Harnessing Halloween: Ballet Companies Are Using Classic Scary Stories to Attract Audiences

October 25, 2022

Ballet is no stranger to the supernatural. Whether it’s the wilis of Giselle or the sylphs in La Sylphide, ballet productions have dabbled in the world of spirits for centuries.

Now, ballet companies are leveraging the excitement of Halloween to drive today’s theatergoers. Pointe spoke with three artistic directors about the productions they planned for this month, the popularity of scary stories, and the future the industry might have around Halloween-timed ballets. 

Bringing Spooky Classics to Life

During her tenure as Dayton Ballet’s artistic director, Karen Russo Burke has programmed three performances around Halloween, including Dracula Bloodlines and a mixed-repertory program that featured Russo Burke’s Día de los Muertos; Chasing Ghosts, by Amy Seiwert; and Ghost Light, by Penny Saunders. This year, she has choreographed a new ballet, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, based on the 1819 gothic short story by Washington Irving. 

Onstage, a female dancer in a long black gothic dress with white skeletal decoration across her ribcage makes a dramatic gesture with her hands, mouth open, wearing a wild black wig. A male dancer, on his knees behind her, wears a blue tunic with a red undershirt, gray tights and a wild blonde wig. He looks up at her intensely.
Artists of Dayton Ballet in Dracula Bloodlines. Photo by Scott Robbins: Geek with a Lens.

Dayton Ballet has seen an uptick in ticket sales around Halloween-timed performances in the past. Russo Burke thinks part of the draw of productions centered on popular tales, especially during Halloween, is that audiences are familiar with them. “People may stay away from ballet because they might not know certain choreographers or names of pieces and music, so sometimes a story they relate to can get them in the door.”

Leveraging Halloween also makes attending the ballet “more of an event,” says Russo Burke, explaining that audience members enjoy dressing up in costume. 

That is also the case for Michael Pink’s Dracula, a popular version that has been staged by numerous companies, and Colorado Ballet’s 2022–23 season opener. The company first performed the production in 2001. 

In a lavish bedroom set onstage, three female dancers in white gothic dresses, long dark curly wigs and jeweled headpieces dance mysteriously in front of a male dancer sitting on a bed. The male dancer, wearing a waistcoat, peasant shirt and suit pants, looks frightened as he supports himself on the bed with his arms, watching them.
Artists of Colorado Ballet in Michael Pink’s Dracula. Photo by Mike Watson.

Dracula is a name that everybody knows,” says Gil Boggs, Colorado Ballet artistic director. “It’s a bit of a cult; we get a lot of phone calls in ticketing about when we’re doing Dracula again. And the work is very suspenseful. It’s not your typical classical ballet. Audience members love dressing up for it—we have vampires and people in capes coming to the performance.”

Steven McMahon, Ballet Memphis artistic director, has created four narrative ballets in the past and wanted to go for a spookier story this time around. The world premiere of McMahon’s Dracula will take place on October 28.

“I had always been interested in why the character of Dracula continues to endure in our culture,” says McMahon, excited to take his own spin on the tale. “The way [Bram Stoker’s] novel is written allows for a lot of creativity.”

Brandon Ramey, in a black tshirt and pants, faces backwards as he lifts Virginia Pilgrim Ramey above his head. Ramey, in a light pink cap sleeve leotard and a nude mesh skirt, faces the ceiling and pedals her legs, her arms floating in the air as she looks up.
Brandon Ramey and Virginia Pilgrim Ramey rehearse Steven McMahon’s Dracula. Photo by Rebecca Thomason, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

Like Dayton Ballet and Colorado Ballet, Ballet Memphis is building excitement through social media by encouraging attendees to dress up in costume for the show. The performance will take place in a popular venue in downtown Memphis, the Orpheum Theatre, which is reportedly haunted, adding to the overall experience for audiences. 

Excitement That Endures?

As ballets like Dracula drive audiences to the ticket counters (Colorado Ballet sold out all eight of its performances this month, leading Boggs to add a ninth show), could capitalizing on the consumer popularity of Halloween help the industry recover from the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

“I don’t want to pigeonhole dance companies to have to always program to the holiday, but I think that in this post-COVID world, we have to look at things a little bit differently,” says Russo Burke. “We can get people back in the theaters and show that it’s safe, it’s fun and it’s accessible.”

She also adds that Halloween-timed productions can open the door for new audience members to consider attending other performances.

“Once we have gotten people in and they see the athleticism and artistry of the dancers, they often come back to see them again in a repertory show,” says Russo Burke. 

In a lavish bedroom scene onstage, a male dancer in a gray suit lies face down on a large bed with lush red sheets. In front of the bed, another male dancer dressed as Dracula walks forward as he lifts a female dancer in a white dress on his back. With her ankles crossed and arms supported to the side by Dracula's arms, the female dancer looks up passionately, as if flying.
Dana Benton, Mario Labrador and Jonnathan Ramirez in Michael Pink’s Dracula. Photo by Mike Watson.

But there are some challenges, particularly when it comes to fitting in other ballets during a company’s short and busy season. 

“We do five productions each season, so I don’t have the bandwidth to do Dracula every year. Though the thought did go through my mind,” says Boggs.

McMahon agrees.“It can be limiting,” he says. “We only do four main programs a season: a fall production, The Nutcracker, winter and spring. I don’t see us doing [a Halloween production] every year right now, but never say never—there are lots of spooky stories out there.” 

Below, check out a list of companies who’ve participated in the Halloween fun:


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


Penny’s Dreadful