Sources of Inspiration Can Surprise You

Back in February, the Rochester City Ballet presented their production of The Blood Countess, and they asked me to write a review for their blog. Since I had been writing blogs for a couple of years in my previous role at the RPO, I thought it would be an interesting thing to try. I used to work for a performing arts center in Vermont that presented dance, so I’ve seen a fair bit of modern dance over the years and really enjoy it.

However, the topic of this ballet was somewhat intimidating – vampires, blood, and murder, not my usual choice of subject matter. (Although I do like a good mystery story).

But I went anyway, pen and paper in hand for note-taking and having read the previews for background. Driving home, I was already writing the story in my head, and was surprised to find how quickly it all came together. The day of the performance was Super Bowl Sunday, and between the time I got home and when the game started, I had pretty much completed my blog.

Speaking of synchronicity (you know, the theme of this blog…), it would be hard to find a better example of the fortuitous combination of dance, music, and theatre than this production. It was visually interesting, with great performances by both the dancers and the Ying Quartet, who performed the score live. It even incorporated video footage for dramatic effect.

One thing that blogging has shown me is that you need to be ready when inspiration strikes you to write. In this case, I went with the specific goal of writing a blog, but I’ve had other times when an idea came to me during a concert, or maybe while I was brushing my teeth before bed. I still have my earlier RPO blogs, so you may see some of them appear here in coming months.

Read on for the original blog about the RCB production. And for another perspective, here’s a link to another guest review on the RCB web site. It was written by Amy Blum, a good friend and former colleague. Her review had many similarities to what I wrote, even though we didn’t know each other was writing a blog about the show until they were published. Great minds think alike!

This is No Nutcracker
Feb. 22, 2012

I’ve seen the Rochester City Ballet numerous times in The Nutcracker (in my prior role as RPO Marketing Manager), and their new production The Blood Countess is definitely no Nutcracker. Okay, there are some commonalities – beautiful young women and handsome young men in ballet shoes float and glide across the stage to music by a Russian composer. But that’s where the similarities end.

To set the context for the ballet … it’s set in 16th century Hungary and the central characters are the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and Count Dracula. The Countess is, according to the program notes, “a cruel vain beauty known for bathing in the blood of virgin servant girls.” I have to admit to some trepidation knowing the story would include murder and vampires, not my usual choice of subject matter.

Things start off innocently enough – a marketplace scene with the dancers in costumes evoking Eastern European peasants and all seems right with the world. But then the Countess’ servant Fitzkó (RCB company member Adam Kittelberger) arrives and starts checking out all the beautiful maidens in the village square, and then a trio of witches appears, and then things really start to get weird.

When Tara Lally makes her appearance as the Countess, she commands the stage, and does so for every scene she’s in. It’s actually a refreshing change to have such a strong woman character. She certainly knows what she wants and gets her way. Right now, the only other character I can think of like that is Carmen (although things didn’t turn out so great for her…). Lally’s Countess can be charming one moment and then devious the next with just a glance of her eyes or a tilt of her head. You get the sense that she’s really having fun with the role.

Count Dracula is actually introduced at the very beginning of the ballet, in a brief scene set in the modern day, so you know to watch him when he appears part way through Act I. The Countess certainly has her eyes on him, although I did wonder at one point, where is her own Count? Here we see Dracula before he became the literary figure we know today. Brandon Alexander eloquently portrays the confidence and hope of the young Dracula with his fiancée Anna, as well as his later torment (which I won’t describe here – no spoilers in case you missed this weekend’s performances and have a chance to see it later).

The music is an essential element of The Blood Countess. The RCB has chosen selections from string quartets and piano trios by Dmitri Shostakovich. I heard a young man say at intermission that he didn’t really like music written for the ballet. These pieces weren’t actually written for this production (Shostakovich died in 1975), but the music and dance go together so seamlessly, I can see why he would think so. The second movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 sounds demonic all on its own. In fact, I don’t think The Blood Countess would have as much emotional power without the music, in the same way that the Hitchcock movie Psycho isn’t quite as thrilling and scary when you hit the mute button.

And the music for this performance was top notch, with the Ying Quartet playing live along with pianist Elinor Freer. The dancers also provide some percussion, ranging from handclaps to clanking glasses to bursts of laughter, all timed exactly to fit with the music and the movement.

The production is also visually striking: costumes in luscious shades of blue, green, orange and red; elegant sets and backdrops that use creative draping and lighting to define the stage space. There is also an interesting use of video projection to serve as a flashback – something you don’t often see in a ballet production.

I was very pleased to see the mix of people in the audience – both men and women, young and old, not just the expected ballet aficionados. Hopefully that’s a sign that by branching out with their choice of subject matter, the RCB is bringing in new audiences to enjoy this magical blend of movement and music.

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