Frankenstein Program Notes

By Cheryl Ossola

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett's Frankenstein // © Erik Tomasson

If the name “Frankenstein” brings to mind a green-faced Boris Karloff with bolts threaded into his neck, then Liam Scarlett’s ballet Frankenstein won’t be what you’re expecting. It’ll be better. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror story Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Scarlett delivers far more than scary-monster thrills. Both book and ballet tell a disturbing, tragic tale about the consequences of abandonment, the risks of tampering with the creation of human life, and, most of all, the power of love, both given and withheld.

Scarlett tells the story of Frankenstein through movement in a poetic way, embodying within one man, Victor Frankenstein, all the dualities of Shelley’s book—love and hate, curiosity and fear, desire and guilt. Those dualities are amplified by the overarching design concept. In every scene, we see two worlds: Victor’s, represented by the 18th-century period sets he inhabits, and the Creature’s, a landscape described by Scenic and Costume Designer John Macfarlane as conveying “an overwhelming sense of emptiness.”

Frankenstein is a co-production of The Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. When Kevin O’Hare, The Royal Ballet’s artistic director, pitched the idea to Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, he described Scarlett’s vision for the production. “I was intrigued right away,” says Tomasson. “I’m always looking for something new, and it’s hard to find something full-length [that’s] different and maybe daring.” What is remarkable, he says, is how Scarlett addresses a theme that’s so suited to “this time we are living through—it’s so much about acceptance of someone who is not like yourself.”

Scarlett was about 11 years old when he first read Frankenstein.  “I’ve revisited it at various points in my life, and it’s always had a different poignancy every time that I’ve read it,” he says in a Royal Opera House (ROH) video. “The fragments of emotions that shine through, I think, differ with the age that you read it. It’s such a multi-layered story, and incredibly written, that it kind of struck something with me.” He wanted to make a ballet inspired by this book, he says, because it’s “a story of betrayal, curiosity, life, death, and above all, love. Shelley was really commenting on the state of human emotions.” And on her own as well—she experienced tremendous loss early in her life, with the deaths of her mother (in giving birth to her), three of her four children, and her young husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley wrote her novel in 1816 and set it in the 1700s, at a time when the functions of the human body were largely mysterious and the discovery of galvanism (the contraction of a muscle when stimulated with an electrical current) sparked scientists’ imaginations. “I think that’s why the book works,” Scarlett says, “because there was so much unknown in that period, where the idea and the fear of creating something new was almost real.”

Creating a ballet from a book of this depth and complexity is difficult, and changes must be made in order to tell the story clearly. What Scarlett made sure not to change are “the intention and emotions that go through the book, and the empathy that you feel for absolutely every character.” He omits the Arctic Circle setting that begins and ends the book, but the scenic design reflects the desolation of that environment. And though he changes the circumstances surrounding some of the characters’ deaths,
he retains the significance and consequences of those events.

To help tell this story, Scarlett turned to composer Lowell Liebermann, whose music he used for three previous ballets. For Frankenstein, Scarlett says, “I wanted something hauntingly beautiful, and I think he has done that.” San Francisco Ballet Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West agrees. “It’s great music,” he says, “very dramatic, full of leitmotifs that come back, so we’re always taken on a journey. Lowell doesn’t write easy music. It’s tricky; it’s fast and exposed, a lot of energy going on.”

Liebermann had read Frankenstein, so he knew what to expect in terms of story. “The music can’t be too anachronistic to what you’re seeing and to the nature of the story and the way people reacted in that time,” he says. What Scarlett wanted, Liebermann says, was “a very romantic-sounding score, certainly a very melodic score.” Composing his first full-length ballet was difficult, he says, because he had only “the emotional thrust of each scene” to work from. “So the challenge was composing music when I had no idea what the movements were going to be, or the detailed action.” His strategy was to focus on “finding the right music to capture what is going on emotionally at any given moment, and having a musical follow-through that would tie the whole thing together. It’s a full-blown symphonic score.”

While Liebermann wished for a detailed libretto, Macfarlane would have preferred to have the music at hand to guide him in his design work. “Music helps with the design process because it gives you all your pivot points, a kind of thread for how to go through the piece,” he says. “Music is what makes me see in my head—images, set changes, and what would be exciting to go with the relevant moments of music.” Fortunately, the story has “a lot of meat on the bones,” Macfarlane says. “I kicked off by doing the anatomy theater. It’s a fantastically theatrical space, a very magical and frightening space. It has all the connotations of dissection in an era when people were digging up bodies out of graveyards so they could learn anatomy.” Next came the skull-emblazoned front cloths, “and then I moved out in different directions from there,” he says. For the Frankensteins’ home, Scarlett “wanted a house where there’s been terrific sadness,” Macfarlane says. “So no matter how lovely it seemed, you came out of the house and there was a coldness and the feeling that, in this very bleak and empty landscape, something was out there.”

Macfarlane is a hands-on artist, constructing models and doing much of the painting. For the front cloths, he painted the skulls, which were photographed, then animated and embellished via projections. For the Creature’s body stocking, he spent an hour on each dancer’s costume, drawing the scars and sutures, tendons and sinews. He calls the 18th century a kind period for dancers, explaining that the women’s corseted bodices are “pared away round the neck and shoulders,” thus allowing for freedom of movement. The skirts are voluminous, but he used lightweight fabrics suitable to dancing and created the period shape by adding net at the hips and rear. For the men, he says, “you’ve got the most fantastic coats.” While he’s designing, he bears in mind the effect Scarlett’s demanding choreography can have on the costumes. “Liam is capable of shredding a costume in one rehearsal,” he says.

Choreographically, Frankenstein is laced with characterization and movement that is distinctly Scarlett’s—what Ricardo Cervera, a ballet master at The Royal Ballet, calls “Liamisms.” For example, a dancer leaps toward her partner and he catches her and turns, holding her in a mid-leap position; elsewhere, a dancer gestures with one leg, turning in, knee and foot toward the midline, before turning out. And there’s Scarlett’s use of the upper back, especially with the women, “always very, very open,” says Cervera, who taught much of Frankenstein to the SF Ballet dancers, “very luscious and expansive.”

In some story ballets, the main characters have movement motifs, or steps that are specific to them. In Frankenstein the motifs are movement qualities that tell us who the characters are. “Henry is upbeat,” Cervera says. “Victor is a little bit heavier,” his movements slowed by longing and guilt. In his Act 2 pas de deux with Elizabeth, the young woman taken in by the Frankenstein family when she was orphaned as a child, Victor struggles with conflicting feelings. “His love for her is as strong as his guilt for what he’s done, so every time he looks at her or feels that love, the guilt comes as well,” Cervera says. “And she doesn’t understand what’s going on. She goes from being quite childish and girly to almost trying to take that mother role, hold him, support him, because he’s so fragile.” In the Creature’s movement, he says, there’s an element of the grotesque. “Some of his stitches haven’t healed yet; he hasn’t been put together quite right. Therefore, it can’t be just beautiful movement the whole way through. [His solo] breaks into moments that remind you that he’s not really human.”

The idea of struggle permeates the ballet. Characters chafe against themselves, one another, and social constraints. “There’s the social etiquette that you have to adhere to, and there are all the inner battles, all the relationships,” Cervera says. The movement reflects this conflict with “a lot of pull in, pull away; pull in, pull away. And constant hesitation—a wrapping inwards.” To demonstrate, he shrinks his shoulders and collapses his chest. “It really expresses when someone is fragile or vulnerable.” The duet for the Creature and Elizabeth is filled with promenades (poses that revolve in place) and reversals. “It’s the struggle of no matter where you go, you’re entangled,” Cervera says. “He’s completely in control of her.”

If you dig into the book’s subtext, you might see Victor and the Creature as two aspects of one being. Scarlett addresses that interpretation by giving the same steps to both Victor and his creation, in very different contexts. “A section in the Creature and Elizabeth pas de deux is straight out of the Victor and Elizabeth pas de deux,” says Cervera. “The same movement can look so different—with Victor it’s loving; with the Creature it’s aggressive. The Creature is trying to understand. His intention is not to hurt Elizabeth, necessarily. In the pas de deux, doing the same steps, he’s saying, ‘Love me—I’m doing the same thing Victor did. What is wrong with you?’”

The Creature’s desperate plea for love is denied, and that’s what changes him from benign to murderous. Scarlett tells the dancers that the Creature should feel like he’s just been born, that he relies on mimicking without understanding what he’s doing. But before he finds Victor, the Creature learns a great deal, including how to read. And so, when he finds Victor’s notebook, he is devastated. He realizes that its drawings and data describe him, that he was assembled from parts of dead men, and that the final inscription—“Experiment failed”—reveals Victor’s dismissal of him. At that moment, “your scars and your stitches should ache,” Scarlett says. In rehearsing that scene with both companies in London, he did something unusual—he told Principal Dancer Joseph Walsh to do the Creature’s part. Not because he would dance it, Walsh says, but “because it made me be in his shoes and feel the vulnerability and understand why Victor would put up with all the things he puts us through in the second and third acts, all that torture. And it’s because you know that inside he’s human and that you’ve created him in your likeness.”

Sometimes, in learning a ballet, the dancers have to toss aside characterization and focus on what to do when—for example, in the minutely orchestrated animation scene. Walsh says that getting everything right involved plenty of trial and error. He and Soloist Max Cauthorn, another Victor, “both had so many injuries from running around the set and stubbing our toes, falling off the stairs,” he says. “Not to mention you’re trying to see where the ground is when the lights are strobing and the fireworks are going. It’s all about ‘be here on this time,’ and ‘be sure to cover the monster up’ because it’s a fireproof blanket and if you don’t, they can’t set off the fireworks. And Liam’s out front in the audience going, ‘Uh, we’re gonna have to do that again,’ and like 20 people come onstage and redo all the props and you feel bad. But eventually you get this super-powerful feeling of being in control. To me, the ‘fourth wall’ is so small in that scene; you don’t feel like you’re dancing for the audience at all.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those times when what’s important isn’t action or “stage business,” but small, still moments. Scarlett tells the dancers not to fear stillness, because it can reveal so much about a character. For Walsh, these quiet moments are critical to him as an actor. One key moment for his Victor is “when you see the father accusing Justine [of murdering William, Victor’s younger brother], and you slip back into the shadows,” Walsh says. “I’m like crying back there, and getting ready for the next part with the Creature, which is probably one of my favorite parts of the whole ballet. No one’s really looking at you in those moments, and you get to find where it feels natural to be, as a character.” He also likes the interiority of Victor’s decision to grab the gun in Act 3. “There’s this moment of finally knowing you’re in control of the situation again. And there’s no one to save anymore.”

Those early rehearsals in London gave Walsh, who was there with his Elizabeth, Principal Dancer Frances Chung, an unusual opportunity. “Being there with no pressure, knowing that we had a year before we actually had to figure it out,” he says, “we could make the partnering really challenging. The fact that we had two companies meshing in those collaborative moments pushed everyone to go a little bit further. I think Liam is always up to a challenge initially—it’s that excitement of ‘Can it happen?’ And there are many of those moments in the ballet.”