Dracul: Prince of Fire
January 9, 2009. The Crucible, West Oakland.
10th Anniversary Fire Ballet, directed and designed by The Crucible Executive Director, Michael Sturtz.
The performance began with a welcoming from Dracul’s director and primary designer, Michael Sturtz, who is also the founder and executive director of The Crucible. He wanted to answer the question, why a fire ballet? He answered with a series of questions. Who is here to see ballet? A smattering of applause. Who is here for the aerialists? More applause. Who is here for zombies and vampires? Even more applause. And then guiding our crescendo, he called out, who is here for fire? And the crowd roared. Point taken.
Dracul, the prince of fire, played magnificently by Brett Womack (Circo Zero, New Pickles, Vau de Vire) arrives on the balcony, carrying a torch and standing behind a circular scrim, which becomes a projection screen for the rest of the event. When he approaches a staircase, the banister is set aflame. When he descends to the stage he touches a tall pillar with his torch and ignites a fountain of fire, with flaming fluids tumbling down. Enter the massive robot dragon, stage left, spewing fire. Its articulated head, with flaming nostrils, lurches left and right, snapping its jaws. Dracul draws his sword and fights the dragon, slapping his weapon against the welded beast and pushing it offstage. The mimetic gestures and orchestral score are super dramatic. OMG! He’s injured. Dracul falls to the ground and starts to pull his armor off. A newfound strength starts coursing through his body. A cable descends from the ceiling. Dracul fixes his wrist to a strap at the bottom of the cable and he flies. A line of fire erupts along the downstage edge of the stage. He flies again, and then performs impressive circus moves while suspended from one arm.
The townsfolk arrive, walking in every direction. One at a time he grabs them in an embrace, they swoon, he bares his teeth, sinks them into their neck, feeds. They slump to the ground. It’s a world of grey and black. Everyone has ghoulish makeup, white faces, dark shadows for cheeks. The music is serious, but Dracul plays with us, referencing every vampire we’ve ever seen on TV. The stage is littered with corpses. When all are dead, he stands center and raises his arms, wide and open, and they rise. The zombies come to life and then it’s Thriller. For real. 20 plus dancers led by Drac give us the dance we know too well. Applause and cheers. If anyone needs a model of simulacra, a disappearance of the real in an endless series of copies and repetitions, this is it. It’s kinda genius. Unfortunately this distorted techno version of one of the most listened to songs of all time, is the only break we get from an overwhelming symphony of bombastic melodrama.
A pole dancer descends from the ceiling. Her first gesture, wearing shorty shorts, is a wide straddle crotch shot to the audience. Two more women emerge from white aerial pods. The mummies unravel and the trio of sexy vamp-fatales (Breonna Noack, Kerri Kresinski, Noel Dellofano) announce a zombie world safe for burlesque. Four women begin a dance below. A modern ballet chorus. Other performers arrive to spray sparks from the balcony. One zombie (Tom Sepe) spits and eats fire. Others weld, bend metal. The two fatales continue in the air, performing synchronized, aerial acrobatics on the white fabric. They’re having so much fun, it almost seems normal to be suspended, inverted, arching back to grab one’s foot and bringing it towards one’s head. They call it contortion for a reason. Dracula oversees his seedy empire. The scene is a complicated, multi-centered portrait of life in the blood and fire factory.
Brad and Janet arrive through the audience. They’re people, not zombies, i.e., no ghoulish goth makeup. Brad’s glasses announce geek. Janet’s wardrobe announces prude. They’re both prudish geeks. Janet texts her friend Lucy and the txt msg is projected onto the round screen. An acrobat (Simon Chabon) spinning a long staff burning at both ends dance-tumbles across the stage and pulls the couple into the scene. Chabon gives them a thrill/scare. He’s very good. A graceful tumbler with excellent timing, sustained flight, and controlled gestures. Now add fire and a charming presence. Brad and Janet are entranced, and thus delivered into the hands of the evil Dracul. Bwa ha ha.
This is fairy tale so Drac immediately falls in love with Janet. While one fatale distracts Brad, the other two strip Janet to her chaste, white undies. Then they strip him too. He gets to keep his black garters and socks as well as his tighty whities. Meanwhile Drac steals Janet away, which allows for a comic sexy dance with the three fatales and Brad. OK this is all pretend, mime, representation, citation, reference, cliché, archetype, i.e., Bad Acting. I remind myself that this is melodrama, a po-mo B movie horror. It’s not as self-conscious as Scream, and that’s too bad. Suddenly the sex play is over. Now the girls have fire. Brad is bound to a rack and tortured. Of course this is also an excuse for a sexy ballet. The music must be read as Camp overkill, otherwise it hurts like a cheap manipulative sound score. No worse, it hurts like hell, as in Dante, or Heart of Darkness hell. O the horror, the horror.
Buffy the vampire slayer arrives. Brad has collapsed and the fatale trio are dancing and sniffing his shirt. Jealousy is woven into their solidarity. The fatales confront Buffy, who is not afraid. She pulls out two wooden stakes. Dracul enters with sword. Thanks to a stage combat coach, they fight. It’s too bad they don’t disrupt their own representations. The relentless music continues. The projection of whirling gears continues. Buffy starts to win. They flip. They “struggle”. She throws garlic but he bathes himself in it, taunting her, then throws it aside. She flicks holy water in his face. Drac is undaunted. Things are looking bad for grrrl power hero. When she holds up a cross, he sets it on fire. Before I can think KKK twice, she drops it. Buffy wins this round with a forceful blast from a fire extinguisher which makes even more fire and smoke. The fatales escape, exiting vertically, up. The projection is black birds racing across the sky.
Brad and Janet dance a lovely ballet pas de deux in white underwear. The projections show blue sky, wafting white clouds. They reach, they extend, he lifts, she floats. Three to four minutes of ballet with flutes and violins. He tries to kiss, she pulls away. More pas de deux, slower perhaps, more serious, but not dark. It’s way too much. When they spin off, she is in his arms. Applause.
Here’s where the production’s lack of irony is most obvious. Ballet in a melodrama? Why not? Joan Holden (SF Mime Troupe) wrote an excellent defense of melodrama as a people’s art linking it to commedia dell’arte’s archetypal figures and struggles (e.g., good vs. evil). Holden’s melodrama is popular art, intentionally lowbrow, not elite. Ballet, outside of the seasonal fundraiser in the guise of a costume spectacle called The Nutcracker, is hardly lowbrow. The only Nutcrackers worth seeing are the Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie by Dance Brigade’s Grrrl Brigade and Mark Morris’ queer camp sensation The Hard Nut. The 40 year old Rocky Horror Picture Show is, among other things, subversively queer. This Dracul misses its opportunities for popular uprising via the liberatory potential of lowbrow spectacle. Think Brad and Dr. Frankenfurter, Lucille Ball, Buffy, hyphy or crumping, John Waters, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart or Culture Clash. They realize that low brow is permission to satirize highbrow. In this way, it’s always time for melodrama or B movies or camp, because it’s always relevant to confront the absurdity of everyday life. Dracul avoids the social commentaries of the works it quotes (Buffy, Rocky Horror, MJ’s Thriller). How much better, funnier, more thrilling to have Drac make out with male zombies, Janet getting near seduced (or gang banged) by the sexy girls, or just townsfolk humping inappropriately during the super-normal lovers duet. It’s a let down to combine all of this and then deliver a fated story of true love in which boy gets girl.
And while I’m on the much maligned topic of political correctness and the role of art to subvert dominant cultures, do I have to remind everyone that we’re in West Oakland and have been treated to a 45 minute pre-show of documentary video clips showcasing the many Black youth who enjoy classes at The Crucible? Why is any production of this scale so White? Especially when hosted by a community building, all people’s access, educational non-profit located in a historic African American neighborhood, in a White minority city. Without trying to white wash any of the cast, it appeared to me that all lead roles, all or most directors and designers, all tech people, and most of the secondary roles were played by people with ethnic roots in Northern Europe, from Great Britain to Russia. Two of the dance chorus quartet were visibly non-White. Apologies to anyone I missed due to mixed-ethnic backgrounds and ghoulish make-up. This kind of counting suggests a more simplistic perspective than I am trying to provoke, and yet statistics are one of the best ways we can measure cultural progress or paralysis.
Back to the show. Brad & Janet have just danced off in their pristine yet coy underwear. Lucy, Janet’s buddy, the lithe powerhouse Alyssa Marx, appears, repeatedly trying to reach Janet on her cell. Silence at the end of the phone. Somber strings and a follow spot accompany her descent down the stairs as she searches for her lost friends. I take a moment to check out the set, a near classical balcony and staircase built around a central doorway. It has a goth-industrial style (and quality) that resembles digital gaming with pillars and bas-relief dragons that spew actually flames. It’s part southern or Transylvanian mansion and part abandoned factory. It screams Theatah.
Dracul creeps out from his tomb room, opening the central portal which is angled as if he is emerging from a ship or from within the earth itself. Lucy is still on the phone. Drac carries two lengths of black fabric which he rigs to a descending cable. As they ascend the fabrics become veil and cape, building the tension before the inevitable strike on the innocent woman. Moving like a breeze, he removes her jacket before she senses his presence. All the better to perform an aerial duet in the guise of a fight. The vertical pas de deux starts off pretty and symmetrical but each set of movements increases in risk and virtuosity. There is an awesome moment, when Lucy, fabrics crossed at her back, is held in the tension caused by Dracul pulling from the ground. She spins deliriously. It gets even better. Lucy proves to be a match for Drac, and in the only gender role reversal of the whole performance, she lifts him off the ground. He climbs up her body (trust me this takes a bunch of strength from both people and it usually hurts the porteur, usually a brawny guy, but in this case, a fierce yet small woman). Appropriating her strength, he aims his teeth for her neck and bites. Game over. A long red fabric spills from the ceiling. Lucy performs a mid-air transfer, wraps herself in the symbolic blood and plunges in a triple spiral to her death. Unexpectedly, the red fabric that has just held Lucy 15 feet in the air is released and it drops to the ground beside her. The projections are weird colorful liquids dropping into water. Dracula departs wrapped in the fabrics, the black and the red, the darkness and blood. Lucy, dead, is alone on stage.
Janet and Brad return, clothed, to find poor dead Lucy. More pained faces - o no! O no! - Bad acting that might be campy fun but is only a hint of what camp might be. A more serious ballet pas de deux follows. I leave to pee, thanks to the beer they were serving before the show. But I’m fast so I have a couple of minutes to wonder why oh why a melodrama with camp punctuation? Why no queer anything? Why no theatrical risks or disruptions? Isn’t fire a destroyer, cleanser, purifier? I return and Buffy enters the scene, seemingly invisible to the couple dancing. It’s neither silly nor mournful, but all the indicators of serious ballet are well performed: arabesques, developpés and smooth lifts.
Lucy starts to move, her back arching from the ground, her chest reaching for the sky. The couple think this is a good sign, but scary. The music swells, seriously. The projections of dripping ink or color continue. Yes Lucy rises, but not for good, she’s evil! The aerial cable descends. She wraps her wrist and is lifted into the air. She flies and does a cool move that requires much strength and flexibility. Then she descends, releases the wrist strap, and leaps about the stage. Evil circus vampire girl Lucy goes after prudish geek guy Brad. Wooden stake handler Buffy intervenes and the two women engage in an acrobatic fight. Janet pathetically approaches vampire Lucy with a small torch. We laugh. Lucy smirks, grasps the flame, extinguishes it in her mouth, and goes after Janet. Buffy, just in time, stabs Lucy with the stake. Add very weird screams to the bombastic symphonic blasts. Applause. Darkness.
Janet dances a solo. She’s a lovely dancer but I have no idea what she’s doing, what her motivation might be, what direction she might have received. Fires are burning everywhere. The projection is a night sky with moon and moving clouds. Dracul soars overhead in an overhead crane that traverses the entire building. Wow. Janet is still dancing. Long reaches, legs extending, toes pointing. Pathos on the dance floor. Dracul is delivered to the balcony where he grabs a rope rigged to the ceiling. She spins. He flies over the stage. A choreography of rope maneuvers begins. (That’s cored lisse or web to you circus fans). He grabs the rope, quickly wraps himself and then tumbles in the air, or flings himself upside down and releases his hands. Dracul/Womack is so clear, impressive without effort. Top of his game. He draws Janet to him. Who wouldn’t fall under his spell? He pulls her off the ground, but no bite yet. He releases her for more ballet, more rope act. Suspended up high, with the rope securing his pelvis, he makes a loop of the dangling cord. She falls into the seductive trap. As he pulls her to him, she seems to roll within the loop (think DV8’s Enter Achilles). As she spirals towards him, he grabs her for a mid-air bite, suck, and drain. Now they descend and do ballet. The moon is red and full. Night clouds waft. He wraps her in the rope, which is stained red. She too wears a dress of dirty reds. Lights out.
The follow spot finds Brad entering from the balcony. He descends the stairs looking for Janet, Concern. Fear. Follow spot. When Brad finds zombie Janet there are quick scary fire blasts upstage. (Think Led Zepplin.) He realizes that she is lost to the vampires. Janet goes after Brad. Super strong, she tosses him about. OK this is the 2nd gender role reversal. He tries to hold her. She breaks free. Throws him to the ground. (She never loved him!) They struggle. And then he stakes her! More recorded screams and the symphony swells again again again.
Brad dances the dance that says, o shit! I killed my girlfriend! What now? He leaps, dives, slides, and throws his arms to the heavens. Then he does these crazy knee jumps, spinning 360 degrees to land on his again on his knees. Again and again, three aerial pirouettes to and from the knees. More screaming. Running. Looking everywhere. Darkness. Applause.
In the dark a heartbeat is heard. Then a chorus of operatic women’s voices, oooh ooooh. The fire pillar pulses a flame. Cool. More operatic ooooh-ing. Dracul arrives; walking the pace I call International Slow Motion. It’s not Butoh slow, or filmic slow, but it’s just slow enough to read as serious or ritualistic. With much drama he discovers the staked Janet. The entire edge of the elevated stage bursts into flames. He lifts her onto a metal table that two of the undead wheel towards center stage. Recalling Frankenstein/Frankenfurter but with the aesthetics of Mad Max/Burning Man, a postindustrial transparent half-dome lowers to cover her. All the zombies arrive. Opera voices continue. Big singing, men and women. Now a dance with everyone. Ballet, contortion, fire and blacksmithing. Projection of church stained glass, spinning. More opera, serious opera. Welding, contortion, fire. A zombie fire sculptor pours molten metal from the balcony as voices crescendo and music goes (classical) crazy. Big timpani, horns, strings, everything. Voices, fire spinning, leaping dancers. Janet comes alive in the plexi bubble. Dracul raises his fists to the air. The bubble rises. Zombies spin the table, fire spinners spin fire, and everyone circles the table. Janet lurches as her body circuitry re-boots into life. Dracul and Janet find each other, embrace. All music drops to a single violin, but no, that was only momentary, timpani and everything roar back.
Buffy, stakes ready, arrives to defeat the vampire ghouls. Lots of stage combat including escapes climbing up and plunging down the pole (Chinese mast). Brad cheers from the sidelines, go stake girl go! Dracul arrives to fight Buffy. She loses one stake but in a quick pirouette she thrusts the remaining stake into Dracul. He falls. She turns away. He stands, pulls out the stake, and then stabs her in the back. Hey that’s not fair! It’s not right that Buffy dies so unjustly. Buffy’s grrrl power is based on the fact that she always gets her vampire. After all the stage combat and acrobatics, Buffy stabs Drac but it doesn’t work and then he kills her. Stabs her in the back! That’s the only way he gets his girl. He should be falling for dead Buffy. Now that’s hot! But this is no morality play.
Meanwhile, stage left, super power Janet destroys Brad. Timing her attack to percussive symphonic blasts she snaps his neck and then sends him to his grave. Ummm why didn’t she bite his neck to join her in the infinite life of the undead bloodsuckers? Oh yeah, Dracul and Janet meet center stage. (Forever) young lovers walking among their beloved flames. They walk downstage, and turn from their lover gaze to us. They lick lips. We’re next. We giggle. Hand in hand they exit through the tomb portal. Projection of red and yellow sky, a new day dawning. We applaud. Music resolves with a final chord.
The air is thick with the malodor of burnt fuel. Then big rock music blasts for the bows. The dance quartet chorus does as staccato spazz dance that’s better than anything they’ve done tonight. We respond as if at a commedia, cheering and jeering with each actor as they vamp in character. The crescendo of applause peaks with Brett Womack’s bow. (To think I first worked with him as a 19 year old boyman.) Kerri K and Tom S are non-stop fun. All the tech guys come out, and the dragon too. Lots and lots of applause.
Dracul: Prince of Fire was a massive undertaking by hordes of talented people. Imagine a DIY Cirque du Soleil. It was also a show that couldn't really exist anywhere else on earth. The Crucible has not only ridden the wave of Burning Man culture, it has been a primary instigator in the communities, aesthetics and resources that make Burning Man possible. And the Bay Area, thanks to a legacy of DIY circus, vaudville and burlesque has an impressive talent pool for aerialists and acrobats of all kinds. Kuddos to everyone involved.
Check them out: http://thecrucible.org