Composer J. Mark Scearce Commissioned for Two Ballets in Raleigh

Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?
By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh – Oct. 10, 2010

Vampires are everywhere these days, from “Twilight” books and movies to TV’s “True Blood,” so it might seem a no-brainer for Carolina Ballet to program a new “Dracula.” But the piece’s origins and the challenges it faced on the way to its premiere on October 14th in Raleigh make its choice a little less predictable.

The idea came to Carolina Ballet’s artistic director Robert Weiss after the company’s “Picasso” program last October, which did not do as well as expected. Determined to find a better fit for this season’s October slot, Weiss thought about the last performance of “Picasso” on Halloween night at which some audience members surprisingly came dressed as witches and goblins. “I thought, why not go with a seasonal theme,” Weiss remembers, “and take advantage of the built-in interest.”

“Dracula” was an obvious possibility, but there were already more than a dozen extant ballet versions. Weiss had seen the most popular ones but didn’t think any of them really worked. He decided to re-read the Bram Stoker novel and concluded it could be the basis for a successful staging. He immediately thought of Lynne Taylor-Corbett, the Broadway, Hollywood and ballet choreographer who has created a dozen popular works for the company. Initially, Taylor-Corbett was not sure she could contribute anything new, but Weiss convinced her to read the book, sweetening the proposal by offering a commissioned score from J. Mark Scearce, the Raleigh-based composer of four previous Carolina Ballet premieres.

Taylor-Corbett finally agreed after deciding she could focus on the women in the story. “In most versions, the female characters are underrepresented, they’re really just objects,” Taylor-Corbett recalls. “I was interested in exploring them with a fresh look. Lucy is the more traditional female and is susceptible to Dracula, but Mina is forward thinking, more modern. She resists Dracula, and in my version, tricks him into the sunlight to destroy him.”

Taylor-Corbett also makes Dracula himself young and sexy. ” Drinking blood to him is like wooing,” she says, “it’s like he’s saying ‘you’re going to love this.’ I don’t depict him as evil really, he’s just a force of nature.”

The 75-minute piece is not linear, but a series of short scenes. “The aspect I embraced was the solving of the mystery,” Taylor-Corbett says. “The characters don’t know Dracula exists in the beginning and you watch them try to figure out what is happening.” Although the ballet asks for strong character portrayal from the dancers, Taylor-Corbett wanted to avoid long scenes in which plot must be mimed, so she decided on a narrator in the person of Dr. Seward, who is called in to examine Lucy’s mysterious illness. Playing the role is Broadway actor Alan Campbell, known locally for heading up the Hot Summer Nights series with his wife, Raleigh-born actress Lauren Kennedy.

The production employs a number of traditional theatrical effects, but a new element is the moving projections. Taylor-Corbett brought in Adam Larsen, a UNC School of the Arts graduate and now a New York-based projection artist, to create the designs.

Scearce’s music for “Dracula” will add atmospheric elements, specifically through the cimbalom, the Hungarian hammered dulcimer. “When you hear it, it immediately takes you to that part of the world and the nineteenth century,” Scearce says. The score for strings, winds, harp, percussion and cimbalom will be performed live, conducted by Al Sturgis.

Scearce had to use a different compositional approach for Taylor-Corbett’s schedule and choreographic methods. She had to be in China during the period crucial to shaping the score, so they communicated by email and Skype. Scearce sent her various cds for inspiration, including movie soundtracks as well as his own music. “She latched onto my bass concerto,” says Scearce, “and said ‘I have to have this.’ Lynne heard the theme as a kind of calling by Dracula to the women, so music from the first movement became a unifying device.”

It was late May of this year when Taylor-Corbett finalized the work’s structure, giving Scearce only a short window to ready his score for the July 1 start of rehearsals. “I wrote it in ten days,” Scearce says. “I think it’s the fastest I’ve ever written anything.” Additional pressure came from needing to give the music copyist a month to get the parts ready.

Scearce also wrote the music for the evening’s companion piece, “The Masque of the Red Death,” a half-hour work based on Poe’s short story, choreographed by Weiss. “I’d been wanting to do a ballet to ‘Masque’ since 1985,” says Weiss, “but never got around to it.  Back then I saw it as a metaphor for AIDS but now I see it more universally about mortality and the fear of death. It’s also about couples in love who must face the fact that life will not always be so pretty.” Scearce composed the score in five days after Weiss came to him with a detailed set of requirements.

Scearce says the two choreographers are each brilliant in their own ways. “Ricky is a philosopher poet. He can give me an emotional hook in a single phrase.  He told me he wanted the ending to also be the beginning, so we open on a funeral with spooky male voices singing a requiem from the pit. Lynne is like an expressionist painter, with spontaneity and improvisatory elements. She starts with fragments of visual ideas, then shapes and conforms the music to them, working right up to the last minute.”

Weiss wants to catch the fancy of the under-twenty crowd, hoping the program will introduce them to ballet in new way. “We just had a meeting,” he relates, “in which the staff said they wished there was another word for what we do besides ‘ballet” so it could be marketed without the stereotype some people assign it.”

Perhaps bloodletting and sex will do the trick, along with the company’s call for audiences to wear costumes at the final performances on Halloween weekend.

[a version of this article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer on Oct. 10, 2010]