San Francisco Ballet present Liam Scarlett's “Frankenstein”
San Francisco Ballet: “Frankenstein”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, February 17, 2017
“Frankenstein” lumbered its way across the pond last weekend with much hoopla about its creator, Liam Scarlett, being the “youngest choreographer ever to have a full-length ballet commissioned by the Royal Ballet,” and advertisements emphasizing that this co-production between San Francisco Ballet and the Royal is “more a love story than a monster story.” SF Ballet has added performances and raised ticket prices in response to consumer demand, so evidently artistic director Helgi Tomasson has gambled wisely on box office return.
A whooping audience rose for a lusty standing O at Friday’s North American premiere. Contrary to public perception, most critics do not enjoy panning a popular success, or should I qualify that since my early days of reviewing, when I equated nastiness of attack with critical validity, the bloodsport of the hatchet job has not appealed to me. I try to walk into a performance unprejudiced, so I did not read the disparaging reviews of “Frankenstein’s” world premiere at the Royal from last spring prior to curtain time, and having read them this morning I do not have the heart to rehash observations that Roslyn Sulcas made in the New York Times—criticisms that align with my own. So what I offer are four reasons to dislike “Frankenstein,” and four to enjoy it. Whether you actually do enjoy it is a matter I would not condescend to dictate.
Reasons to Dislike “Frankenstein”
1. The Steps Are Meaningless
Scarlett’s previous commissions for San Francisco Ballet, the non-narrative ballets “Hummingbird” and “Fearful Symmetries,” were space-eating and slinkily sexy, suggesting he might offer an interesting movement vocabulary for “Frankenstein.” Maybe the monster would really slither. Maybe the non-monster characters would do something more than jeté-jeté-pas-de-bourrée and rond-de-jambe-pas-de-chat.
But no. This is story ballet in the mold of 1960’s and 70’s Kenneth MacMillan, except with more rudimentary step combinations, and less interesting female characters (more on that in a minute). The steps are broad sentimental gestures, or filler to create perfunctory ensemble moments. The male students at the medical school lift the female vivisection nurses as they all swirl around the corpse. Why? Because it’s a ballet!
None of the dances offers any formal interest in and of itself. In an Ashton ballet, it’s fun to watch for the movement motifs, watch them take on new layers of meaning. Pas de deux from 19th century Petipa ballets can be presented without any story context because the technique is risky and exposed and the steps have a surprising mechanical logic. “Frankenstein” offers two long love duets for Victor Frankenstein and his future bride, but it’s hard to make much of them because the woman is wearing a heavy Victorian dress. I couldn’t make out any movement ideas. This is elevator music choreography.
It is fleetingly amusing to see Victor Frankenstein’s hugely pregnant mother tiptoeing on pointe shoes. Why would a pregnant mother walk on pointe? Because it’s a ballet!
In the department of lost opportunities, I wonder how Wayne McGregor would have choreographed the solos and the duets for the bloody, naked creature. He wouldn’t have made a supposedly grotesque being do perfectly turned-out, princely jumps.
In short: the steps offer neither the kind of gestural texture that could draw us inside the story, nor the kind of formal sophistication that could enliven the mind abstractly.
2. The Women Are Maids, Brides, and Harlots
Which brings back memories of my mother taking me to see MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” when I was eleven. Why are those women with rat-nest hair taking up all the stage time? Are they supposed to be funny or something? I feel sorry for them; all they get to do is run around being slutty.
At least MacMillan also choreographed complex female characters. Victor Frankenstein’s adopted sister/fiancé Elizabeth was a major opportunity for Scarlett. All he has her do is tease Victor about his diary, while showing no inclination towards reading or writing of her own.
3. The Score Is Dull
American composer Lowell Liebermann has provide a generic movie-soundtrack score. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra plays it beautifully under the baton of music director Martin West, though.
4. The Ballet Should Be at Least 40 Minutes Shorter
But maybe you gathered that. No point having epic love duets if the woman is a cipher and the steps are cardboard.
Reasons to Enjoy “Frankenstein”
1. The Sets and Curtains
John Macfarlane, who also designed Scarlett’s “Hummingbird,” should design more full-length ballets. A grisly painting of a skull and spine on a blood red background sets the mood from opening curtain. Video animation makes the skull rotate. Victor’s diary writing flashes before us on the scrim. The brass-rail rotunda scenery for the dissection scene is especially superb.
2. The Children
Kids from the San Francisco Ballet School play young Victor and Elizabeth, and little William, Victor’s youngest (soon to be slaughtered by the creature) brother. Little William has long passages of acting, and real dancing. Max Behrman-Rosenberg, who looks about eight, was more compelling than a Hollywood child star on opening night.
3. The Plot
It’s surprisingly faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel. The wrongful execution of the maid’s daughter, Justine, is the most interesting part of the ballet. Fair warning: You’ll have to read the program synopsis at least three times before curtain to have any idea what’s going on. But I’m not a subscriber to the old Balanchine saw that “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” I’ll follow a convoluted operatic plot if the characters or the steps are interesting.
4. Joseph Walsh
Or, really, all the dancers. It must be said that they look like they’re relishing performing “Frankenstein.” Frances Chung was lovely as Elizabeth (such articulate feet) but just had nothing to work with. Vitor Luiz found the yearning-eyes expression to make the Creature pitiable. And Sasha De Sola touched me in the naturalness of her care for young William.
But the dancer to see is Joseph Walsh, flashing that million-dollar smile, all irrepressible charisma and sexual confidence. A wonder of physical freedom and control, his body radiating perfection of form through every endless pirouette en de dans, every swing-the-girl-up-on-the-shoulder, Ice Capades-worthy passage of partnering.
These four reasons for enjoying “Frankenstein” did not, for me, overpower the reasons to dislike it. To me, the audience reaction offers questions about the human condition far more engrossing than any I gleaned from the action onstage.