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Dracula, with heart

Imagine Dracula finding a dead ringer for the love of his life of some 600 years ago and falling in love all over again. And yet, there is this urge to bite her neck.

What better Halloween night treat than to spend an evening with the blood-lusting Count Dracula in a flashy ballet performed by an international cast of dancers?

Dracula, the ballet, is the creation of Ballet Theatre International's artistic director Christopher Fleming, and it's the new company's first performance of the season.

This isn't your usual Dracula. This one has such heart that it leads him to hero status.

"In order for him to not be just a monster, we had to make him a sympathetic, romantic character," Fleming said. "He didn't want to be a vampire. He has to be a character that you have some sympathy for; otherwise, he's just someone who sucks people's blood."

In Fleming's adaptation of the classic Bram Stoker tale, there is humor, pathos and fun. And it's the fun part that Fleming hopes will fill the Mahaffey Theater.

"We're inviting people to come in costume and take in a little culture after they've done their tricking or treating," he said.

This is the third year the ballet has been performed but the first year Fleming has done it with his own company. "We make it different each time," Fleming said. "We change the scenery, we bring in a new cast."

The cast of 24 includes Andrei Ustinov as Count Dracula and his wife, Elena Martinson, as Abigail Von Manhouf, the woman of his dreams.

Ustinov and Martinson, both natives of St. Petersburg, Russia, were principal dancers with the Kirov Ballet and toured with the company. They now live in Pinellas County.

Other featured dancers include Kimberly Ann Horten, who performed in the movie Flashdance and is a principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet, as Zorta the Gypsy princess. Victor Barauskas, who portrays Zorto the Gypsy prince and the high priest, is a former principal dancer with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Dallas Opera and a dancer with the Zurich Ballet, Chicago City Ballet and the Scottish American Ballet.

"There's a lot of talent right here in the Tampa Bay area," Fleming said.

St. Petersburg resident Debra Jo Hughes, who plays Baroness Von Manhouf, appeared in the film Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, several years ago. She is the producer, creator and host of Discover Dance at 6:30 p.m. Saturdays on cable television community access Channel 21.

Fleming, a native of New York, has been dancing, choreographing and directing ballet more than 20 years. At 16, he was one of the youngest dancers to join the American Ballet Theater.

He danced a decade with the New York City Ballet before leaving for a career as a choreographer. He came here six years ago from Colombia, where he had been artistic director of the national ballet theater in Bogota.

The ballet's music was composed by Tampa physician David Goldstein, whose musical training began at age 4 in Toronto. He has collaborated with Fleming on a number of scores for full-length ballets and is working on the music for the premiere of Fleming's Ballpark _ A Nine-Inning Ballet.