Tag Archives: ballet

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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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

Inspired by Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet, which I saw in May, I reread Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. It was one of three of her novels on which the ballet was based. You can see the post about Woolf Works here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

There was so much to enjoy in this rereading. The narrative is barely evident, just taking the reader through one June day in London in the early 1920s, as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening.

I was struck again, by the richness of Virginia Woolf’s prose: the imagery, the inventiveness of the sentence structure and word order (was Elizabeth Taylor influenced by this aspect of her style?), the movement between the characters, how she leads us slipping between the inner life of different people, finding how they made sense of their lives, of relationships, of other characters. She shows us how our lives are interlinked. And the horror of mental illness also stood out in this reading.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

I focused on the parts of the novel where the characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, consider ageing and what it meant to them that day. Unlike descriptions of physical decline that feature so much on the subject of ageing, in Mrs Dalloway the characters reflect on the perspectives that age brings to their lives. Virginia Woolf was 41 when it was published. This is Clarissa, who is 52:

She felt very young: at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time, was outside, looking in. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (10-11)

One event in her day sets off some uncomfortable responses. Her husband Richard has accepted a lunch invitation, and she was excluded.

‘Fear no more,’ said Clarissa. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; for the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her made the moment in which she had stood shiver, as a plant on the riverbed feels the shock of a passing oar and shivers: so she rocked: so she shivered. (34)

Later in the afternoon she tries to recall the intensity of her love, for her friend Sally Seton, when they were barely twenty.

‘She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!’

No, the words meant absolutely nothing to her now. She could not even get an echo of her old emotion. She could not remember getting cold with excitement and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall ‘if it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy’. That was her feeling – Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton! (39)

Soon she moves on to think about the limited time left to her, for we know she has been ill recently.

Laying her brooch on the table, she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there – the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself. (41-42)

Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin, Lead. 1931. National Portrait Gallery

Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin, Lead. 1931. National Portrait Gallery

And the wisdom that time brings is revealed to Peter Walsh, the man that Clarissa did not marry.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly in the light. (88)

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, it seems, are all they ever have been, not just two people defined by their age. Their consciousness in the present is as much influenced by the events of the past as by the awareness of the present: preparations for the party, the people they meet and the words they exchange alongside memories, what ifs and the histories of their closest relationships.

No wonder it pays to re-read Mrs Dalloway: one finds so much in it, and to dance it. And there is still more (of course)!

188 Mrs D coverMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925, republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 1964 (page numbers in this post refer to this edition). 215 pp

Related posts

Eileen’s guest post about Rereading Books.

About the ballet: In step with Virginia Woolf

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, is from Cymbeline. The full text can be found here at The Poetry Foundation.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

In step with Virginia Woolf

Who said this?

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other …

We heard the voice of Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937, and saw her handwriting projected onto the front curtain of the main stage at the Royal Opera House last Saturday. From the darkness emerged the still figure of Alessandra Ferri, recognisable as Virginia Woolf.. It was a thrilling opening to an amazing event. Woolf Works – Virginia Woolf in ballet.

Outside the ROH

Outside the ROH

And what I like is the connections Virginia Woolf makes between words, ballet steps and people. With a little adjustment you could substitute words, in these passages, for ballet and people.

… a word/ballet step/person is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words/dance/community. Indeed it is not a word/ballet step/person until it is part of a sentence/ballet/community. Words/ballet steps/people belong to each other …

All this from a ballet? Well, yes!

Woolf Works

The full-length ballet by Wayne McGregor is described as a triptych and was drawn from three of Virginia Woolf’s novels: I now, I then (from Mrs Dalloway), Becomings (from Orlando) and Tuesday (from The Waves).

178 VW 3 novelsWayne McGregor read Virginia Woolf and it inspired the desire to choreograph a full-length ballet without a strong narrative thread – a challenge to mainstream balletomanes. Wayne McGregor wanted to capture ‘the spirit of her writing’. I understand him to want the audience to have an experience not unlike reading Virginia Woolf’s novels.

How was it done?

As I’ve said, this was not a ballet with a narrative thread. Virginia Woolf herself was questioning ways in which to capture experiences and feelings in her novels, and experimenting with ways of writing about them. Wayne McGregor explains his ideas.

And I thought Woolf was perfect for my idea of making a full-length ballet without a narrative, because she herself doesn’t write conventional stories – they’re more like collages, where thoughts, emotions and sensations take precedence over plot. The audience will recognise certain characters. Alessandra Ferri, who is a wonderful dance actress, is obviously an older presence, and will convey the sense of Woolf within and alongside her work. You’ll see a dancer inhabit the body of an androgynous Orlando. They’ll be like hooks that allow the audience to go on a longer journey than with a purely abstract piece. (ROH magazine Jan 2015)

McGregor is known for his collaborative work. The choreography, the music and the design all brought together to create this ballet.

What was special?

Here are a few highlights, but in no order and this is not an attempt to capture the whole experience:

  • A male dancer in tweeds (from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Septimus’s angularity of body and movement, expressing acute psychological damage (also from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Alessandra Ferri, had a calm stillness about her, and combined with suppleness captured Virginia Woolf without caricature. And, by the way, she’s 52.
  • The fabulous gold costumes of Orlando, and the romp being enjoyed by the cast. You can view pictures of the production here.
  • The mounting tension (The Waves) accumulating through dance, sound and lighting towards the terrible conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s fate. Her suicide letter was read before this part. More words.
  • The cello.

The Naysayers

He [Wayne McGregor] admits he had been completely unaware of how possessive some of those readers would be when he began work on the project. “I was really surprised by the number of people, some of them very passionate and expert, who approached me and told me exactly what they thought my piece should be like.” McGregor has put a careful distance between himself and the “Woolf industry”. (From Dances with Woolf by Judith Mackrell in The Guardian Review on Saturday 2nd May 2015.)

And on reflection …

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

In some ways Virginia Woolf is so cerebral that I was surprised to be so moved, overcome with emotion, and differently moved in each of the three parts. Septimus’s sequence had me rigid in my seat, my hands and feet flexed. The whirl of dancers building to an exuberant climax in Orlando was stirring. I was steadily pulled towards the appalling and inevitable horror of the waves, waves of sound and dancers, towards death.

I have written about my reluctance to embrace films of novels here, mostly because they dispense with imagination and complexity. But ballets that draw on them do not have the same limiting effect on the audience, indeed I felt Woolf Works enhanced the readers’ experiences.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

I will now reread Mrs Dalloway, and possibly The Waves, certain that I will find new experiences. An additional reason to reread books (see the previous post on rereading books.)

And I go back to the words we heard her say as the lights dimmed.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – they’re stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid words ‘incarnadine’, for example – who can use that without remembering ‘multitudinous seas’? [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937]


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Filed under Books, Reading, Virginia Woolf, words, Writing