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Chillingly Real—My Conversation with Michael Pink

michael pinkClose your eyes and imagine the classical world of ballet you were once familiar with. A world where sugar plum fairies and strong princes pas-de-deux their way through mythical fantasy lands. Now turn that world upside down and try to picture a ballet so riveting, so enticing, so frightening and irresistible that you can hardly stand to blink. Imagine ballet that doesn’t just take your breathe away – it makes you jump in your seat, fearfully cling to the stranger sitting next to you and howl with terrified delight. Imagine a world where you are trapped in a mesmerizing adventure that just will not quit.

According to Michael Pink, “It’s possible.”

He should know. He’s made it happen with Dracula– all over the world and now in Milwaukee. Michael Pink is part of an incredible team of people; film director Ken Russell, composer Philip Feeney, lighting designer Lez Brotherston and the late Christopher Gable, all of whom transformed Bram Stoker’s Dracula into a ballet that is changing the shape of the art form itself. Though many choreographers and companies have jumped onto this gothic bandwagon, no version is quite like Michael Pink’s. He and his colleagues are deep believers in the magic of good stories and in the integrity of remaining true to the storytellers who originally told them.

“The very least we can do is stay true to the story. The skill is in trying to transfer that book directly to the audience,” says Pink of Stoker’s famous novel.

A legend like Dracula has natural appeal – we all know it, from garlic to bitemarks on the neck, we are fascinated and it has its own built-in success factor that Michael Pink has watched happen in New Zealand, London, Atlanta and Indianapolis. There is something about vampires that draws us all into the mystery. In Pink’s extensive research, he found that the vampire legend is present in some form in nearly everyone’s culture.

“It’s a universal topic with universal appeal. The feedback gets to you straight away, “says Pink. In other words – because Dracula is as familiar to us as Santa Claus, the excitement begins long before people arrive at the theatre.

Pink’s Dracula is a larger-than-life event that he believes starts when people are at home getting primped and ready for the ballet.

“When you look out into the foyer, you’ll see these women wearing chokers and low-cut dresses. The men look a bit smarter. The audience subconsciously starts to prepare for it, “ describes Pink.

The experience continues as they mill around perusing garlic for sale in the lobby, as they sip Bloody Marys served by bartenders disguised as Brides of Dracula (in New Zealand), as people show up in black capes and bear fangs when they smile. By the time the lights begin to fade, the goosebumps are already there and the show hasn’t even begun.“It just gets people so excited and ready that they get into their seats and then it starts and they are thinking, ‘My god. What kind of nightmare is this?’ It starts and it just won’t stop. They are whipped along on this incredible journey and it just builds and builds and builds because of the pace,” Pink recounts.

The team who collaborated on Dracula had cinematic visions in its creation. (For example, they see Act I as a black and white movie where we don’t see any color until Dracula’s blood red cape. Dramatic stuff.) They were not interested in following all of the conventions of classical ballet and so you will not see a pas-de-trois in the middle of an important scene; you will not see the entire cast dancing in unison just because they are all on stage! Pink and fellow creators are interested in telling us the story of Dracula from start to finish and they want to do it in a way that builds and peaks, keeping us on the very edges of our seats, in the same way that Stoker’s novel does.

Pink tells me, “There is not any of that gratuitous dancing in the middle of the story. The kind that when you’re watching it you think, ‘What a bunch of nonsense.’”

What you will see in Dracula is a new way to tell stories in ballet with totally new elements while remaining true to the intents of classical ballet.

“The steps are harder than one would imagine,” Pink says. “Dance is guilty of showcasing the steps. You’ll see a ballet and see the dancers showing us all of their tricks so that the audience is cheering and saying, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’. But I don’t work like that.”

Dracula requires more from the dancers, as actors, in that they must be completely embedded and engaged in their parts.

“Dracula is the main part; the part that people are so crazy about. But he can’t do it all by himself. Everyone is a part of it. Down to each and every part, everyone must believe in the work. Otherwise the audience sees that what you’re doing is not real. My premise is, ‘Let’s make it real.’. Let’s make them real people. The dancers must find something inside of them that they can relate to. The average public today wants something that looks real and then they can relate to it, “ says Pink.

Pink’s approach to the rehearsal process plays a direct role in getting the dancers to really explore (and do some research!) on the parts they are playing. For many dancers this is a new experience. What Pink does not want is anything stereotypical. He focuses a lot on vulnerability as a mechanism to find truth. When the dancers are unsure of what they are doing in a rehearsal or scared about exposing their emotions through their characters, Pink is there to positively encourage them to go with it, to find that part of them that can get there emotionally. His job is to help foster an atmosphere where the power of the story comes out through the unknowns that the dancers experience during rehearsals. He says, for example, that we must look at Dracula, not as the caricatured figure who vants to suck our blood but as a man who is trying to survive. A man who is not even remotely interested in the people he seduces, but in their blood, as a way to live.

“Dracula is not indulging in any way – that’s what we have to get across to the dancer playing him. ‘Without it you will die.’ As a character he has no fear. He is not insecure. He walks into a room and in his mind, he cannot be beaten. He is invincible. Through that belief comes his vulnerability. At the end of the day it’s all about a belief in the piece. You rehearse and rehearse and rehearse it and then, in the eleventh hour the dancers sort of realize that this is a huge powerful piece. It’s a progressive thing. There is a sense and power that being in a theatre creates. There is that intimate power in the theatre and the dancers can feel it,” Pink says in a way that gives me goosebumps.

It is this most personal experience between you, the audience member, and this incredible show that makes it so memorable, so scary, so amazing.

“In dance, in any kind of non-verbal theatre, it is unique in that you sit in your seat, the lights go down, you are one-on-one with the stage. Think about it – you are making the words up yourself. The audience has an individual experience. Imagine sitting there with your boyfriend or your husband and you are completely riveted by Dracula and you sit there watching a woman climb on him and you are wishing it was you. You get to have your own personal fantasy. For the audience it is an incredible experience,” Pink says.

The sustained success of the show was at first a surprise to Michael Pink. He has watched it explode and become something similar to Phantom of the Opera in popularity, The Rocky Horror Picture Show with its cult following and like Halloween itself–-an occasion that deserves all the glitter and fantasy imaginable.

“This show has become kind of a flagship. I have just been delighted to take it around the world and see the response of people and to be able to bring it to a new generation of people. When everyone in the show believes in it the audience really starts to believe it,” Pink says excitedly.

Pink truly believes that this is where the future of ballet lies. The making of Dracula was one of those rare artistic experiences where everyone and everything came together to create one vision. Because the show is completely respectful to the subject matter (both the story and to ballet itself) the new, more balanced audience of seasoned balletomanes and raw beginners to the art form, can have a holistic appreciation of what is happening on stage, from all angles. Pink repeated many times that while it may seem fanciful, even outrageous to some, that ballet can undergo a positive, healthy and creative revolution of sorts, he knows it can happen. He has done it. He has been a part of this wondrous process. It is indeed chillingly real.

Alyson Chavez
Education Director