Vitor Luiz in Scarlett's Frankenstein. (© Erik Tomasson)


San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Liam Scarlett, Choreographer
War Memorial Opera House,
San Francisco, Calif.
Feb. 17 -26, 2017, reviewed Feb. 17, 2017

Sparks flew at Friday evening’s San Francisco Ballet performance of Liam Scarlett’s “Frankentstein.” Unfortunately, they produced more light than heat. By the end of the co-commission with London’s Royal Ballet, quantity turned to quality, and Vitor Luiz’s jolie-laid rendering of the damaged-but-needy Creature, brought the audience to its feet in a surfeit of accolades.

Inspired by the Mary Shelley version, the story is built around a romance between Victor Frankenstein (a buoyant Joseph Walsh), and Elizabeth Lavenza (danced with élan by Frances Chung). While angst is wedged into the three-way between Victor and Elizabeth, and Victor and the Creature he has fabricated in his lab, Elizabeth is relegated to taking cold comfort in an auxiliary alliance with Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval (a dashing Angelo Greco). Clerval is clearly her empathic if not amorous admirer. Oddly, the three Walsh-Chung pas de deux, each danced with more committed technique and bravura than the one before it, never grow the lovers past their adolescent urge to neck. A combative confrontation takes place in Act III, when a gun will determine which of the threesome will survive the three-hour assay that is this ballet. Here, the choreography pushes past the overtones of a cloying score to cut its own swathe. It resolves the contorted emotional conundrum that both bonds and repels Victor to and from his Creature by drawing Elizabeth into the resulting (centrifugal) force field.

Like the notorious Victor Frankenstein, Scarlett aims high, but chooses elements that fail to produce an integrated whole. The score by Lowell Liebermann counterbalances its loutish and lugubrious melodrama with echoes of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” themes, and a waltz scene imposes a visual of “The Merry Widow” into the mix.

Scarlett is a three-way enthusiast, never wanting to put all his chips on one, or even two numbers. He teases out triangulated conflicts even at the expense of forfeiting his controlling argument. One such triad leaves a prop (the gun) in a random spot onstage that the dancers unavoidably roll over, leaving the door open to all manner of injury. Justine Moritz (Sasha De Sola), in the spirit of “no good deed goes unpunished,” pays a hefty price for the good deeds she dispatches with poise and propriety, when the Whitman’s Sampler of corps de ballet stock characters, lynches her. This is a corps that passes its first half hour busily crisscrossing the stage to accomplish nothing. Then, suddenly, they’re lynching the girl next door!

Scenic and costume design by John MacFarlane bring images screened onto the drop curtain that magnify a creature-in-embryo into dimensions that would make anti-choice proponents blush. The Steampunk-style laboratory features a spiked descending hunka-chunka electrical device, a contraption worthy of a Broadway Tony.

The MVP of the evening is Max Behrman-Rosenberg, the child dancer who portrays William Frankenstein, Victor’s younger brother. Whatever else is happening on stage, all eyes take refuge in him. He is the ballast whose stamina and confident yet underplayed charm contributes to offering this co-produced experiment a safe harbor.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.