The themes in Bram Stoker’s groundbreaking 1897 novel Dracula encompass a variety of Victorian-era — and, frankly, modern-day — anxieties surrounding female sexuality, xenophobia, and disease. The relationship between Count Dracula and Jonathan Harker, the young lawyer drawn to the vampiric villain’s Romanian castle, has also elicited theories about the book’s role as a piece of LGBTQ literature.
A new production from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre embraces, rather than avoids, the latter, giving it a queer spin not seen in similar interpretations.
“This production is a bit edgier than what we’ve previously done because there's a lot more focus on power dynamics and sexual content in general,” says Dr. Kathryn Gigler, PBT’s acting executive director.
For one weekend only, local ballet fans will be able to sink their teeth into the Pittsburgh premiere of Michael Pink’s Dracula. Originally debuted in 1996, the dance adaptation — staging at the Benedum Center from Fri., Feb. 10-Sun., Feb. 12 — has, according to PBT, become widely regarded as being “far ahead of its time.”
For those unfamiliar with the over 120-year-old Dracula text and its many adaptations, the story follows Harker as he ventures to a remote part of Romania to oversee a real estate transaction for his client, a mysterious figure living in the Carpathian Mountains. After driving the young lawyer to madness with the help of his three brides, Count Dracula travels to London where he tracks down Harker’s fiancee, Mina Murray, and begins to prey on her and her friend, Lucy Westenra.
From there, Mina and three of Lucy’s suitors join up with the vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, to take Dracula down.
The new ballet differs from Ben Stevenson’s version of Dracula, previously presented by PBT in 2017. Gigler explains that Stevenson’s Dracula relies on “more typical ballet storylines” and strays from the original source material. The Pink version, on the other hand, draws more from Stoker’s epistolary work and “really focuses on the relationships between the characters.”
One of those relationships, that of Dracula and Harker, brings a refreshing perspective to an artform not regarded for portraying queer storylines. Gigler cites “really powerful, intense partnering work,” not only between Dracula and the two heroines, Mina and Lucy, but also Jonathan and Dracula.
“This production really looks at how Jonathan and Dracula’s relationship does have the sexual component to it,” she adds. “There's a sexualized subtext to it, and then, of course, there's the experiences that Jonathan has with the three vampiric brides of Dracula, right?”
The dedication to the source material extends to the music, with one chorale mass being translated from the original Latin into Romanian.
Gigler adds that PBT took an unorthodox approach to the ballet by adding more stylized sound, including vocalizations and effects like howling. This plays into what she promises will be an immersive “cinematic” experience defined by projections, “gothic scenery,” period costumes, large set pieces such as a spiral iron staircase, Dracula’s sarcophagus, and what she calls a “very sinister bed.”
And, like with any vampire story, there will be blood. Gigler points to one scene where Dracula slits his chest with his own fingernail and encourages a would-be victim to drink from the wound.
“So, that’s far more graphic and really explicit than a lot of the violence you see portrayed in ballet in particular,” says Gigler. “I think it’s a very heightened experience for audience members, particularly those who are used to what can be more staid in terms of the ballet audience experience.”
Sticking with the bit, PBT even partnered with the American Red Cross to sponsor a blood drive on Feb. 3, during which donors could receive discounted tickets to the performance.
Given all the gore and sexual themes, it’s not surprising, then, that the production is recommended for audience members 14 and older. Mature patrons unafraid to experience a choreographed vision of Stoker’s supernatural tale should grab their tickets soon, however, since performances are limited.
“We’re only doing it for Valentine’s Day weekend,” says Gigler. “We bring Dracula back as a production on a semi-regular basis in terms of programming because people do love to see that story told in ballet. This production has a kind-of cult status across audiences in different cities where it’s been before. So, we’re really hoping that Pittsburgh also loves it.”
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents Dracula. Fri., Feb. 10-Sun., Feb. 12. Benedum Center. Seventh St. and Penn Ave., Downtown. $35-125. pbt.org