Lovers of ballet in San Francisco are to be treated to a new full-length work this week – San Francisco Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by British choreographer Liam Scarlett. A co-production with The Royal Ballet, Frankenstein was inspired by Mary Shelley’s 1813 Gothic novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and the ballet received its world premiere at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in May last year. This week, San Francisco Ballet brings the North American premiere to the War Memorial Opera House.
Contrary to popular belief, Frankenstein is not a horror story. It’s more like an early piece of science fiction, and a deeply moving and tragic one at that. In a Royal Opera House video, Scarlett describes his ballet as being “essentially about love”. “The stereotype of Frankenstein has gone so far from the book” he explains, “that what I really want to do is bring it back to how Shelley saw it. I want to show the public what Frankenstein is really about.”
Scarlett’s ballet – set, like the novel, at the end of the 18th Century – revolves around the creation of a living being by a young man, Victor Frankenstein, who loses his mother shortly before being sent to university. With a gift for science, and chemistry in particular, he desperately hopes to bring his mother back through one of his experiments, and, using non-living body parts, succeeds in giving life to his creation. This being, whom he calls the Creature, turns out to be physically hideous, and Victor, repulsed by what he has done, wants nothing to do with him.
The Creature, though, is not some fearful monster with evil intent. Instead, says Scarlett, “I saw him as a child …. an incredibly vulnerable creature who is shunned by his own creator or father.” The Creature’s feelings of abandonment and desperation to be loved are intensified by the love which he sees between Victor and his fiancée, Elizabeth, as well as the relationships that Victor has with his family and friends, all of whom become involved in the tragedy resulting from Victor’s struggle to reconcile himself to the consequences of his actions.
Joseph Walsh is one of the San Francisco Ballet principals who’s dancing the role of Victor Frankenstein. He regards the ballet as unique because “it is not completely driven by a classic love story; it’s more about the relationship between Victor and the Creature and how that pulls him away from the love between him and Elizabeth. The spectrum of emotion is vast,” he says, “and it has been a pleasurable challenge for me to make it believable.”
Walsh says that although Frankenstein does have choreographic similarities to other ballets of Scarlett’s in which he’s danced – Fearful Symmetries and Hummingbird – it was created with an intention much more different than those. “There’s more focus on character development and movement that’s derived from the plot rather than from just the music, like his more contemporary works,” he explains.
Liam Scarlett, The Royal Ballet’s first Artist in Residence, is also the youngest choreographer to receive a commission for a full-length work from the company. Among the works he has created for The Royal Ballet, Asphodel Meadows won a Critics’ Circle National Dance Award and was also nominated for a South Bank Award and an Olivier Award. Another, Consolations and Liebestraum, was also nominated for a Critics’ Circle Award. In addition to the works which Scarlett has created for San Francisco Ballet – Hummingbird and Fearful Symmetries – he has also choreographed for companies such as English National Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Miami City Ballet. This year, The Royal Ballet will premiere his new work, Symphonic Dances, set to Rachmaninov’s final composition. Scarlett also takes up the position of Artistic Associate for Queensland Ballet, following his creation of a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Australian company last season. His roles with the two companies will run concurrently.
The score for Frankenstein was commissioned from American composer, pianist and conductor, Lowell Liebermann, described by Time magazine as “a composer unafraid of grand gestures and openhearted lyricism”. Scarlett has choreographed to Liebermann’s music on three previous occasions – for his ballets Viscera and Euphotic for Miami City Ballet, and Gargoyles for New York City Ballet – but the score for Frankenstein is Liebermann’s first commission for a ballet. The recipient of many awards and accolades, Liebermann has written over a hundred works in all genres, which have been performed by orchestras across the globe, conducted by names as illustrious as Charles Dutoit, Kurt Masur, Andrew Litton, David Zinman, Jesus Lopez-Cobos and Wolfgang Sawallisch, and performed by luminaries such as Joshua Bell, Sir James Galway, Garrick Ohlsson, Stephen Hough and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Lowell Liebermann also holds the honor of having written the only American opera to have been commissioned and premiered by Opéra Monte-Carlo – The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Set and costume design for Frankenstein is by the wonderfully creative British artist, ballet and opera designer, John Macfarlane. Macfarlane has previously collaborated with Liam Scarlett – on his productions of Asphodel Meadows, Sweet Violets and The Age of Anxiety – with choreographers such as Jiri Kylian, Glen Tetley and Sir Peter Wright, and has designed for companies such as The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Danish Royal Ballet, Canadian Royal Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Australian National Ballet. He has designed for The Royal Opera, Welsh National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival and English National Opera, also for the Metropolitan, San Francisco, Paris and Vienna State operas. Future commissions include both set and costume design for contemporary and classical ballets at Covent Garden.
Frankenstein is a ballet which is clearly very close to Scarlett’s heart. “I’ve immersed myself in this project for nearly three years now,” he says in a Royal Ballet video recorded prior to the world premiere, “and it is a labour of pure love.”
San Francisco Ballet presents the North American premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein from February 17 to 26, at the War Memorial Opera House, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Martin West. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.
San Francisco Ballet program notes by Cheryl A Ossola
Videos from The Royal Ballet’s Youtube channel: