Haunting Memory

BalletMet brings "Dracula" back to life in Columbus.

Minutes after the curtain rose, the spell was cast.

By intermission, the enchantment was mesmerizing.

So it’s no wonder that 13 years later, the excitement surrounding BalletMet’s fall production has reached fever pitch. The supernatural drama that debuted on October 28, 1999, is back: Next month, “Dracula” will put the bite on audiences once again.

Cheri Mitchell, the dance troupe’s executive director, understands firsthand what all the buzz is about.“‘Dracula’ is an artistic masterpiece,” she says. “It’s a sensual, seductive package filled with human emotion.”

Clearly, the description is an apt one, as Mitchell recalls the reactions from patrons during the eight seasons “Dracula” took center stage at the Capitol Theatre in Columbus. She smiles while remembering the women who emerged from the theater fanning themselves with their playbills, and those captivated by the lobby photo of dancer Jimmy Orrante, for whom the title role was created.

“It’s easy to see why Jimmy has quite a fan base,” Mitchell says. “He exudes a sense of effortlessness in his movements, and he’s very open about sharing himself with the audience. Jimmy becomes the character — so much so that you can’t take your eyes off of him.

“And then there’s the fact,” she adds, “that he’s physically beautiful.”

The idea for what was to become BalletMet’s most talked-about production was generated during a routine staff meeting. As artistic director David Nixon and his collaborators compiled a list of potential works for the upcoming 1999 season, one suggestion kept resurfacing: Since “The Nutcracker” was a Yuletide tradition, and “Romeo and Juliet” had become a Valentine’s Day favorite, why not create a ballet for autumn audiences? One that would be filled with Victorian Gothic suspense and Halloween thrills and chills.

The pros and cons of popular tales were debated:

“Jekyll and Hyde”? Translating the psychological nuances of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story into the visual form required for movement would be tricky.

“Frankenstein”? There was too great a chance that Mary Shelley’s monstrous fable would be misconstrued as farce.

“Dracula”? Now there was a plot with potential.

The thought of bringing Bram Stoker’s tale to life through dance was intriguing. But, Nixon admits, he did have a few reservations.

“I was a little bit scared,” the choreographer recalls by phone from the United Kingdom, where he’s in his 12th season as artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds. “There was the danger of having it become a bit kitschy, with somebody running around in a cape wearing false teeth and a widow’s peak.

“I was determined,” Nixon adds, “to make the ballet not just a piece centering around Halloween, but have it be a work that was really substantial for the company.”

He picked up a copy of the novel, published in 1897, and began to read. It didn’t take long for him to be drawn into the world of 19th-century London.

“The images Stoker penned are awfully strong ones, filled with passion, love, invention and struggle,” Nixon explains. “Paired with those themes is the approaching dawn of a new century. Women are starting to come into their own. They no longer need the old kind of chivalry where the male hero is a primary protector.

“I viewed the vampire as the personification of what was  happening in the real world,” he adds. “That gave me the validation I needed to proceed.”

For the lead, the choreographer wanted a dancer who had the stamina needed to replicate the movements of a larger-than-human-life creature of the night.

“I’ve had lots of very good vampires through the years,” Nixon asserts. “But Jimmy remains my Dracula.”

Throughout his 18 seasons at BalletMet, Jimmy Orrante has exuded a work ethic lauded by colleagues: He embraces every project with a vitality that’s coupled with the commitment to make the end result remarkable. It’s a principle the California native honed while attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Performing Arts and as a member of Memphis Ballet and Nevada Dance Theatre.

When he arrived at BalletMet in 1995, Orrante’s plan was to stay with the company for the summer before heading off to New York. But fate intervened: He met dancer Sonia Welker.

“There was quite a spark,” Orrante recalls with a smile during a break in rehearsal. “I knew I had to stay.” Married in 2001, the couple are the parents of a son and two daughters.

Season after season, Orrante has danced a litany of memorable roles for BalletMet. They range from the Prince in “Swan Lake” to the arrogant Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons” to portraying “The Man in Black” for the company’s homage to country music legend Johnny Cash. His versatility also extends to choreography: Three years ago, Orrante’s first full-length ballet, “The Great Gatsby,” reacquainted audiences with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel. He also earned accolades for putting together 2010’s “Coming into View,” an ode to summer set to music by French composer Rene Aubry.

On the surface, it all seems so smooth. But as he gets ready for the rigorous round of “Dracula” performances ahead, the lithe Orrante admits to feeling his age.

“You ask me whether I prefer being a dancer or a choreographer,” the 39-year-old says with a grin. “Well, one hurts my body, and one hurts my brain.

“At the moment,” Orrante adds, “choreographing would hurt a lot less.”

Still, he’s eager to don the mantle of the world’s most notorious vampire once more.

“It seldom happens that you have a full-length ballet created for your kind of movement, your kind of style,” Orrante says. “David [Nixon] and I worked on every nuance together — the way I turn my head, the way I reach out to somebody. One of my biggest challenges was learning how to use Dracula’s cape so it doesn’t consume me.

“It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Lunch is over, and Orrante is wanted on stage. Before departing, he shares his hopes for opening night and beyond.

“I don’t want to just go up there and do it,” he reflects. “I want audiences to come away with me. Some may see it as a love story, others will consider it a horror story.

“But,” he adds, “no matter what they believe, I want them to go somewhere and then come back.”

Dates: Oct. 26–Nov. 3
Capitol Theatre, Riffe Center, 77 S High St., Columbus 43215,
800/982-2787. balletmet.org. Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m., Sun 2 p.m., Wed. &
Thur. 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, call or visit website