Ballet Manila stages "Dracula"

The horror! The horror! I now enjoy ballet 
By Walter Ang
June 29, 2000
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The first time I saw a ballet was when I was in high school. A classmate of mine had gone to see a production of "Swan Lake" and was gushing about how good it was. The rest of our group felt left out and slightly jealous of our friend's escapade. She had actually seen a full-length ballet; it was culture, it was art! The whole event was tinged with glamour and we wanted to have our piece of the action.

So, filled with youthful zest, we caught the matinee the following weekend and saw men and women in tights dancing on tiptoe. That was when we found out we didn't have anything to be jealous of. Ten minutes into the first act and we were squirming in our seats, ready to go home. Plainly said, we were bored.

We didn't have enough background in dance to appreciate the nuances of the dancing. We never had art appreciation classes. We were plainly too young and too unsophisticated to appreciate the finer points of this art form.

We sat through the entire two hours, except that half of the time, we were making mental notes either not to freak out or to keep awake. The afternoon was not wasted however, as we were rewarded with Lisa Macuja playing Odette. Even to the uneducated, untrained eye, she really did look like a swan. When she performed the 36 pirouettes in quick succession required of the role, we watched in awe as people in the audience started shouting "Bravo!" even before the turns were completely done.

Flash forward to a couple of years later. I was browsing through the newspapers and my eye caught an ad for a ballet production. The title: "Dracula." I was intrigued.

I wanted to give myself a chance to try ballet again after the first encounter. Maybe I had grown up a little and could now take in another afternoon of this art form. The first thing that attracted me to this particular production was the subject matter. The word ballet conjures up images of swans and nutcrackers and petite women dancing the role of Peter Pan. A ballet that would tackle the gothic world of the undead? This I had to see.

The one fact that made me decide I could definitely give ballet another try was that "Dracula" would only be 50 minutes long. I couldn't believe it when I read it in the papers! A full-length production running two hours would seem daunting to a generation raised on the fast-paced editing of MTV and channel surfing. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter everyday. But 50 minutes? I was sure I could manage that. I had seen the Francis Ford Coppola film. I had tried reading the book (which I hurled across the room after a couple of pages). So now I was going to catch the ballet.

We tried to get to the GSIS Theater early so we could check out the paintings and other exhibits in the museum before settling down for the show. Unfortunately, all my friends and I met up at the theater just within minutes of the door closing on us, otherwise it would've been fun to take a look at the artworks the museum had to offer. We composed ourselves as we sat down and anticipated what was to come. The show opened with a front act, a light piece, "Velvet Wings," choreographed by David Campos Cantero. I was telling my companions how I liked the last part where the dancers held butterflies as they danced, until my friend pointed out the notes in the program said the whole piece was about the dancers being the butterflies themselves. Oh. Okay.

Lisa Macuja wouldn't be dancing this time due to her pregnancy, but it was her company, Ballet Manila, that gave birth to the Asian premiere of "Dracula." The artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, Paul Vasterling, choreographed this production. He created his version of "Dracula" in 1999 and it performed to sold-out audiences. The curtains opened to a bare stage with a backdrop that seemed plain black at first, but eventually filled with shadows and colors as the ballet progressed. Later on, the center would reveal a glorious lighted cross to vanquish the dark Count. The ballet was meant to be an abstract of the dark tale's major events.

The characters from the novel had been reduced and the story had been streamlined to move the action forward. Female characters like Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra were obviously retained, but Vasterling combined Professor Van Helsing, along with the other male characters, into Jonathan Harker. So instead of a milquetoast Harker, in this version he actually had a hand in defeating The Count.

We were older, sure, but were we capable of appreciating the nuances of dance this time around? We actually had a lot of fun and our fear of becoming bored dissipated quickly. I will leave a more technical review of the dancing to better qualified connoisseurs and critics of the art form. Some scenes I liked were when the other dancers would grab Dracula and make it look like he was gliding along the stage. With just a little imagination, he would be flying on his own at times.

My friends and I really enjoyed the scene where the Count seduced Lucy. She started out dancing gracefully and lightly, but after Dracula bit her neck, she became an earthy, unrestrained, unbound dancing entity. We particularly liked the device Vasterling used to signify Dracula's bite. The Count would drape a scarlet scarf across his victims' necks to symbolize blood.

Spend an afternoon immersing yourself in ballet, glide over to watch "Dracula." The 50-minute time frame works. The whole thing was over before I knew it. Even after Dracula was finally defeated in a loud explosion, I found myself waiting for more and had to be reminded that the show was over.

"Dracula" shows on June 30, July 1 and 2 at the GSIS Theater. Call 512-5031, 512-5032, 525-1584