Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of "Dracula" features Lucius Kirst and Marisa Grywalski. Photo by Duane Rieder courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Looking for a bloody good romance to celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has a twist on the holiday with the local premiere of Michael Pink’s notable adaptation of “Dracula” running at the Benedum Center Feb. 10-12.

“Dracula captures the imagination. He’s a romantic hero, irresistible and perfect for Valentine’s Day,” says Milwaukee Ballet’s Michael Pink, an award-winning choreographer and master of the dance-drama genre.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel about Count Dracula, a centuries-old Transylvanian vampire who journeys to England in search of human blood, has inspired a proliferation of ballet adaptations. Pink’s cinematic opus, internationally lauded for its faithfulness to its source, premiered in 1996.

“It’s the third time I’ve staged it this season,” says the British choreographer, who relishes opportunities to tell good stories without words. “I had always wanted to be an actor but was too successful in dance. I found my niche in storytelling.”

Getting to the bones of the 416-page novel, which was distilled by the late actor/dancer Christopher Gable, required zeroing in on key elements, eliminating extraneous characters (for example, doctor Seward and professor Van Helsing merge into one character), and simplifying relationships.

Watch behind-the-scenes footage of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers rehearsing for the production of “Dracula.”

Pink and composer Philip Feeney worked closely to craft a loud, haunting and urgent score — replete with pounding, clangs and screeches. 

Pink notes that North American “Dracula” productions rely on “inadequate” patchworks of existing music (including the 1997 PBT production by Ben Stevenson that Pink’s supplants). “It’s chalk and cheese” by comparison to a made-to-order score, he explains.

Production factors necessitated reframing components of the story, which is bedecked with 19th-century gothic realism by Tony Award-winning costume and set designer Lez Brotherston. An atmospheric nightmare sequence recounts Jonathan Harker’s terrifying Transylvanian excursion and the stake-plunging finale unfolds at Carfax Abbey.

“We had looked into special effects, but the more we looked into (theatrical) trickery, we realized we didn’t need them — a little lighting, a scream in the corner, some smoke and the audiences’ imaginations would do the work,” he says.

Developing the prologue and three acts took two years of preparation and five weeks to choreograph. 

“At least I got it done and was able to refine it in little bits afterward. By the third outing the version you’ll see emerged,” he says.

The ballet’s ritualistic animal sacrifice, three seductive bloodthirsty brides in a scene culminating with infanticide, and a feeding frenzy romp for the undead earned a “Recommended for audiences age 14 and older” tag from PBT. 

Pink, who never dumbs down material in his quest to maintain integrity, says, “I did not do ‘gory’ for the sake of gory.”

“Dracula appears to be kissing — not biting. It has a sensual quality to it. He overwhelms, he mesmerizes, he raises a hand, runs it down the neck and across the jewelry. It’s incredibly romantic. It’s a sensual kiss that is deadly,” he says.

The principal roles require both virtuoso technique and refined acting skills to develop characters and capture the nuances that define them. Unfamiliar with PBT’s dancers, Pink relied on recommendations from the artistic team.

Soloist Tommie Lin O’Hanlon portrays the ill-fated Lucy Westenra who dominates Act Two, from her effervescent introduction in the Whitby tea room scene until she slithers from her deathbed into the mist.

Lucius Kirst stars in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Dracula.” Photo by Duane Rieder ourtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

“I love working with Michael. He makes the process so enjoyable and has given us so much information. But he has allowed us open space to make the characters our own,” O’Hanlon says. “I’ve been developing the character in and out of the studio and rehearsed with Luz San Miguel. It was an honor to learn ‘Lucy’ from her, given she’s performed the role many, many times. I am becoming Lucy, not acting it.”

Pink hopes audiences “leave the theater entertained, engaged and in awe with what they saw.” 

Like Dracula, he too mesmerizes, but his objective is to draw the living into the theater.

Performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts (237 7th St.). Tickets are available online or by calling 412-456-6666.                                      

Karen Dacko

Karen Dacko is a dance writer and critic whose work has been featured in Dance Magazine.