I have never really considered myself as a particular fan of the ballet. In the past I have been coerced into attending performances of some of the classics, and although I am sure I enjoyed the spectacle it was never sufficient to encourage me to return by choice. Similarly I have attended some magnificent modern dance performances. I do still remember an interesting performance of Cruel Garden in Newcastle by Ballet Rambert sometime in the late 1970s Google reminds me, because truthfully I had forgotten, this was a Christopher Bruce / Lindsay Kemp co production based on the life of the Spanish poet Lorca..
So, with this background, I find it all the more strange that I’m currently obsessed with the Guy Maddin film Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). This is essentially a film version of a ballet based on the Dracula story originally performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company in Canada.
Apparently Maddin strives to recreate the styles and moods of early film melodramas; Dracula is, presented in a style reminiscent of the silent expressionistic cinema of the early 20th Century. The film is shot in black and white or tinted in monochrome although he employs the occasional bold use of colour to emphasize its themes allowing bright, acidic colours to be seen in normally black and white scenes, such as golden coins, green bank notes and red blood in an otherwise monochrome shot. The smooth fluid movement of the ballet is rendered by some form of camera trickery into a more jerky, stuttering movement as we associate with 1920s films played back today.
There is of course no spoken dialogue, the plot being moved along, in true silent movie style by use of subtitle cards and mouthed dialogue.
There are some fantastical scenes, particularly that where Jonathan Harker dances in a rising mist with a group of unexpectedly sexy nuns following his escape from Dracula’s castle, and that scene where Van Helsing breaks open Lucy’s tomb to kill her in true vampire hunting style, Lucy dancing wildly before finally succumbing to the wooden stake.
Adam Thirlwell wrote in the Guardian Review last weekend, “this is the era of vampires; vampires are spectacular. And I have turned vampiric myself. It began with True Blood, the HBO series that makes vampirism all about sex. Then it consumed me. I watched Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu, which makes vampirism much more about sex. Then I watched FW Murnau’s original Nosferatu, which seemed to be less about sex than about power. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was certainly about sex – but more uncertain, perhaps, about quite who should be having sex with whom. But already I have terrified myself. As for the meaning of the vampire, there are the usual answers: vampires are about sex, about power, about our fantasies of eating and being eaten. “
So (other than that) what is the attraction – much of it must be down to the look of the piece – the black and white adds a stark beauty and the mist an ethereal quality to the piece. The ballet movement is transformed by the film technique into staccato movements which enhance the other worldliness of the production. This is ballet – but not as we know it. Clearly I would recommend it as a fascinating addition to the canon of vampires on film. Twilight fans may wonder where it’s coming from, but I think it ranks up there with the best.