Tampa Ballet Theatre’s Dracula at Ruth Eckerd Hall

Dracula by Tampa Ballet Theatre

The weekend before Halloween my partner and I decided, quite last minute, to see the Tampa Ballet Theatre’s production of Dracula at Ruth Eckerd Hall. He happened to be teaching Dracula at the time (the original one, you know, the novel) and I had just been complaining that we hadn’t been to the theatre in ages. That, along with his son having never seen a professional ballet, and it was decided.

We made a mistake.

There were so, so many things wrong with the performance, which wasn’t even close to sold out, incidentally, and it’s always a little disconcerting to look around a venue and see 3/4ths of the seats open. You also have to go through a metal detector to get inside Ruth Eckerd Hall now, which is super classy.

The opening of the ballet seemed promising enough, even though the score was recorded and pieced together, it was moody. The title being projected on top of the curtains was a touch tacky, but the Dracula character slaughtering people in silhouette while a rather rather large white wolf danced beside him was intriguing. Then the lights came up. Twenty-five minutes into the ballet and there was an inexplicable twenty minute intermission. I looked at the playbill again and it said that the ballet was three acts, which seemed unnecessary, and I guess someone agreed with me because the second intermission never arrived. All told the entire ballet was about an hour, if you were wondering.

When the lights when back down things went from bad to worse. In one scene Dracula licks the blood from a razor blade that Jonathan Harker cuts himself with; the audience was giggling because it was so hammy. In another Dracula delivers a baby to his three “brides,” which is in a basket in the novel; in this staging of the ballet, Dracula reaches under his cloak, then tosses a plastic baby doll at them, which they catch and “feed” on. The suspension of disbelief could not overlook how stupid it looked, my partner and I exchanged glances to roll our eyes at one another. In another, truly awful scene, Dracula dances shirtless around Lucy? I’m not sure, the people who played Lucy and Mina looked really similar from the audience and they didn’t bother to distinguish them from one another. Anyway, Dracula appears shirtless with his wolf mask on … and he’s not in very good shape. Not to body shame someone or be mean, whatever, I’m not in peak physical condition myself, but he’s a ballet dancer, the lead in this production, and he was really out of shape. I don’t even know how that’s possible if you’re a professional dancer, but it really showed in his awkward, heavy dancing.

Dracula is taking all the heat here, but it wasn’t just him. The first half of the ballet was primarily dance-walking where a dancer would essentially pointy-toe walk from one side of the stage to the other and then pose. Or a male ballet dancer would attempt to spot a female dancer, only to wobble all the time. At one point the white wolf spun in place a few times, not exactly advanced ballet technique, and the audience erupted into (pity?) applause. When Dracula attempted the same he couldn’t keep himself from drifting stage right. For the record the white wolf was the best dancer up there. The chorus was easily the worst, completely unable to stay in synch for any amount of time. There was literally never a moment wherein they were all in synch, never once. At one point a girl got crowded between the white wolf and another chorus member and just got pinched, couldn’t move at all, just fumbled around until she had room. It was like watching a bad dress rehearsal, which would at least explain why the music would suddenly stop and there be a beat or two of complete silence before the next song would abruptly start.

Since I just mentioned the score I might as well discuss the costume and set design. The sets were simple, obviously inexpensive, but not bad. The exception was the “church” that opened and closed the ballet, whose raw, wooden, unpainted sides were awkwardly exposed (just like the backstage helpers caught during a scene change who scrambled off). The cross in the church was supposed to “bleed” at one point, but it just looked like someone popped a watery, red balloon with a toy sword, which didn’t have the emotional impact one would have hoped for. The costumes were okay, though not imaginative. Dracula’s wolf head looked like a cheap costume and the dancing wolf choir looked like an amateur production of Cats with one large, white cat dancing around. One guy had a cowboy hat and I still don’t know why, and multiple men were using messenger bags (or one was?). The characters were not well defined through costume.

The bright spot had to be the second mad scene in the insane asylum where the inmates? hallucinations? were dancing out of unison (this time on purpose). Even though I still have no idea how it matters to the plot, that scene was easily the best one in the ballet.

Most damnable of all was the completely unimaginative choreography that had the most literal interpretation of the music possible. Everyone landed on every beat, loud noises meant arms thrown into the air, it was just so expected, something more suited for a High School production rather than a “professional” company who has staged this ballet before. At least it being one night only makes sense now. Needless to say, when the curtain went up, only about half a dozen (of the 200 or so in attendance) stood in ovation. I don’t know about you, but for me, an ovation must be earned. No pity ovations!

This is only the fourth ballet I have been in my life, the other three being: The Nutcracker (a High School production wherein someone dropped their hat and stopped dancing to pick it up), Coppelia (performed for some teenage dance troupe, so a recital that I accidentally attended), and Zelindor Roi Des Sylphes (by the immaculate Opera Lafayette with live music played on antique instruments). The Tampa Ballet Theatre’s ballet was the third worst of the group. Hopefully this is the first time any one in the company did any of these things because, if not, if these are “seasoned veterans” than this performance was disappointing.

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