Following on the heels of the brilliant 2011 theatrical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel by the National Theatre in London, comes the ballet adaptation, Frankenstein, co-produced by the San Francisco Ballet and the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, London. The production had its North American première this past weekend at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. The choreographer Liam Scarlett is Artist in Residence at the Royal Ballet, a position created for him four years ago when he was 26 years old.

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett's <i>Frankenstein</i> © Erik Tomasson
Vitor Luiz in Scarlett's Frankenstein
© Erik Tomasson

As ambitious as the ballet is, the choreographer would have done well to study the dramatic choices of the National Theatre’s staging, which yielded a sleeker, more intensely focused production.

The ballet centers on the story of the three principal characters – Victor Frankenstein, the scientist; The Creature, his grotesque and morally indifferent creation, and Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart and love. Long lyrical duets between pairs of the three dancers are the dramatic highlights of the ballet, and within them some of the potential originality of the choreographer is revealed. Dynamic lifts and a strong lyricism feature. But on the whole the choreography tends toward the lengthy and the banal.

Part of the problem may have been in a vague dramaturgy, which left the composer, Lowell Liebermann, writing “a full-blown symphonic score.” The music is lush, moving toward its own resolutions.

The three principal dancers infuse the movement with the totality of their formidable technical and dramatic skill. Joseph Walsh, who is a gracious and sensitive Frankenstein, partners Frances Chung, who as Elizabeth shows the emotional delicacy that she is capable of in a part very different from the zesty roles she often dances. Vitor Luiz achieves some complexity as the monster, despite the pared-down story. His athleticism is undeniable.

Much of the ballet is bogged down by scene after scene of corps de ballet filler. Lots of bodies dancing in unison, for seemingly no other reason than looking graceful on stage. The choreography in these sequences is almost uniformly bland. And worse, it detracts from the tragic struggle between Victor Frankenstein and his despised creation. It’s rather like white cake with lots of frosting. To the eye it promises a delicious delectability, but is somehow finally disappointing, filling but not satisfying. The audience was appreciative, however. And who’s to say that the point of ballet isn’t simply about beautiful people moving beautifully?

Almost everyone has some idea of the story of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. The monster created by Frankenstein confronts us with the limitations of our control over life and its creation, but Shelley also confronts us with the question of our responsibility to the life we create. Are we obliged to love it? To hold compassion for it?

The story stands these days as an apt metaphor for our own challenged position to technology. There are endless discussions – and ever-present fear – expressed among those working in technology, who look at the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence and its impact socially and ethically.

Ironically, the most powerful representation of these questions is in the production, not in the staging. Here technology breathes theatricality into vast architectural sets, where shadows haunt and light electrifies. The combination of media and traditional sets carries the dramatic impact, beginning with the huge painting of a human skull on the front scrim of the stage. John Macfarlane’s artwork is grand and horrifying at the same time. Projections, designed by Finn Ross, illuminate the brain within its cage and superimpose the writer’s script over the edge of the image. Storms are recreated, bringing the orphan Elizabeth into the Frankenstein manor. And crackling electricity snaps and pops over the lightning projected onto the raised body stretched out in the Anatomy Theater of Frankenstein’s university, where the Creature is galvanized into life and the terrors of existential loneliness.

This ambitious project is not without its beauties and strengths.