Atlanta Ballet’s ‘Dracula’ mesmerizes at Cobb Energy Centre

Fog rolls in, and the Count Dracula appears, his face deathly pale. He glides weightlessly down a staircase, red velvet cape trailing, and approaches his victim with a slow, stiff and spellbinding gait. His serpentine arm wends its way up the torso toward the neck. Ruthlessly, his fangs pierce the throat.

The cold-blooded Nosferatu is at the center of choreographer Michael Pink’s “Dracula,” a narrative ballet based on Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel. Atlanta Ballet’s production, staged by Nadia Thompson and accompanied by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, runs Thursday through Saturday in its second weekend at the Cobb Energy Centre.

Published in 1897, Stoker’s novel introduced the modern idea of vampires, which has grown into a pop-culture obsession. Though countless books, films and television series would have seemingly explored every angle of the subject, they can’t capture the thrill of falling under the spell of Stoker’s classic story — to feel, see and hear it through live, theatrical dancing and music. It’s an experience Pink’s “Dracula” creates — very well.

With a knack for storytelling that’s rooted in British ballet style, Pink phrases classical ballet movement like lines of conversation, blending expressive gestures with spiraling turns, arabesque perches and inventive lifts that rise and descend as naturally as speaking. But Pink’s choreography for “Dracula” goes further. Influenced by collaborator Christopher Gable, whose career spanned ballet, theater and film, Pink combines an actor’s focus on character motivation with ballet’s emphasis on physical form, intertwining intent with action.

Philip Feeney’s score is tailored, measure for measure, to enhance story and atmosphere — from suspense and terror and to seduction and surrender, punctuated by eerie sound effects, such as screams, heartbeats and insistent knocking. Added to that, David Grill’s mysterious lighting effects and Lez Brotherston’s late Victorian era production design help create a fabulously entertaining and mesmerizing production.

Though the two-and-a-half-hour ballet is presented in three acts, its taut thread pulls an audience along, from English solicitor Jonathan Harker’s feverish dream, through a series of predator-prey duets in which the Count first dominates Harker, then seduces a swooning young Lucy Westenra and finally abducts Harker’s young wife, Mina, into a bloody wedding scene filled with undead guests who look and move like zombies.

Performing in last Friday’s show, dancer John Welker’s Dracula is formidable, possessing inhuman strength, irresistible magnetism and hypnotic power. Brian Wallenberg, in his retirement performance, brings natural grace, meticulous timing and wholehearted commitment to his role as Harker, the story’s first victim of Dracula’s entrapment.

Rachel Van Buskirk’s charm and magnetism blossom in her role as Lucy, a vivacious flirt who transforms into a wanton, bloodthirsty vampire. Nadia Mara’s pure classical technique and multidimensional acting are just right for her character, a strong and compassionate Mina, who resists Dracula until he hypnotizes and snatches her away. Inevitably, the source of evil is vanquished … more or less, leaving a question unanswered.

Atlanta Ballet has produced “Dracula” five times in the past 15 years, making it a signature work and the company’s highest-grossing ballet, next to the “Nutcracker.” And no wonder. As a production that appeals as much to novices as it does to experienced ballet-goers, it’s a gripping success.

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