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DANCE REVIEW : California Ballet Offers 'Dracula' in San Diego

November 02, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music/Dance Critic

SAN DIEGO — A black hearse drew up to the lobby entrance at Symphony Hall on Friday night--Halloween eve. Somber attendants opened the rear door and ceremoniously withdrew a black casket. The lid slowly opened, and out crept an unreasonable facsimile of the fabled vampirical count of fabulous Transylvania.

Soon a matching white hearse parked nearby. Obviously, this would have to be a case of his and hers. Sure enough. The solemn scene was repeated, this time on behalf of a sweet Draculean bride.

Lights, TV cameras, inaction.

Contrary to expectations, the vampirical visitors weren't part of the show. They were just part of the audience.

So, for that matter, were the lady dressed like Madama Butterfly, the gentleman wearing an Albert Einstein mask, the tiny kid fitted out like a pirate and the surgical couple impersonating an operating-room team. And that wasn't all, folks. The cheerful throng also included an adorable baby mermaid, a wistful Snow White, numerous Frankenstein monsters and assorted bunnies--the cotton-tailed contingent representing both Flopsy-Mopsy land and the ersatz-Playboy empire.

One could savor a lot of foyer gawking, parading and cavorting. At one point in the long, long evening, the management even took time out for a best-costume contest.

They take these things very seriously in San Diego.

Meanwhile, the dauntless California Ballet was busy presenting a minor world premiere that bore all the cultural markings of a world derniere. This was "Dracula," a hard-working, ponderous, ultra-lugubrious semblance of the Bram Stoker novel as conceived and choreographed by Charles Bennett, designed by Tom Ballard and Alan Madsen, bathed in shadow by Ron Groomes and Bennett and performed by a cast that included Paul Sanasardo--a distinctly distinguished presence--flapping his cloak in the title role.

As things turned out, the activity on the elaborately decorated stage wasn't nearly as intriguing as the activity out front.

Loved the intermissions. Hated the show. Oh, well. . . .

Actually, that isn't quite fair. Some of the show was so awful it was fun. Almost.

Bennett hasn't created much of a ballet at all. This "Dracula" is a sometimes amiable, sprawling, unfocused, disoriented mime-play in which the demented characters execute a few all-purpose, hand-me-down, whirling-and-dipping dance steps once in a great while. The maneuvers are intricate, but pointeless.

It is hard to tell if Bennett wants to escort his holiday-mood audience on a lavish camping trip or if he really wants the observers to pay serious attention to the dastardly deeds he depicts.

The most amusing, and most tasteless, element in this muddle involves the taped music. An unknown hand has concocted a sonic brew that juxtaposes the predictable sound effects--squeaks, creaks, drips and howls--with recycled quotations from the romantic repertory.

When a pretty corps of thirsty draculette corpses materializes to vamp the hero, so to speak, the loudspeakers echo--and I do mean echo--the otherworldly kitsch harmonies of that infernal "Lakme" duet. For a while, the viewer fears Bennett is going to invoke "Giselle" here, but, thank badness, he does not give us the Wilis.

After the susceptible heroine has experienced Dracula's little love nibble, she erupts in a rapturous little dance to the lush strains of "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix." Later, she joins the sinister count in a slithery and simplistic pas de deux while the recorded voice of Jessye Norman offers the ultimate Wagnerian benediction of Isolde's "Liebestod."

And so it goes. The teeming masses get to do a few all-purpose Gypsy dances and ballroom exercises. The seconda ballerina expresses her delicate suffering while a fiddle slurps the "Meditation" from "Thais." The resident Bela Lugosi lurk-alike stalks the boards and the broads while venting the erotic unrest of the "Tristan" prelude. When the living dead go a-cringing and a-bobbing, however, the sound track reverts to electronic shrieks and gurgles.

In between these lowly highlights, there is a lot of posturing, a lot of narrative padding and a little Grand Guignol prodding. The flexible stage apparatus emits a lot of smoky mist and drips a lot of ketchup. A few gleaming eyes peak through the canvas woodwork, and one cute, rubbery, oversize rat glides by on a pull-string.

The cast remained indomitably earnest through thin and thin.

Sanasardo strutted and cowered with craggy dedication, if without much oily elegance. Denise Dabrowski and Karen Evans succumbed to his toothsome charms with properly febrile grace, and Dabrowski added yucky injury to aesthetic insult when, with eerie flamboyance, she rose from the trap-door grave.

George Teroy twitched admirably as the psychotic Renfield. But the good guys--Patrick Nollet, Alexander Geogeakopoulos and Matthew C. Bean--proved boring, as good guys usually do in such contexts.

Thump. Crack. Moan. Squeal. Howl. Sigh. Cackle. Yelp. Slip. Slurp. Thud.

Zzzzz.

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