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Mining a Literary Classic for a Contemporary Ballet Ballet

July 13, 1997|Chris Pasles | Chris Pasles is a staff writer for The Times' Orange County edition

Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, has always been a practitioner and a proponent of narrative in ballet.

Stevenson's first original full-length "ballet ballet," as he puts it, was "Cinderella," made in 1970 for the National Ballet in Washington, and restaged in 1989 for American Ballet Theatre (which will perform it Aug. 1-3 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion). His latest full-length narrative work, this time created for his own company and in conjunction with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, is "Dracula," which opens at the Pavilion on Tuesday.

Premiered in March in Houston, "Dracula" has a lot in common with its traditional predecessors. It's set to a classical composer (Liszt), it's big (a 48-member company, including 18 brides of Dracula, flying vampires and a 30-pound cape for the Count), costly ($1 million, plus $395,000 to bring it to L.A.) and it's pure, over-the-top fantasy.

The current rebirth of dance narrative may include brand-new kinds of stories and forms, and it may include radical reinvention of the classics a la Bourne's "Swan Lake, but it also has room for Stevenson's homage to the past. The classics, he says, define dance. What he's aiming for is contemporary 19th century ballet.

Question: Why do you do story ballets?

Answer: It's the "Aidas" and the "Traviatas" and the "Toscas" one thinks of when going to the opera. In ballet, it's the "Swan Lakes" and the "Sleeping Beauties." That's the classical background of opera and ballet. But so many choreographers today have gone contemporary. They're not using pointe work or tutus. So somehow there are not so many classical ballets being done today. That was my goal. To do that.

Q: When did you come up with the idea of creating "Dracula"?

A: I was going to do it some years ago for Kevin McKenzie, who was then a dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Kevin had been promised a new work, a ballet. He called and asked if I had any ideas. I came up with 'Dracula' because Kevin was tall and dark and aristocratic. I did some work on it then, but it never came about. I had done quite a bit of work on it, actually.

Q: When did you revive the idea?

A: [In time for] the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker's novel this year. I started choreographing little bits, pas de deux for the principals. Then I worked for about four or five weeks on the whole thing over a period of three months, when I could get the time.

Q: How did you pick the music?

A: I had thought of Liszt because he had written some dark music. It's a dark story. I asked John Lanchbery if he would do the score [as arranger and conductor]. He told me there was an opera called "Der Vampyr" [by Heinrich August Marschner]. We listened to it, but it was not very good. Then he said, "I think Liszt would be good." I said, "He's someone I've thought of, too."

Q: Do you follow the Stoker novel?

A: I came up with my own story. I'd seen lots of Dracula movies. Usually someone is driving past the castle in some carriage and it breaks down and they have to go in. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to make Dracula the center of the ballet. Of course, the castle is very important. Two of the three acts take place in the castle. The third is in the village, where there are divertissements.

Q: Just like a traditional 19th century ballet?

A: I'm trying to keep it as a 19th century ballet, a full-length ballet ballet.

Q: Do you use mime to tell the story?

A: I have great passages of mime, but there is also interaction between people [in the dances] so that you understand what's going on. In the old ballets, there were lots of mime passages that people soon cut out because dancing is much more exciting. I don't always agree with that. Sometimes it makes the dynamic points of the ballet work more when people are not jumping up and down all the time.

When you have to tell a story, you have to tell the story. You have to be able to get over to the audience, not have them guessing.

Q: Is Dracula done in at the end?

A: It's ambiguous. There could be a sequel.

Q: Weren't you interested in creating a modern work along the lines of Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut" or the Matthew Bourne version of "Swan Lake"?

A: I've not seen either of those pieces. I don't mean to say I'm undermining contemporary dance. I like it a lot. I've done a lot of abstract works. But I'm trying to create a few new "classical" works. I don't do them as contemporary ballets. Otherwise, we don't have any new ballet ballets coming along. Naturally, the vocabulary has been brought forward. It's not Petipa. It's neoclassical.

Q: What's next?

A: I'm doing a full-length ballet that will be co-produced with ABT, "The Snow Maiden." It's more a fairy story. There's a Tchaikovsky score and snowflakes. It's a very different thing from "Dracula." The premiere will be in New York in March.

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