Colorado Ballet’s Dracula Thrills

Colorado Ballet’s Dracula Thrills

Dracula - Chandra Kuykendall and Domenico Luciano by Allen Birnbach. Image courtesy of Colorado Ballet.
Dracula – Chandra Kuykendall and Domenico Luciano by Allen Birnbach. Image courtesy of Colorado Ballet.

Ask any dancer why he or she enjoys performing, and you will hear the following among the answers: to make people feel an emotion. Too often in contemporary productions, the goal is simply to showcase the technical proficiency of its dancers and lighting effects. Colorado Ballet’s Dracula is the perfect antithesis to this type of ballet: dramatic, theatrical, and focused on the experience of the audience. From the elaborate sets, to the finely tuned symphony, to the acting by the dancers, the production successfully left the audience in goosebumps.

Dracula opens unlike any ballet in the classical dance company’s repertoire. As the lights black out, a thudding heartbeat resonates through the theater. The thrill in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on opening night, October 6, was palpable. The house exploded into applause as three dancers in elaborate beast costumes terrorized Jonathan Harker, danced by principal dancer Yosvani Ramos.

Ramos is returning to the stage after an achilles tendon injury, making his dynamic and powerful dancing all the more impressive. Sharon Wehner was a perfect partner, dancing the role of Mina, comforting him in the asylum while confronting her own fears and demons. While Wehner’s light and delicate dancing makes her appear as an otherworldly fairy type, it is her acting ability that connects her to the audience. She is mesmerizing in her humanity, her facial expressions projecting all the way to the balcony seating and forecasting her pain at Harker’s ordeals. This made her transition to Dracula’s expressionless bride-to-be in the final act of the ballet all the more poignant–the light gone from her face, she took on a countenance similar to the mad scene of Giselle, gazing into space in a psychopathic daze.

Domenico Luciano, dancing the role of Dracula, portrayed the role with a sensually machismo dynamic. He has mastered flowing about the stage with very little movement: his first entrance, as he glides slowly down the stairs, seems to not require steps at all. He appears transported about the stage by otherworldly magic. His smooth charm made it easy for the audience to understand the spell women fell under when around him–he seemed, in fact, to be more sensual than scary. That is, however, until he unleashed his animalistic backbend howl, which sent shivers down the spine of this audience member. The same was true during his Act 1 pas de deux with Harker, as he took large lunging steps about the stage that terrified both the character and the audience. Dracula remained calm throughout the pas while Harker panicked, leading to that nightmarish effect in which you try to run but cannot seem to move your feet.  

There was power even in Luciano’s stillness, an unusual feat for a dancer who is typically in constant motion while onstage. He successfully commanded the stage simply by standing statuesquely, hands clasped and dark eyes boring into the audience. Much of this powerful effect was also thanks to the makeup and costuming effects, which transformed the company members into terrifying undead corpses.

While Luciano’s character of Dracula was doubtless the star of the show, props must also be given Renfield, the asylum patient danced on opening night by Francisco Estevez. He contorted to the awkward angles of a man gone mad, and his hand usage was nothing short of genius as his fingers bent into the movement of a lunatic. Estevez utilized not only his hands and body to portray Renfield’s insanity, but also his eyes–even from the audience, the usage of blinks and showing the whites of the eyes made the audience feel as though they were watching the soul of a true madman. Even when restrained in a straightjacket, the eyes of Estevez continued to portray his mental state.  

Van Helsing, danced by Gregory Gonzales, utilized strong stage mime and expressions to translate the storyline for the audience. Stage mime is no simple task; it requires correct timing and clarity of movement in order for it to be comprehensible from the stage. He played his role well, as a trustworthy guide and source of comfort to Mina, and attempted protector of Lucy, danced by Chandra Kuykendall.  

The dancing was not the only superbly executed aspect of the ballet; the sets, lighting, and costumes created the final detail that made Dracula successful. The downlighting and shadows of Dracula’s castle contrasted with the bright and happy lighting of the Grand Hotel scene of Act 2, in which Lucy is seduced by Dracula and becomes his next victim. Kuykendall’s high extensions, precise footwork, and happy uplifted face made the audience connect with this lighthearted and sprightly young character. Kuykendall effectively and painstakingly portrays Lucy’s transition from an energetic youthful woman to ailing weak invalid, and finally to bloodthirsty Nosferatu (undead). As she completes her transition to vampire, her movements become sharp and aggressive, as she strikes and attacks her former friends and throws her entire body into her movement.

While the leads are always the most visible, and therefore most watched, the corps danced so strongly in this ballet as to form the perfect backbone of the production. The pas de deux of the Nosferatu in Dracula’s tomb during Renfield’s sacrifice was animalistic, yet miraculously in sync. The musical counts, while difficult, closely followed the dancers, thanks to the attention of conductor Adam Flatt. The Evans Choir created the creepy vocals of the ballet, with piercing screams and haunting melodies. Attention by the orchestra was given to every detail; during the winter garden scene at the Grand Hotel in Act 2, the audience could even hear the subtle clinking of spoons created at realistically random intervals. Thoughtful moments were created in the background by the corps, as they subtly grazed their throats with their fingertips, foreshadowing the dark blood feed to come.  

If you have never had the scintillating pleasure of attending Colorado Ballet’s dark classic Dracula, or even if you have, this production is not to be missed when next performed. It sets the nightmarish and woeful tone for a Halloween season, delivering the audience to a harrowing scene of undead terror that will not be matched at any haunted house. If you missed the production’s run, be sure to buy tickets in advance for their next performances: Dracula sold out well in advance this season.

Briana Selstad Bosch is a Denver native.  She trained in classical ballet with the late Karen Williamson of American Ballet Theater, Kris Kehl of Colorado Ballet, and Carla Parks’ Academy of Classical Ballet.  She went on to train at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Colorado State University with Melissa Corr and Jane Slusarski-Harris, While at CSU, Briana obtained her degree in Technical Journalism.  Following her undergraduate study, she went on to achieve her Master’s in Business Administration from the University of California – Irvine, while training in dance at the Maple Conservatory and working on the brand management team at Disney.  Following graduate school, she returned to Denver, where she danced with Ballet Ariel for four seasons and performs guest artist work.

Briana founded Ballet5280 in 2017, a ballet company that strives to create a healthful and supportive environment for dancers.  They are in their first season.