Dracula (1996)

Northern Ballet Theatre
Duration 100’
3 Act Ballet for full orchestra, with pre-recorded tape (with the chorus of Opera North, soprano: Pauline Thulborn)
Director and synopsis: Christopher Gable
Choreography: Michael Pink
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting design: Paul Pyant
Studio design: Philip Feeney and Murray Laverick
First performed at the Alhambra, Bradford in September 1996 by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conducted by John Pryce-Jones.
Recorded by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conducted by John Pryce-Jones, and produced on CD by Naxos.
Original Cast: Denis Malinkine (Dracula), Jayne Regan (Mina), Omar Gordon (Harker)

Feeney’s second full-length ballet for Northern Ballet Theatre, Dracula, was probably the NBT production with the best creative collaborative process, there being a lot of constructive interaction between the members of the creative team, a team that Christopher Gable had progressively assembled during the early nineties. It was a genuine collaboration from start to finish, instigated by an inspirational twelve-hour lunch at Gable’s house in Leytonstone. The musical input of both Gable and Pink was invaluable, and helped forge the dramatic and powerful score. For example, it was Pink who saw that the Edwardian Whitby scene should be premised by a wild musical storm, the storm that in fact brings Dracula to England, and which occurs later in the scene. While it can be said that throughout the ballet the music sets the scene literally, even geographically (both Transylvania and Whitby are depicted very specifically) its primary function is to underscore the terror of the narrative, both by establishing an atmosphere of fear and by controlling the momentum of the drama. Gable and Pink were keen on portraying the powerful sexual charisma of the protagonist; Feeney’s score is much more concerned about the question of an intangible evil.

Musically Dracula is thematically one of Feeney’s most highly structured works. The prologue that opens the ballet, beginning with a pulse, a half-heartbeat, that was originally designed to be soft, soon introduces the sinister leitmotif, and it is this leitmotif that permeates virtually everything in the score, even when the music does not have a disturbing quality. It is as if Dracula is always around, unseen and evil, a presence from which it is impossible to hide. This tight thematic integration creates a very specific harmonic and melodic language that gives the score its unique feel, and an overriding sense of uniformity. The tonal organisation is also taut – of all Feeney’s ballets it is in Dracula that the key structure is most strictly ordered, designed to support and reinforce the dramatic narrative. For example in Act 1, the tonality of every scene drops successively by a semitone until it reaches the opening key again for the powerful Dracula/Harker duet that climaxes the act; this descending tonality creates not only a strong sense of dread, but a terrible inevitability as well.

If the leitmotif is his language, then the sound of Dracula is an eerie keyboard dulcimer sound, which has the capacity to appear almost imperceptibly through the orchestral texture. It acts as a kind of poisonous halo, chilling the atmosphere and giving the choreographer a real opportunity for dramatic control. The sound is actually a tremolo mandolin patch on the Korg X3, one that has caused us a lot of difficulty, since it seems to be unique to that particular synth model which is fast becoming obsolete.

Certainly for Dracula, the full orchestra is supplemented by a variety of extra external elements which are co-opted and integrated into the score. Some of these are articulated by the orchestra, (the trombone’s distant wolf howls for example), especially by the ample percussion department, with their whips and tea cups, and the depiction of a dripping tap in the Victorian sanitorium by woodblocks soaked with a (wet) reverb. Certainly when Gable first heard the urgent knocking in the prologue he said that at first it sounded like someone trying to get in, and then as it increased in urgency, he felt it sounded like someone trying to get out! Of course, some of the foreign sounds are electronic. The keyboard player plays a sampler, as well as the synth, containing all sorts of gongs and bells and alien objects, most notably the deafening and terrifying screams at the end of Act 2 when Lucy Westenra re-awakes as a vampire.

The most important addition to the orchestra is of course the pre-recorded chorus for the gothic Blood Litany that heralds the climax of the ballet. Rather than using the Latin liturgy, the litany was translated into Romanian, which gives a distinctive sense of something ancient and unknown. While it would have been tremendous to have a live chorus, necessity dictated that it should be pre-recorded and synchronised via an extended click section, together with the heartbeats and the flying bats. The Litany is powerfully sung by the chorus of Opera North, with Pauline Thulborn as the solo soprano. The recording took place in the natural acoustic of Elland Church in Yorkshire. At one point during the recording, the proceedings were held up by, somewhat uncannily, a bat flying around the church!

The ballet has enjoyed considerable success abroad, in particular in the US. Choreographer, Michael Pink, currently artistic director of Milwaukee Ballet, has constantly championed it and has been instrumental in taking it on to three continents, starting with Atlanta Ballet in 1998, conducted by Robert Chumbley. It has frequently been re-staged since then, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet (2002), Norwegian Ballet (2002), and Colorado Ballet (2003-2010), where it was recently restaged by Denis Malinkine (the original Dracula), and of course Milwaukee Ballet. It continues to thrill and chill audiences some fifteen years after its world premiere. Of course the technological advances over those years have called for an entirely new sound design, but the score remains a powerful experience.