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Frankenstein at the ballet

How does Liam Scarlett’s choreography of Frankenstein translate Mary Shelley’s words to an art form that has no text? Here are some thoughts on a crossover endeavour: fiction into ballet. It’s fiction we all think we know.

Sadly the movies haven’t resist a stitched together monster, and switched the name of Frankenstein from the maker to the creation. This image of horror is known to movie moguls and horror buffs everywhere. See related posts – below. Cue: impression of large sleep walking-type gait, shuffling with determination towards its quarry. In Mary Shelley’s novel Victor Frankenstein is the creator of life.

From Frankenstein, 1931

From Frankenstein, 1931

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: the novel

Mary Shelley wrote a cautionary tale – take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions or terrible things will happen. The story is framed by the letters of an explorer Walton to his sister as he attempts to penetrate the mysteries of the cold regions north of St Petersburg. Someway into the voyage a monstrous creature is seen speeding across the landscape ahead of them. Soon after they rescue a man in apparent pursuit. As he recovers, Frankenstein, for it is he, tells his story to Walton, of his childhood and how he used the new scientific knowledge of galvanism to give life to a body, but how he was so afraid of his creation that he abandoned it. Some of Frankenstein’s narrative is the monster’s story retold in his words, about how he learned language and understood human kindness. And how rejection by humans led to murderous instincts being roused. Another theme of the novel, then, is how the savage learns, from social contact, affection, example, all of which are denied to Frankenstein’s creature. Rousseau’s ideas can be traced here.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Frankenstein studied in Ingolstadt, where the creature was given life. It followed him to his home in Geneva, when he finally returned. Frankenstein finds his creation in the mountains. He demands that Frankenstein make him a mate, and uses the murder of Frankenstein’s loved ones to force a promise that he will. The story moves to remote islands off the coast of Scotland (how did the monstrous creature cross the sea without being noticed?) Here, on the point of a second creation, Frankenstein decides the risks are too great. More revenge murders lead him to try to hunt down and destroy the life he created. This is where Walton finds him and his last sight is of Frankenstein leaping out of the cabin window as he pursues his creation across the ice, ‘lost in darkness and distance’.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, first published in 1818.

Copy given to Lord Byron

Copy given to Lord Byron

Frankenstein by Liam Scarlett: the ballet

Any retelling of a story in a different medium will alter the original source. We know that from films, which are so frequently less rich than the original text. Ballet emphasises stories too, in a different way. It too shows actions better than introspection.

I was surprised that the ballet was very traditional, including pas de deux, a wedding waltz, the corps de ballet. For me the ballet’s most successful part was the third act. It’s all action here as the creature hunts down and kills each of Frankenstein’s loved ones, until Frankenstein kills himself, and the creature walks off into the fire. We’ll come to the substitution of fire for ice later. Here was tension and action as the creature hid himself among the dancers, appearing more and more frequently and obviously, and each time more menacingly.

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm. via WikiCommons

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm. via WikiCommons

I also enjoyed the pyrotechnics of the creation scene, set in the anatomy theatre at Ingolstadt University. Although the synopsis suggests that ‘Victor is horrified’ by his creation, we hardly see the rejection as the creature runs off. Mary Shelley emphasises Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation. In the novel he continually rejects and hides the truth: when his young brother is killed by the creature, the nursemaid hanged for the murder, and when his father, wife and best friend are each dispatched.

In the ballet Victor frequently stands transfixed while his creation wreaks havoc. And finally he kills himself, which at least means his creature cannot have a mate.

So I found that in the essential moment of rejection by Victor, the ballet fudged it. But in other ways it was enchanting: the dancing, (the pas de deux), brilliant effects (the galvanising scene, which in the novel is more about Victor’s horror at what he had done than this momentous scientific achievement), and an exciting climax.

We also lost the sense of the brutal and cold landscapes, as Frankenstein pursues his creation in the mountainous region near Mont Blanc, for example. And the terrible chase across the Arctic, which frames the novel. Instead the climax of the ballet plays out in front of intensifying fire, to which the creature turns at the death of his creator.

It was well received by the first night audience, who saw Frederico Bonelli in the title role, Laura Morera as Elizabeth and Steven McRae as the creature. Alexander Campbell danced the role of Frankenstein’s friend Clerval.

Frankenstein, danced by The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, May 4th 2016.

Of the two Frankensteins, I think Mary Shelley’s will make the more lasting impression upon me. But I might not have read it if I hadn’t been coming to the ballet. And the ballet was very enjoyable.

Related posts

The previous post: Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein

Frankenstein in Hollywood by Barry Forshaw, on the Wordsworth Trust blog in June 2014

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