Love Bites: Dracula Returns to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for Valentines Day

For a long time vampire stories have sought to answer the age old question: What is our deepest desire as humanity? Whether it be love, lust, or a place to belong, these stories, of course, take us through a journey of what it would be like to live in a world where that desire carries on long after the body expires, and the cravings of lifeblood to satiate it are impossible to keep at bay.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre reminds us of that in Michael Pink’s adaption of the quintessential vampire tale, "Dracula." The story follows our dear friend Jonathan Harker on his journey to Transylvania where unspeakable horrors await him, and what follows from there is the race against time to stop "Dracula" from wreaking any more havoc than he already has.

The ballet, written to be a close adaption of Stoker’s novel, surprisingly holds that title pretty well considering that it condenses the story into a little over two hours. We begin the horrific tale somewhat in media res; we enter Jonathan’s nightmare, depicting his and Mina’s wedding and (spoiler alert) Mina’s transformation into a vampire, which happens later in the novel.

I found myself so immersed in the show it only felt like each act was 15 minutes, when in reality, 45 minutes passed by before the intermissions. It’s hard not to be immersed —from the moment the show begins, it doesn’t wait for the audience to be brought into this world of gothic horror; a loud, thrumming heartbeat resounds throughout the entire theatre, bringing you directly into Jonathan’s nightmares. Here we get just a small bite of the theatrical feast of what’s to come; through the veil of the mesh drop down, we get a glimpse at the production — the set is made up of scaffolding and stone, the yellowed lighting of the dim Victorian bulbs, and the projections depicting the journey ahead.

Dancers in devilish masks taunt Jonathan (Corey Bourbonniere) and Mina (Hannah Carter), who bursts out of a coffin, foreshadowing her transformation into a creature of the night. After waking from this nightmare, Jonathan begins his fateful journey to Transylvania, first bidding farewell to his wife, Mina, and his longtime friend, Van Helsing (Jack Hawn). This strong setup sets the tone for the show and does a great job at pulling the audience into the story, keeping them glued to their seats throughout the show.

The set design was impressively utilized throughout the ballet, from the swift scene changes of Dracula’s castle (wrought-iron gates and all) to how set pieces were incorporated into the choreography of the scene… literally (one example of this I found particularly creative is the way Jonathan’s boat ride to Transylvania is interpreted: He stands on a freestanding staircase as dancers spin it around). The costuming was incredible, especially the dresses in the opening of Act II during the party — they keep that Victorian style without being dangerous to the dancers and touching the floor.

This adaption breathes some (undead) life into the story, chock full of emotion in every pirouette and sway of the dancers. As this is my first time watching a ballet, I don’t really have the correct vocabulary to describe the dancers' movements accurately, so I’ll try my best. One of my favorite moments in the ballet was when Lucy (performed by Tommie Lin O’ Hanlon) was enchanted by Dracula (Colin McCaslin) during the party — she rises to her toes and dances towards him, completely in a trance and subject to his every command. They reach the top of the stairs, where Dracula bites her, and, with her arms splayed, leaves her to be found by the rest of the party.

There were some cool moments where Dracula would just slink over things, like the railings of staircases, and even people (he slid himself over Jonathan’s shoulder and onto the floor in a rather passionate dance sequence). Another neat bit of him doing this is when he leaves Renfield’s (Joseph Parr) cell to go to Mina’s room — he hangs upside down from the railing like a bat, grabs onto the railing and lowers himself to the ground, where the floor fills with fog and he emerges from it, as if he had become the fog himself. The ensemble dancing scenes were also incredible — I especially loved the Undead’s dance at the end. They all ooze out of crypts in the wall, writhing and wailing, longing for a taste of blood. Overall, the choreography truly was great to see, and the dancers did an incredible job making these characters feel real, especially Dracula, whose stage presence was incredibly over-the-top but sinister.

To those who read the book who may be wondering the same thing I did — yes, the ballet takes some liberties. HOWEVER, those differences were justified to make the plot coherent for ballet. For example, there wasn’t going to be enough time to go through every night Dracula visits Lucy, and the (multiple) blood transfusions that follow. The only thing I have any issue with was how Mina was handled towards the end — instead of helping out the gang to watch for Dracula using her psychic connection with him, she immediately disappears after being bitten and the gang goes after her. I feel as though the aspect of Mina’s “strong female” characteristics could’ve been better represented in that moment, but some things were cut for time, which is understandable; it’s hard to condense nearly 400 pages of the book (or nine-hour audiobook) into two-and-a-half hours of dance. Additionally, Mina’s attempt to understand Renfield tried to show that side of her that isn’t just a damsel in distress, which did help a bit to cover that part of her character. Honestly though, the entire production was so mesmerizing, I can overlook the inaccuracies.

Wish you could’ve made the show but still want to quench the thirst for a good ballet performance? There are a few other upcoming shows in this year’s season, including "The Masters Program" with the PBT orchestra, as well as "Sleeping Beauty," also with the PBT orchestra, so go check them out if you get the chance!