San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
February 17, 2017
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano
San Francisco Ballet has commissioned two ballets from British choreo- grapher Liam Scarlett: "Hummingbird (2014)" to Philip Glass and "Fearful Symmetry (2016)" to John Adams. I had more than a few reservations about their choreography, yet Scarlett showed in them an admirable ability to elicit superb performances from the dancers. So in that respect SFB's American premiere of "Frankenstein", co-produced by the Royal Ballet where the work received its world premiere in May 2016, was a major success. The whole company danced well and seemed to enjoy their tasks. Based on Mary Shelley 1819 novel, her 21st century progeny unfortunately received a rather muddled interpretation, marred by a meandering trajectory and extended ensemble work that looked recycled. The work's strength could be found in the solos and pas de deux but that's not enough to keep a full-evening narrative ballet afloat. Scarlett may be barely thirty, but he is no beginner; for "Frankenstein" he needed a dramaturg.
San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's "Frankenstein". Photo © Erik Tomasson
The turbulence of the waltz in the third act's wedding celebration, however, amplified Victor's torment and his being haunted, not by a ghost but the vindictive Creature (Vitor Luiz). Here Scarlett finally stepped away from a hands over fist approach to structure and shaped his dance language into a fairly convincing finale.
"Frankenstein" offered a star part to Frances Chung, whose Elizabeth grew from a shy "guest" in the Frankenstein household to the one tragic figure in this gothic romance. A trembling intensity informed her performance as if she couldn't quite believe to be part of this family to her increasing fear of and for the erratic Victor. No wonder that Victor's friend Henry (an ebulliently leaping Angelo Greco) proved to be a temptation. But Chung became fearless in her struggle with the Creature; she drew on an inner fierceness without ever losing her fragility. I have never seen this always excellent dancer draw as convincing an arc as she did here.
As the daughter of the desiccated housekeeper (Anita Paciotti, of course), Sasha De Sola's Justine was something of a mirror image of Elizabeth. Shyly yearning for a man she couldn't have, she poured her love into Victor's young stepbrother (a splendid Max Behrman-Rosenberg) and fought against the evil that was about to her kill her. Whether in jetés or ring a round the rosies, De Sola made the most of what could have been a minor part. It there was a romantic rebel in this ballet, Justine was it. (We could have done without the hanging).
Luiz danced the Creature as half-man, half monster. The ultimate outsider, he longed for acceptance, first with young William, than with Victor. His battles with the protagonists were powerfully choreographed, each one building to convincing climax. It's in the one-on-one encounters, whether romantic or hostile, that Scarlett shines.
Walsh's Victor, tormented, confused, guilt-ridden and yet loving, had so many facets that perhaps a dancer needs more time to distill them into unified whole -- if that is possible in this case. Overall Walsh's dramatic instincts were underdeveloped. He seemed most at ease in the soaring and volatile duets with Chung. They almost became air-born on the sheer momentum of the emotions that brought these lovers together.
John Macfarlane's costumes evoked gothic tales marvelously in the drop curtain's skull, the isolated villa, the claustrophobic anatomy lab. My last reservation concerns Lowell Liebermann's score that often seemed to give the dancers their cue instead of melding with them. The composer is a skilled craftsman, but didn't he realize that so much of his material sounded derivative?