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NBT's David Nixon On ... Dracula

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Dracula is perhaps the most striking figure of Gothic fantasy: imbued with the seductive darkness of the imagination, and the frightful repulsiveness of nightmare. Bram Stoker’s villainous hero is one composed of many binaries, and it is this duality that Northern Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director David Nixon intends to draw out in his interpretation of the Victorian novel. This version of Dracula, he asserts, is “a little bit different”.

Responsible for the “artistic vision of the company”, as Artistic Director David Nixon has a hand in virtually every aspect of the performance: from choosing the production, and who will design it, to the lighting, sets and costumes, to hiring the dancers - as well as managing their careers. The choice for Autumn 2009 was a revival of the company’s 2008 production of Dracula, to celebrate NBT’s 40th Anniversary. Nixon decided upon the piece, with unabashed partiality, because it was his “personal favourite”:

“Dracula’s a personal favourite of the work that I’ve done, it was one of the last things that I did at my last company, and it was extremely successful there; I think they’ve done it about seven times out of eight years with constant full houses. It has a lot of strong dancing for men in it, quite a few roles that are very interesting.

“I originally did it in a playhouse in America, so it was done with the concept of a thrust stage, which works ideally with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and as I wanted to have some involvement with the Playhouse, because it’s such a great place, it was an ideal production to actually take there.”

The requisite gothic, shadowy elements of a production about the world’s most famous vampire will be, of course, in evidence: “It’s set in the late Victorian period, so the look of the clothing in that period anyway was a bit more gothic, and the sets are very influenced by that.

“It’s not like a modern day vampire story, that tend not to look so gothic, as they’re placing a person in the present day, whereas, for instance when we meet Dracula in the castle, for almost the first time, he really looks like he’s come out of the middle ages, rather than a man of the late 1800s. And he always carries in his clothing that sort of appearance. So when the women, both Mina and Lucy transform into vampires, they take on a more exaggerated gothic look in their clothing, even their hair changes as they transform.”

The “language” of the dance within Dracula “initiates” from the company’s “classical format. They’re very strong classical dancers. But of course, one finds all sorts of shapes in a piece like this – Dracula uses his cape perhaps seventy percent of the time, so of course that takes on a different life, and the cape dances as much as he does. So the dancers playing Dracula in rotation have to spend a lot of time working with their capes, and getting it to be one with them and their movement.

“The vampire women are not on pointe whereas the human women are on pointe, so there’s a contrast between the more classical and light work that the mortals are doing, versus the much more earthy, broken and sensual work that the vampires are doing. That’s then reflected in how Lucy changes: when she gets bitten by Dracula, she’s starting to transform, her movements are no longer like the other women in the room.” This careful articulation of the difference between light and dark through dance further accounts for David’s choice of Dracula for this season’s performance.

Inspiration for the production came from “the Francis Ford Coppola movie... because I think visually it’s quite stunning. And it deals well with the idea of the difference between Dracula being a man and Dracula being a creature. Of course we can’t use the special effects in the way that they do, but it does provide a sort of inspiration as well as the book. The book is very good; you start of thinking it’s just a light piece of read, but it’s actually much deeper, and there’s a lot more in it.

Bram Stoker’s novel is, in fact, “The first point of entry” to the production. In Dracula David says, “I am portraying images, in some sense, of what I took away from reading the book.” The intense duality of Dracula’s essential existence takes centre stage here. Which is, as David explains, “the whole concept of things that aren’t exactly what they appear to be. Dracula himself is this animal, who appears to be a normal man, and yet he’s not a man. He’s alive, but he’s dead; but he’s not dead, he’s alive. And difficult things – the invisible, light and dark, light reveals, dark hides -all these kinds of things are going on in the story.”

This firmly has its roots in the context of Bram Stoker’s novel: “the philosophical differences that were developing at the end of that century, with men and women... the women are trying to affirm themselves and take an equal place in society with men, and men are trying to resist that.”

The character of Dracula is not to be reviled in this production, but rather, explored as a victim of his circumstances within the era of his Victorian existence. He is, like the women of the period, struggling against certain constraints. “You really have to go back to when the book was written to really understand why things are they way they are. And why he’s expressing it the way he does, because it’s so relevant to that time.”

Thus, at the heart of Dracula’s tale, instead of horror and fear, is a fraught love story, and David is insistent on the place that love, which in literary terms is often represented as the most inspiring and deadliest of emotions, holds within Dracula’s narrative:

“The most important thing probably for me is this concept of love that knows nothing, in terms of how it doesn’t respond to morals - what you should and shouldn’t do; it’s just something you cannot resist. And so at the core of the piece is this great love between Dracula and Mina, in which Mina is willing to give up her marriage to her husband, and actually her life, to be with this creature, because actually, she has no choice. He’s inside her. And Dracula can’t be Dracula with Mina because she is something more to him, and they sort of exist in that moment, the moment that they come together. They exist outside of everything else in the story, it’s a place where nobody else is; it’s isolation.”

David’s subtle, intense enthusiasm for the piece’s sophisticated drama is evident from the way he describes his favourite moment of the production - and is perhaps the most eloquent call for a visit to the West Yorkshire Playhouse this September: “It is always the duet between Dracula and Mina, because it’s quite beautiful, and also, it’s a very mature duet between two people. Whereas sometimes in dance the love duets can be a little bit, oh, more naive. It’s often first love, and there’s an innocence, a kind of flirtatious quality to it as well. I don’t want to say silly, but it sometimes can be perceived that way. This one is two adults, they know why they’ve come to the point they have, they know why they’re there, and they know what they want. They don’t even have to communicate that, verbally; just by being together they sense and know it. That’s a much more mature kind of duet to do... The music as well, it’s by Arvo Pärt... it’s an incredibly hypnotic, beautiful piece of music, and it’s totally different than anything else in the ballet, which is much more off-key, and twisted. So all of a sudden out of that chaotic mess comes this incredibly peaceful moment.”

- David Nixon interviewed by Vicky Ellis


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