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. (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."

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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.

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