Oregon Ballet Theatre Prepares to Draw Blood with Dracula
In 1997, Lisa Kipp toured the US as a member of the ballet chorus in the Phantom of the Opera. Recently, she’s been having flashbacks.
"Honestly, getting into the theater and seeing the sets, seeing the flying and all this—it’s really reminding me of it,” Kipp says. “There’s even a chandelier.” Like the chandelier in Phantom, the one currently in Kipp’s sights gets ruined in spectacular fashion, but not at the hands of a disfigured musical genius. This time, the culprit is a vampire.
Kipp is the rehearsal director at Oregon Ballet Theatre, which will open its production of Ben Stevenson’s Dracula on February 19. With nearly 50 roles filled by OBT’s full company (including ballet master Jeffrey Stanton and Kipp herself), plus a healthy dose of flying, it’s the group's most rigorous undertaking since COVID hit. “In terms of scale, Nutcracker would be comparable,” Kipp says. “But Nutcracker is so familiar to us that there are no surprises. With this one, there are a lot of new and challenging things to work through.”
There was a world in which OBT mounted an entirely different production this month. Last summer, when the company first announced its 2021/22 season, the February slot was filled with a double bill of Ever After, an ode to weddings dashed by COVID, and Bolero, a Nicolo Fonte piece that premiered in Portland in 2008. Shortly after the season announcement, then-artistic director Kevin Irving abruptly parted from the company, and his temporary replacement, Peter Franc, was tasked with re-planning the season. Owing to his fondness for Ben Stevenson—a British choreographer known for spectacle and technical complexity—and seeking something nontraditionally romantic to mount near Valentine’s Day, Franc landed on Stevenson’s Dracula.
It’s been a challenge. “It’s a tough ballet pretty much from top to bottom,” Kipp says, noting Stevenson’s affinity for athletic pas de deux work in addition to the flying and exploding chandeliers. And then there’s omicron. Dracula’s rehearsal process began in January, as that COVID variant tore through the country, and OBT, like any live performance company, had to crank up its safety protocols. Everyone in the rehearsal room took at least two tests a week, and anyone who tested positive was out for a minimum of five days, allowed back only with a negative result and total lack of symptoms. Kipp had to triple- or quadruple-cast each role, and trained some younger company members as swings (meaning they familiarized themselves, more or less, with the entire show).
“My joke is that the only next step is that we’re gonna have to do what we’re doing, but people are gonna be throwing apples and oranges at us, and we have to dodge them,” Kipp says. But the results have been hugely rewarding. “We’ve realized we’re much more flexible and adaptable than we ever could have believed. The work always gets done. You can stress and you can fret, but with everybody’s nose to the grindstone, we can do a lot more than we thought.”
As opening night nears, Kipp is ready to zoom out and embrace the company’s accomplishments. She’s excited to share the score—gothic Franz Liszt pieces, including solo piano works, arranged by English conductor John Lanchberry—and to showcase the talents of every single OBT dancer, including herself. She is, indeed, psyched about the flying. “We actually got to the finish line, and we’re about to put on a really awesome production,” she says. “It kind of hits all bases as far as being artistically viable, and rock-solid entertainment.”
To paraphrase Phantom’s lovers: what more can you ask?
2 p.m. Sat–Sun, 7:30 p.m. Sat, Feb 19–26, Keller Auditorium, $25–115