This October, Alberta Ballet is bringing a legend to life with their production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Preparing for his first horror ballet, Jean Grand-Maître spoke to The Dance Current about honing the details of the production. The famous tale has been seen many times onscreen and onstage, but never quite like this.
Anne Dion What went into the decision to stage Frankenstein?
Jean Grand-Maître Well, I like doing ballets that are in a new or unusual vein, and as a designer, horror isn’t a style you get to do very often. Frankenstein is so much more than standard horror too — especially today — with the theme of science being out of control. With developments in stem cell research and AI, there are a lot of moral conversations happening around what it means to be a person.
Mary Shelley came to write her novel at the age of eighteen, and it’s the first science fiction novel ever written. Many say, actually, that she created the first myth since the ancient Greeks with this novel! You see so many stage and film productions that all came from her initial story. It’s one of the largest, most influential novels in the English language. I was blown away by that, and I had to figure out how we could tell this story without words. Working on that, I researched the novel extensively. After all that, I had my first meeting with the designers, and we had our first talk about the creation.
Almost right away the set designer, Guillaume Lord, said to me, ‘I don’t think we should set it in the early nineteenth century.’ I said, ‘No top hats? No carriages?’ And he was brilliant. He told me we had enough money to make a period piece, but not enough to make it look nice. And even if we did make a period Frankenstein, everyone would come and see it and the next day they’d forget about it. So we decided to set it in our modern day; that way it would resonate a lot more with audiences, and this way we’d have the chance to say something really new. So we started talking about cell phones and texting, and what the hospital could look like, and how the Frankenstein family would be. So, brainstorming around the table, we took this concept I had been working on for six months, and basically in fifteen minutes we’d thrown it out the door. We kept the psychology of the story, the narrative, but we got very excited about staging it in contemporary life.
In our version, Victor’s very rich family lives in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, and Victor studies at Harvard Medical School. When he has to run away from the monster with his wife, they decide to honeymoon in Jasper, Alberta. That’s where the creature turns up and murders his wife. The creature hunts him down all the way to a remote meteorological station in northern Yukon. It’s exciting getting to transpose the story. This is the first time I’ve worked on transposing something into a new time. And that’s what designers do! They throw you right off your centre.
AD Transposing such an old story into present day must be challenging.
JGM What’s been hard for me as a choreographer is that, in ballet, there’s a vocabulary and it makes sense if you’re creating a period work. But if you’re talking about people today and how they move, how do you transpose all that drama into this new movement vocabulary?
And the monster itself … A friend of mine said, ‘You picked the ballet where the lead character isn’t supposed to move!’ But actually, if you read the book, that character is actually quite powerful; he can run up a mountain and disappear on a lake in a rowboat very quickly. He’s got great strength; he’s just discombobulated because no part of his body really fits.
AD How did you go about styling the creature?
JGM I’ve studied pretty much every Frankenstein I’ve been able to find, and in the book there are parts of him that are feminine. There are some parts of his organs that are animal too. The whole thing is interesting because he has long hair; the first Frankensteins you see have nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s version. He’s much more agile than we’d think from all the representations — more spastic, animalistic, with a skeletal face and yellow eyes. We needed a powerful beast that was very tall and that looked scary, even in its innate movement and the way it breathes and holds its head. You would be able to spot something off about him even from a distance.
And then there’s the idea that we see him being born, and we see him educating himself and learning. Our creature can transform itself from this slithering kind of larva into a standing creature that learns how to move in its own way that has little to do with being human. And then he very quickly and efficiently learns how to become the deadly killer he is by the end.
It’s a nice transposition in movement but also in costuming. We had to find a nude look for the monster, before starting to dress him up as he becomes more evolved.
AD A lot of elements seem really relevant today; the monster’s rapid growth and the growth of technology, for instance.
JGM Yes, and there are countries that can afford to hire the best scientists in the world, pay them double and have them develop genetics and things that we might not find acceptable here. I’m all for stem cell research and things, but it can be like nuclear weaponry. If you have money and you want someone to make them for you, you can do it.
There’s also a phrase I’ve heard: that Dr. Frankenstein steals the reproductive power of women. It’s a usurpation of feminine creative power. And then another one is that we live in a world without a god, which is one of the ideas that hit me the most, because if we can give life to the dead, then there is no god. And finally, the phrase from Guillermo del Toro is the one that inspired me the most. He wrote a beautiful preface to a book I found for the [200th] anniversary of Frankenstein, which was last year, and in it he says that monsters are so important in our psyche to teach us about us. But he said that the most beautiful and touching of all monsters has always been Frankenstein, because he was born, yet he didn’t ask to be born. He learns how to breathe and how to eat, and he becomes quite sophisticated. The most important thing is to convey the human in the monster’s body and not the other way around. And actually, did you know the monster was vegetarian? He only eats nuts and berries, and he’s basically a good-hearted creature at the beginning, hiding in the forest, trying to understand why he’s there. And by humanity pushing him away, he turns into a killer.
Every time I read the book, I find more and more to the characters. The book is so rich that if I were to try to reproduce it completely, it would be a $2 million production. So I said, ‘Let’s go to the essence and see what we can do to capture how well we relate to that story today: the importance of caring for each other instead of our egos.’
AD What about the other characters? And the rest of the design?
JGM It’s fun because I also have the movements of Victor, the scientist, to create, and there’s a lot to do for character development. The costume designer sent me the drawings. We have almost all the designs in, and this week we’re going to finalize them. Some of it will be built in Calgary, some of it in Montréal. There are prosthetics to be made for the creature’s face, special makeup, different fabrics. We’re looking at how they’re going to travel from the far north, to Mar-a-Lago and to Boston, giving each city an identity and character as well. We have laboratories to build, defibrillators to buy. It’s fun for the designers because we get to dream it all up. It’s a kind of aesthetic we don’t do often nowadays, so it brings us a whole new world in that way. It’s not so easy to scare people onstage as it can be in the cinema because of the distance between the performer and the spectator. You can do it with sound, but there’s only so much of that you can use in ballet to scare people. The idea is that it’s a slow curve downwards into hell. That’s really the horror of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: it’s the realization that it’s a godless world, and that we’re all just wondering why we’re here.
Learn more >> albertaballet.com
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.