Tooele Valley Academy of Dance is about to unveil its newest ballet — just in time for Halloween.
Based on the classic book by Bram Stoker, “Dracula” was first adapted for ballet in 1996 by Philip Feeney. A few months ago in June, the directors of the Tooele production created an original adaptation just for their students.
Ballet directors Sarah Westhora and Melinda Palmer regularly adapt published ballets so they can involve all of the students at Tooele Valley Academy of Dance.
“Instead of doing recitals we do full ballet productions,” Palmer said. “Sarah (Westhora) loves coming up with stories for them. She likes to use full ballets to showcase our dancers.
“Part of our mission statement is … ‘for every dancer, an instructor, an ambition and a stage,’” Palmer added. “So it’s important to us that our dancers are able to perform, especially in a professional setting.”
The production will include 166 dance students, ranging from age 4 to 40.
Westhora has wanted to produce the “Dracula” ballet ever since she first saw it several years ago, according to Palmer.
“The trick (to adapting a ballet), like with this scary one, is how to fit little kids into it,” Palmer said. “A lot of times we have to create roles for them. For this ballet, we put little Red Riding Hood in it, which is not in the regular story at all.”
They also added pumpkins, baby spiders and baby bats to various scenes in the ballet.
After adding the necessary roles and scenes, the next step in creating an original ballet adaptation is choosing music. Although published ballets like “Dracula” include music, Palmer and Westhora usually prefer to choose their own.
In fact, putting the music together is one of the steps Palmer looks forward to most.
“One of my favorite parts is really looking and getting really familiar with some of these (classical) composers,” she said.
One of her favorite songs she ever found for a production was an overture by Beethoven. She and Westhora used the music in an original ballet entitled “Snow Queen.”
“It wasn’t really dark or scary, but it was intense,” Palmer said. “Everyone who danced to it loved it. Sometimes we do reuse numbers; we couldn’t reuse that one, but we did find another intense overture by Beethoven.”
Choosing music is only the beginning. The difficult part is putting all the songs together in a way that fits the ballet, Palmer said.
“The other challenge is, ‘What scene does this fit well in? Where does this fit in the ballet?’ and some (of the songs) can be 18 minutes or 40 minutes,” she said. “We end up listening to most of them and then only picking a minute or two. … Sometimes the track can be used as is, sometimes it has to be cut, and sometimes we cut and paste; like in the ‘Snow Queen’ ballet, we actually took some of the music from ‘Dracula’ and mixed it with the Beethoven number.”
Despite the difficulty, Palmer loves watching the music come together.
“It’s really fun and really amazing to watch,” she said. “I’m not classical music trained — I do play instruments — but as a dancer, I know what feels right to move to. Sometimes I don’t know all the intricate details of what’s happening in a specific song, but then we’ll put it together and … Sarah (Westhora) and I will look at each other and say, ‘We really got this music right, didn’t we?’ Sometimes the music just works.”
This ballet incorporates works from 18 different composers. One of the main themes that made it into the final production was written by Modest Mussorgsky, a famous Russian composer from the 1800s.
Some of the other featured composers include Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorák, Palmer said.
After the music in finalized, it’s time to add the choreography.
“For me personally as a director, I love the marriage of music and movement — my love of music comes from my love of movement,” Palmer said. “For me, a lot of times the kids will say, ‘This is really cool choreography,’ and I’ll say, ‘I didn’t create it, the music did.’ When I hear the music, it’s created in my mind. Someone else creating off that same track might come up with something different, but for me when I hear it, there’s no question; this move is what it has to be.”
She added, “That’s another reason I love creating brand-new ballets. The music doesn’t have anything in my mind yet. I’m just creating from scratch.”
The academy produces two ballets each year — one in the spring and another in the fall. Usually the second performance is in December. This is the first year the group will perform in October.
“We’ve done ‘The Nutcracker’ many times,” Palmer said. “‘Snow Queen’ was the other one we created for a December performance.”
One year, Westhora also single-handedly created a ballet adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
“This the first one we’ve done in October, so it was kind of tricky in regards that we were used to starting when the school year starts,” Palmer said. “We’d get classes going, then hold open auditions for the production, then cast it and start rehearsing sometime in September.”
This time, Palmer and Westhora knew they had to start rehearsing far earlier to get ready for an October performance. They decided to draw on their dance company.
“There’s a group of dancers we have that’s our dance company,” Palmer said. “They’re ambassadors for our company. They have to meet certain requirements. We hold auditions and they’re kind of like our helpers throughout the year; they help set up and break down. They’re run kind of like a high school team — they have activities and a team captain.”
Just before classes let out in May, Palmer and Westhora surveyed the dance company members to find out who would be available to rehearse over the summer. After the new “Dracula” adaptation was ready, they held auditions and started rehearsing in July.
“There were two weeks where we were in the studio four hours a day,” Palmer said. “We got most of the major roles filled and familiarized the kids with them. Then when school started, we hit it pretty hard.”
Although she didn’t really get a break over the summer, Palmer is looking forward to finishing the fall production early.
“We’re used to going until December, then we usually have a week or two of classes and take a winter break,” she said. “This will be nice because we’ll have the whole month of November to work on technique — which we do anyway.”
The dancers are also looking forward to the performances next weekend. Daniel Westhora, son of Sarah Westhora, is excited about his role as Dracula.
“As Dracula, I get to have lots of brides that I get to dance with and control onstage,” he said. “My favorite part is being able to do the makeup for Dracula. It takes about two and a half hours to get it right; it’s lots of fun. It’s very satisfying to become a different character and be able to dance as that character, especially as an antagonist. Dracula gets to bite people and make more vampires. … I get to control the stage most of the time. It’s fun.”
He added, “It’s definitely going to be a thrilling ballet; the music is very intense. It’ll be exciting.”
Westhora has been dancing ballet for four years. Some of his roles in past productions have included King Florestan in “Sleeping Beauty,” a bullfighter in “Don Quixote,” and the mouse king in “The Nutcracker.”
One of his favorite things about ballet is its difficulty.
“It’s super satisfying to be able to dance classical ballet. It’s pretty challenging for a guy to learn how to do that,” he said. “It’s kind of fun because in ‘Dracula’ we hold to classical ballet but (we also) do a little bit of contemporary crossover.”
The contemporary crossover in “Dracula” is also something Audrey Palmer, daughter of Melinda Palmer, enjoyed.
“It’s different than anything we’ve done before,” she said. “A lot of our ballets are mostly classical, but this one really is contemporary almost. … It’s been a lot of fun.”
Audrey, who has been studying ballet at the academy since 2011, will be dancing as one of Dracula’s brides.
Tooele Valley Academy of Dance will perform “Dracula” at Tooele High School on Oct. 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. It will also perform on Oct. 28 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.
Tickets are available on www.tvadance.org.