That’s What You Call a Monstrous Ballet: Liam Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’

A scene from the Royal Ballet production of Liam Scarlett's 'Frankenstein', now being staged at the San Francisco Ballet

A scene from the Royal Ballet production of Liam Scarlett's 'Frankenstein,' now being staged at the San Francisco Ballet. (Photo: The Royal Opera House.Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is nearly 200 years old, but it feels as fresh as ever; a cautionary tale on the ethics of bioengineering and a heartbreaking story of a creature searching for its identity.

Choreographer and Royal Ballet artist-in-residence Liam Scarlett has made a fresh adaptation of the story in a co-commission for the Royal Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet. It opened last year in London, and now Scarlett is overseeing the U.S. premiere here at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

I talked to Scarlett during a break from rehearsals, asking how he gets this awkward creature, assembled from ill-fitting body parts, to dance. “I told all the (Frankenstein) dancers to imagine themselves as a newborn baby in an adult’s body,” Scarlett said. “I think one of the perfect examples is to watch a baby deer, where they haven’t got control of their limbs and yet everything is there. We had to teach him how to walk, before he could run, before he could dance.”

Scarlett said he’s loved the book since he was a kid, so it was an easy choice to say yes to the commission. And in the course of his adaptation, Scarlett saw new layers in Frankenstein each time he returned to the text, which have made their way into the ballet. “Shelley had a difficult time with her family over her marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley,” he noted, “And the creature is also searching for this father figure. He doesn’t have a name in the book, so it’s a search for identity.”

Which makes it a very modern tale.

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‘Frankenstein’ runs Feb. 17–26 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, produced by San Francisco Ballet. Details are here.

  • Demarest Campbell

    The poet’s correct middle name is Bysshe, not Blythe. Percy Bysshe Shelley.

  • Jennifer Jordan

    It’s also the War Memorial Opera House, not the San Francisco Opera House.

Author

Cy Musiker

Cy Musiker co-hosts The Do List and covers the arts for KQED News and The California Report.  He loves live performance, especially great theater, jazz, roots music, anything by Mahler. Cy has an MJ from UC Berkeley's School of Journalism, and got his BA from Hampshire College. His work has been recognized by the Society for Professional Journalists with their Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Journalism. When he can, Cy likes to swim in Tomales Bay, run with his dog in the East Bay Hills, and hike the Sierra.

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