According to vampire lore, one of the blood-suckers’ more impressive powers is the ability to shapeshift, assuming new guises to trick their victims.
Like the creatures it focuses on, Columbia City Ballet’s Dracula: Ballet With a Bite has gone through its own transformations. While vampires enjoy eternal youth, Columbia City Ballet has had to work to make sure its Halloween hallmark remains an effective mix of blood-curdling and sexy since debuting it back in 1991.
“Actually, this year, we are a little bit going back to our roots,” offers William Starrett, the company’s artistic director.
On the surface, this claim would seem to fly in the face of some big changes at the City Ballet. For starters, there’s Bobby Milk. Following a lengthy nationwide search, the Columbia native starts his first season as the ballet’s technical director with this production.
It was Milk, Starrett explains, who pushed the company to hone in on what had worked for Dracula in the past.
“Bobby has studied all of the footage from Dracula, from its premiere to last year’s show,” the artistic director says. “He felt strongly that the original lighting designs were brilliant, and we should go back to them. It took some time, but he convinced me.”
“That’s not to say the show will feel like we’re back in 1991,” Starrett adds quickly. “Bobby will integrate more current special effects and he will add his own twists to the effects that couldn’t be done 27 years ago.”
Asked to elaborate on those new special effects, Starrett laughs.
“I can’t tell you exactly, but I can say they will be new,” he teases, “including technology that wasn’t used before. They will be plenty terrifying.”
A more obvious change to this year’s production has to do with the cast. After two decades with the company, Regina Willoughby ended her run as principal ballerina last season. The second dancer, following originator Mariclare Miranda, to take on the lead female role of Lucy Westenra, Willoughby had danced as the virtuous Victorian turned blood-thirsty vampire for 11 years. This time out, Columbia will see Claire Richards Rapp take on the role.
“Claire is absolutely ready, technically and artistically,” Starrett enthuses. “She is a fantastic actress and will bring a new dynamic and feeling to the character. Plus, aesthetically, she looks totally different than what the audience will expect. She is fair-haired, and so far our Lucy has only ever been a brunette.”
For her part, Rapp is excited about the new challenge.
“It’s honor to follow two great ballerinas,” she says. “Mariclaire was actually my teacher growing up, and she has been coaching me on the role. That’s been really special for me. I hope to follow Mariclare and Regina’s legacy, but I also want to add my own interpretation to the role.
“Previously, I was dancing the Red Maiden, and she is pure evil. I want to draw on that experience and add some of her evilness to Lucy.”
Like Starrett, Rapp seems invigorated by the City Ballet’s recent changes.
“In general the audience should expect for the entire ballet to have a renewed energy,” she says of Dracula, “because we have new dancers joining our company and different dancers dancing new roles.”
Starrett acknowledges that changes in the show’s special effects and additions to the original Thomas Semanskyy score should help keep the show fresh. But he also doesn’t feel the need to rework it all that much. Like an orchestra performing Night on Bald Mountain or a theater screening the original Halloween, some things just work this time of year. He and the City Ballet just have to make sure they deliver a show that meets expectations.
“Updates do keep it new,” Starrett says, “but at the same time, I feel like I don’t need to reinvent the production too much. It has a devoted following. That means something must be going right.
“If it’s not broken no need to fix it.”