The San Francisco Ballet and The Royal Ballet’s co-production of Frankenstein, showing at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House through February 26th, is a moving and mesmerizing exploration of the body. That may be an obvious statement to make about a ballet; after all, the art form is based upon expression through body movement. Yet a particular kind of focus on the corporeal seems necessary for a story centered around the disastrous reanimation of a corpse—a focus Frankenstein delivers in spades.
Designer John Macfarlane’s anatomical front cloths establish this immediately. As the overture of composer Lowell Liebermann’s original score draws the audience into the transposed world of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, scribbled notes are projected over a charcoal sketch of a skull on yellowed paper. The body will be studied scientifically, technologically, with the zeal of 18th-century experimenters dissecting ill-gotten corpses to find out how humans work.
However, the production packs emotional heft as it goes beyond the scientific and considers the existential nature of bodies. Choreographer Liam Scarlett’s interpretation does away with many structural elements that make Shelley’s novel interesting—its outer frame, its tight handling of chronology and information through letters—but it retains the narrative’s core of loss and longing. As in the novel, the Victor Frankenstein of this production is a bright young scientist who yearns for something beyond what others see possible. He takes what he has learned several steps further and brings to life, though “galvanism,” a new creature assembled from the body parts of the dead. He does not—or cannot—understand the consequences of this, however, until his creation tragically impacts those he loves. It is not enough that the Creature has been given a more or less human form. True humanity is tied to embodiment but requires much more. To tell this tale through dance, the body must become more than a means through which to enact movement. Rather, the movement in Frankenstein serves to emphasize and reflect back on the body itself: its capabilities, its limitations, and its relation to space and other bodies.
The easiest place to see this is in Taras Domitro’s stellar performance of the Creature. Costumed to appear as though he wears only his own skin, ugly red scarring marking where the Creature’s various body parts have been sewn together, he is consistently and entrancingly at odds with his own body, even as he dances Scarlett’s choreography with technical prowess. Curious and fearful, the Creature struggles to find the meaning in his new existence by testing the body he has been given, identifying its possibilities and constraints. He proves himself a talented mimic of humans and their mannerisms, but whether first learning how to walk or defiantly disrobing to assume a stance of power, Domitro imbues his character’s movements with an undeniably alien quality, one that perturbs and fascinates. He seems almost unsteady, overshooting and self-correcting as if his center of gravity is never quite where he expected to find it. This elasticity calls attention to both the body’s strangeness and its capacity for improvisation.
Lighting and set design also work to emphasize the body’s centrality in this ballet. The lecture theater, after all, is an apt setting for Victor’s fateful science experiment, the site of academic dissections here rendered as an enormous bowl of a room, tall rows of seating funneling down in candlelit grays and browns to where the head and torso of what will become the Creature lie waiting for Victor’s work. Even before the electrifying contraption is called down from above and the Creature’s assembled parts are brought up to meet it in a pyrotechnic display, we see Victor dancing alone through this space. His solitary form casts a long shadow on the theater wall, as if foreshadowing the long impact of bringing a body into the world.
More tragic than the Creature or Victor’s moments of loneliness are the moments in which they attempt, and fail, to form lasting connections. The Creature’s attempts are more obvious, in terms of plot, although again Domitro’s performance is powerful and persuasive. He sneaks onto the Frankenstein grounds to dance with Victor’s young brother William, blindfolded as part of a party game; boy and Creature share a sweet sequence of getting to know one another before William touches the Creature’s face and at last realizes that his new playmate is scarily disfigured. Later, the Creature dances with Victor’s love, Elizabeth, attempting to force her into showing him the same tenderness he has seen her express for Victor. Technically speaking, many of the Creature’s steps follow exactly those of Victor before him—but Elizabeth dances her part under duress, in a state of extreme fear. The Creature is as lonely and even more frustrated than ever.
The Creature’s violent intrusions are not all that prevent Victor and Elizabeth, though they love one another, from happiness. Victor’s increasing inability to connect is developed over the course of the ballet through the evolution of his and Elizabeth’s movement.
When Victor and Elizabeth are in harmony, their love shines through in the fluidity and dynamism of their dancing. Their first pas de deux is simply a joy to watch, each movement imbued with a melting quality that truly brings the couple together as one. Max Cauthorn and Lauren Strongin deliver technically, but also emotionally, conveying, at turns, contented synchronicity and the electricity of newly woken attraction. Their movements are both expansive and energized—frequent lifts, for example, see Strongin twirling both in towards and out from her partner with wide leg extensions and impressive upper body arcs, but she is never held in place for long, even to punctuate a particularly forceful swell of the music. She and Cauthorn are always in seamless motion, floating through level changes with ease.
This initial harmony of movement lingers when Victor and Elizabeth come together thereafter, but only in softer echoes. Their failure to fall back into that same rhythm is at turns sad and strident. First with the death of his mother, and then with his increasing distress over the Creature, Victor distances himself from Elizabeth. The gulf between them is palpable even without the choreographed moments of him pushing her away or pulling himself out of her grasp. He simply isn’t present anymore, following through their old motions with a heartbreaking lack of engagement.
This is, of course, what all good ballet does–tell an emotional story through movement–and given a case such as Victor and Elizabeth’s disintegrating relationship, a series of contrasting pas de deux make sense to move the narrative forward. Part of what makes Frankenstein feel so fresh, however, is that not all its movement serves the plot—sometimes this unusual story allows for new movement.
Consider the wedding ball that opens the third and final act. The party scene is a standby of classical ballet; the rich and the royal love to have balls, events that showcase impressive ensemble choreography, create a celebratory atmosphere through fun and festive costuming, and sometimes allow for the protagonists’ private drama to play out unbeknownst to most partygoers. In this regard, Frankenstein’s wedding ball, in which Victor attempts to track down the disguised Creature amidst a swirl of dancing couples, is not much different from the engagement ball in Swan Lake during which Prince Siegfried is tricked into proclaiming his love for the wrong swan princess. The ball at Frankenstein manor is well-choreographed, well-set, and well-costumed, the dancers’ shimmering deep blue and purple party frocks fitting well with a starry outdoor backdrop—but it is not unexpected.
By contrast, a more unusual and quite arresting ensemble scene takes place earlier in the ballet at a tavern. After class, Victor’s fellow students relax in a dimly-lit and sparely rendered space that seems more brothel than university watering hole. Women, presumably sex workers, lead their partners in a tightly choreographed group display of sensuality and navigation of sexual politics. The movement here is still fluid, but imbued with far more carnal energy than one usually expects from ballet. It’s not strictly necessary, either; it doesn’t develop character motivation, and since the work as a whole is not primarily concerned with romance (Victor and Elizabeth’s relationship is important, but by far and away the ballet’s central conflict is the creation of the Creature), it may seem odd that so much space is given to, essentially, sex.
Yet this scene directly precedes the one in which Victor returns to the lecture theater to conduct his experiment, and carnal energy is an important link between the two. Victor does not participate in the tavern revelry—he is present but uninterested at first, and leaves the scene before it concludes—but it is with a similar kind of fervor that he works over his creation. After he has given the Creature the spark of life, but before the Creature has shown signs that it worked, Victor leaps fully onto the operating table to check. He holds himself just above the Creature, their bodies close but not quite touching, still but radiating emotion in anticipation.
This intimacy returns at the ballet’s close, when Victor finally grapples with the Creature that has taken so much from him. Their pas de deux is ostensibly a bitter struggle between enemies, but really it becomes a complex entanglement of creation and creator, enacting alternating modes of supplication and dominance, fascination and repulsion, in a manner more interesting than the Creature’s earlier antagonistic pas de deux with Elizabeth—more interesting, even, than Victor’s pas de deux with Elizabeth.
Ultimately, the body of the creature is made the closing image of the ballet. One of the most striking promotional stills from this production is taken from immediately after Victor and the Creature’s final altercation, after the Creature cradles Victor’s lifeless form at center stage: he then stands slowly, his back to the audience, to stare into the rising flames that have overtaken the stage’s backdrop, one hand still holding Victor’s. Liebermann’s score and the production as a whole maintain the feel of a classically Romantic work, and yet as the Creature moves into the ballet’s closing tableaux, so too does the music move from its ominous under- and overtones into something truly strange and discordant.
This 2016 production feels the most modern in this moment, as the Creature starts to stumble forward towards the flames, Victor’s hand slipping away. The program synopsis suggests that the Creature will be destroyed along with Frankenstein Manor. But as the curtain descends, the Creature is still moving, naked and stumbling clumsily onward in the form he did not ask to inhabit.
Images courtesy of Erik Tomasson