to the ballet itself, taking artistic liberties with the story and putting his own stamp on the movement.
“As soon as you put ballet in the name, there’s all these preconceived notions of what ballet is,” Smith said. “It’s so much bigger than all of that. Personally, ‘Dracula’ is exactly what I need to be doing at this moment in my career.
“And this organization needs to be doing what some of the other (Overture) residents are doing ... they’re breaking themselves out of the box.”
For Madison Ballet, Smith said, “Dracula” is a very calculated risk.
“It’s what the audience, the community, is ready for,” Smith said. “This might sound a little arrogant, but … I know a good thing when I see it.”