Thursday, 19 May 2016

Rarely have I been so impressed by a new ballet

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Screening of the Royal Ballet's Frankenstein, 18 May 2016

I always look forward to my Wednesday evening ballet class at Northern Ballet or the University of Huddersfield and I have turned down invitations to posh receptions in order to attend one or other of those classes before now. Tonight, however, I skipped class to attend the screening of Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein.   I am very glad I did for rarely have I been more excited by a new ballet. I am metaphorically kicking myself for not getting a reasonably priced ticket in the amphitheatre stalls during the Friends' booking window when I had the chance. However, I did the next best thing by watching the HDTV transmission from Covent Garden in the National Media Museum in Bradford, which happens to be the home town of Thomas Whitehead who played a key role in last night's ballet.

As Darcey Bussell noted before the screening most of us know Frankenstein from Hollywood rather than Mary Shelley's novel and fail to appreciate its themes and subtleties. Scarlett has returned to the original in creating his ballet. Very briefly, a young medical student called Victor Frankenstein, grief stricken by the death of his mother in childbirth, becomes obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. In a neurology class in the anatomy theatre a lecturer applies Galvani's experiments with frog legs to human body parts and gets a limb to twitch after a  current is applied to the nerve ends.  That was possible with frogs but not with more advanced creatures at that time but never mind. That experiment gives Victor the idea that electricity is the life force. Instead of enjoying himself womanizing in the pub like all the other medical students he experiments with stitching together body parts and charging them with electricity. Eventually he succeeds in making a functioning composite cadaver which breaks out of the laboratory and terrorizes the public.

One of its victims is Victor's little brother who is left alone blindfolded for a few minutes by his family. The monster plays with him gently at first but the boy dies of shock on seeing the monster's gruesome form. The boy's body is found by his nurse, Justine, who is accused of murdering him. The second act ends with the poor woman dangling from the gallows which to my mind is the most disturbing scene of the show. In the last act Victor marries his sweetheart, Elizabeth, but the monster shows up at their wedding knocking off first Victor's father, then his best mate Henry and finally Elizabeth. Desperate at the loss of everyone he has ever loved in his life Victor shoots himself. The last scene shows the monster cradling its creator.

This is a tremendous work making enormous demands of every single role player in the story. I suppose the greatest demands are made of the monster danced last night by Steven McRae. "McRae as a monster", I hear you cry. "He's the last dancer I would cast in that role. Ed Watson perhaps or maybe Muntagirov, but McRae is such a sweet, sensitive young man." Well let me tell you, McRae does monsters and how. The make-up and wardrobe department performed a minor miracle in dressing him with horrid gory stitch marks across his face and body. He was as horrible as anything out of Hammer Films. But this was a sensitive monster who was looking for love first from the little boy, then Elizabeth and finally his creator. Not so very far off McRae's other roles I think you will agree.

Federico Bonelli danced Victor Frankenstein. I have long been a fan of this dancer but he rose even higher in my esteem as he developed his character on stage from lost little boy, to swotty undergraduate, obsessed researcher, young master, gentle suitor and in all stages of the ballet tortured soul. The other big male role was Henry who played all round good egg from the moment he befriended Victor in medical school. Like Victor he had no time for drinking, carousing and having a nice time like all other sensibly adjusted students. He was danced last night by Alexander Campbell, and a very good job he did too.

The main female role was Elizabeth danced last night by Laura Morera who was Scarlett's muse in Viscera (see Au Revoir but not Adieu 19 Nov 2015. I am a great fan of Morera and once had the pleasure of meeting her and telling her how much I admire her work (see Laura Morera 25 Aug 2015). She is a fine actor well as a great dancer. She is a master of detail - remember her little mannerisms as she writes in Victor's commonplace book as he is about to set off for medical school - but also her mid-air rotations as Victor tosses her into the air without really looking at her. It must have been so scary for her to do those turns.

"And Thomas Woodhead? You say he danced a key role." Why yes, indeed, for he was the lecturer who demonstrated the life giving force of electricity to the students and gave Victor the idea for his research. We have all taken classes from lecturers like him. Brilliant. Sarcastic. Frightening for the callow undergraduate. I was reminded of my economic history classes at St Andrews. "Karl Marx was born in 1818 and died - not a day before time - in 1883" delivered in the cultured tones of Morningside "where sex is what the coal comes in."

A ballet like this requires a remarkable score and it was provided by Lowell Liebermann. It was a work of our times - not a pastiche - but it caught the flavour of the period where that was needed. It was one of the most beautiful new works I have ever heard and I long to listen to it again perhaps next time in the concert hall. If anyone wants to get me a present for Christmas I'll have a recording of the score as soon as soon as it comes out on DVD.

Equally impressive were John MacFarlane's designs, particularly his apparatus for generating static electricity and the electrodes for applying it to humans. This was one of the most realistic props I have ever seen on stage in any kind of show.  And the gallows scene too which would have made me throw up had I visited the Kash before the show rather than after.

There is so much to write about this production but I have a living to earn and nobody pays me to write ballet reviews.  There are still some seats available for the last three performances in London. If you can make the show then go. It will soon be staged in San Francisco.  I'd say its worth the 9 hour flight if you miss it here and I am seriously contemplating a trip there.

Liam Scarlett is a remarkable talent. First, Vicera. then No Man's Land  and now this. He is still a very young man.  Imagine what he will be doing in 20 or 30 years time.

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