Love bites bewitchingly in NCDT's 'Dracula'

Lawrence Toppman
The Charlotte Observer

In 1897, an Irish novelist found the theme that made him immortal. An Austrian musician wrote preliminary sketches of the sprawling symphony that proved him the great orchestral composer of his day. And a neurologist toiled at the book that would become a cornerstone of psychoanalysis, "The Interpretation of Dreams."

But Bram Stoker, Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud had a common theme: the way subconscious minds process input from the world and reveal our deepest selves, often against our wills.

The full-length ballet "Dracula," set by choreographer Mark Godden, connects the three men's work in a whirling kind of waking nightmare, and N.C. Dance Theatre brings it to life with all the melodrama, eroticism and silliness Godden might have wished. Whether we're giggling at a dummy of Jonathan Harker being dropped from Dracula's castle walls or gasping as the vampire slices open his chest so Mina Murray can drink his blood, we see the full spectrum of Godden's ideas at work.

He knows the story can seem faintly ridiculous today, so he brings us back after intermission with a goofy pantomime summary of the tale. Yet even there, he reminds us that we may laugh with our conscious minds at these folks, but our subconscious will feel a horrifying thrill of kinship or recognition.

Godden uses Mahler's emotion-drenched music intelligently, often to underline action but occasionally as what seems like ironic commentary. (Mahler does write about raising the dead in his "Resurrection" symphony, but not exactly in this fashion.)

The dancers approach everything but the pantomime with unsmiling intensity, which is the right choice. Even the gargoyles who scamper about Lucy Westenra's bedroom, four beasts that look like auxiliary members of the flying monkey squad from "The Wizard of Oz," take their mischief seriously. (Members of N.C. Dance Theatre 2, the training company, play the gargoyles and nuns and townspeople skillfully.)

The story is divided into two acts. In the first, Dracula menaces Lucy in England, where she's defended by three suitors and vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. In the second, the four men go to Transylvania to protect Jonathan and Mina, his fiancée, from being slain or "turned" by the Count.

The opening night casting was fine, though actors switch roles throughout the run. Dustin Layton was a striking young Dracula who commanded rather than enticed. Traci Gilchrest was eerily effective as the emaciated Lucy and ferocious as the clawing hellbat she became. Sasha Janes was all innocent zeal as Harker, while Alessandra Ball had a spooky dignity as repressed Mina, whose mouth was still stained with Dracula's blood at the curtain call. Even at that final bow, it was possible for us to smile and be horrified at once.