Monday, March 12, 2018

San Francisco Ballet - "Frankenstein"

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Frankenstein
Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 11th, 2018

The day had begun with a search for more light, the clocks having sprung ahead as everyone slept. At the War Memorial Opera House, however, the mood was still mysterious, eerie and dark, as the scrim rose on the closing performance of Frankenstein at San Francisco Ballet. Choreographed by Liam Scarlett (a co-production between SFB and The Royal Ballet), the three-act ballet follows the narrative of Mary Shelley’s 1818 literary masterpiece, as opposed to the more sensationalized versions oft seen in popular culture. SFB introduced the work to audiences last year and opted (I’m sure in part to its enthusiastic reception) to bring it back as part of their 85th repertory season. 

Frankenstein posits many questions, though perhaps none more penetrating than ‘where does our humanness reside?’ Is it in our cerebral functions, in emotions, anatomy, corporeality? Or is it in the need for community and kinship? Maybe somewhere else entirely? Just like in Shelley’s novel, the ballet doesn’t provide answers, only a container where the viewer can consider and contemplate these huge puzzles.

Last year I saw principal dancers in the five main roles, but 2018’s final performance was all about the soloist tier – Max Cauthorn as Victor Frankenstein, Lauren Strongin as Elizabeth, Wei Wang as The Creature, Jahna Frantziskonis as Justine and Esteban Hernandez as Henry. While there were some glitches here and there, the soloists all had a stellar afternoon, navigating any tricky moments with impeccable grace.

At this viewing, I decided to take a wider narrative lens than I did at the SFB premiere in 2017, and in doing so, noticed that much of the action in Frankenstein is driven by the ballet’s duets. In fact, there’s a distinct celebration-tragedy arc that relates to many, though not all, of the pas de deuxs.

It starts with Victor and Elizabeth’s Act I duet, wherein they profess their love for one other. At first, the pairing is shy and careful. But as their mutual affection becomes clear, the variation appropriately transitions into free, joyful motions - swirling spins that glide across the floor; buoyant jumps as they are literally swept off their feet by each other. As the pas de deux comes to a close, Victor proposes and Elizabeth accepts. The pending union sets off a party in the household, but during the festivities, Victor’s pregnant mother Caroline (Jennifer Stahl), crumples to the ground. The baby survives, but she does not make it. Victor and Elizabeth’s pas de deux had sparked a celebration, which ultimately had brought tragedy. And it is this first tragedy that seems the catalyst for Victor creating The Creature - a way for him to exert control over the ultimate uncontrollable, life.

Act II gives another example of the pas de deux arc, this time, a duet between The Creature and William (Max Behrman-Rosenberg), Victor’s younger brother. On the occasion of his birthday, William is playing a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with his guests. Blindfolded, he is trying to capture as many of them as he can, but they all run and hide. He is left alone on stage with The Creature, and they continue having fun playing the game. The Creature seems overjoyed to be accepted and included. But once his blindfold is removed, William is terrified to come face to face with The Creature. William is killed, and tragedy has once again struck the Frankenstein family. And on a significant date – Caroline had died the day William was born, and William had died years later on his birthday.         

Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding pas de deux in Act III is also filled with complex thematics. Broad movements and sustained promenades definitely speak to the elegance and maturity of long-term commitment. Yet, Victor is clearly distracted and even detached at times, haunted by the events of the past decade. He is also wary and on guard at the celebratory event, having seen The Creature merging in and out of the ballroom. And as has been seen in each act, the end of the pas de deux ushers in disaster, horror and further loss. 

Of course, there were many other noteworthy moments in addition to these three duets. Like in any narrative ballet, there were several full cast episodes filled with winning choreography and performances – the Frankenstein household staff, the students in the University operating theater and the tavern sequence. The opening of Act III (the ballroom waltz) was the only outlier. The men looked solid in their movement phrases, but the women appeared to be struggling, specifically with the port de bras on Sunday afternoon. It actually looked a little messy, which is something I rarely say with respect to SFB.

Strongin was marvelous throughout the whole of Frankenstein, but in her final dance with Wang as The Creature, she transcended to a whole other plane. The terror was not just in her face, she embodied it with every cell of her being. Palms splayed, arms flailed, legs flew into the air in fear, silent screams pierced the space. It was chilling. Scarlett’s choreography for The Creature still reads a little too stylized, lyrical and balletic, though Wang’s interpretation felt successful. He injected an abandoned, contemporary quality to the arms and legs, which matched better with the character. It didn’t feel so much like you were watching The Creature act one way and then dance in a completely different fashion. And Cauthorn’s Victor was so narratively deep – searching for connection, tormented by reality, in love with Elizabeth, plagued by loss and desperate for solace. Cauthorn is proving to be as phenomenal an actor as he is a dancer.  

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