Category Archives: Ballet

Musings of a former ballet dancer who’s returned, years later, to the studio as a student.

Choreographer Marika Brussel is creating from shadows

Photographer: Marina Eybelman

 

There exists within all of us a shadowed place tucked deep within our psyche. Usually it stems from a childhood experience, something harsh that slips easily behind our barely formed defenses and brands our tender soul. San Francisco-based choreographer Marika Brussel poignantly chronicled one such experience here:

You are eight. Your father brings you to a strange apartment in a neighborhood far away from where you live. It’s dark and smells like pee. He holds your hand as the door opens and a man in a white, stained tee-shirt says something to your father that may or may not be in English. It’s a question and your father knows the right answer. The door opens to let him in.  

“I’ll just be a minute,” your father says. And you believe him because he’s your father. And he’s tall and strong, and he takes care of you.  

The door shuts behind him.

The hall makes funny sounds. Shuffling, as if there is an animal somewhere. You hear whispering, but can’t tell where it’s coming from. A door downstairs slams. A baby cries. You father is taking a long time. Your belly feels funny—hollow and tight. Steps sound behind you, so you fold yourself into a small ball near the wall. A man passes. He doesn’t notice you. You are invisible. The apartment door opens again, and as the man goes in, your father comes out and, as you breathe again, he holds his arms out to you.  

As writers, we are taught to mine those dark places as a source of the richest material. Choreography, it’s clear, is cut from the same cloth. Particularly choreographers who have MFAs in creative writing, who’ve captured the poetry and the pathos of a child torn between loyalty and unease over her heroin-addicted father’s actions that will, ultimately, land him out on the streets, homeless. From these shadows comes art. Fitting, then, that Marika Brussel’s newest work is titled From Shadows, and is a contemporary ballet that explores homelessness and addiction through the eyes of a young girl looking for her father. The sixty-minute ballet will have its world premiere on Oct 12 and 13, at ODC Theater in in San Francisco.

     

One afternoon in late August, I join Marika and her dancers for rehearsal. Fog outside creates a more insular world but doesn’t mask the San Francisco cityscape through the windows. A cheery red shopping cart is parked on the gray marley floor, looking festive, out of context. Earlier, Marika borrowed it from a local choreographer friend and wheeled it over to the studio. In the area of 16th Street and Mission, rife with transients, it made her look like she herself was a transient. “Pedestrians seemed embarrassed to meet my eyes,” she told me. “Especially the more affluent white people.” In truth, the very people she hopes will support the arts and attend her ballet’s performances.

Today’s rehearsing dancers—Nina, Theresa, Emily H and Nick—are warming up, the women putting on pointe shoes before stowing their dance bags under the barre, affixed to a wall dominated by east-facing windows. “Let’s take it from where Nina comes in,” Marika tells them. The dancers nod, take their places. Without the music, Nina, dancing as the young girl, steps onstage into a commanding piqué arabesque, arms stretched in an imperious high fifth elongé that says back off to the bullying women nearby. She’s clutching a precious sweater, the only item she has of her father’s. But Theresa, a weaker, mentally ill transient, reaches over and unsteadily pulls it from her grasp. Marika, observing from the corner, calls out to Nina.

“You’re not sure if you want to touch her, or your sweater now, because, basically, she smells.” Accordingly, Nina backs off with a grimace from Theresa. Nick enters, upstage left, pushing a cart. Shoulders and head slumped, he is slow-moving, beaten down. He spies Theresa and they begin to interact. Her smell doesn’t bother him, likely because he’s used to it. She lunges out, as his hands reach out to catch her, support her. Through a partnered lift, they are momentarily entwined. Afterwards he places her tenderly in his shopping cart, tucks the jacket over her, around her.

Marika halts the flow of movement to step over and murmur with Theresa and Nick. The three discuss a better way of getting her into the shopping cart. Behind them, Nina stretches and understudy Emily H marks the steps on her own. “Try it over the shoulder,” Marika urges, and the two dancers implement the suggestion.

The movements all come alive when run through with the music. It’s marvelous stuff, at once contemporary and classic, melodic and jarring, reminiscent of the staccato second movement of Debussy’s Quartet in G. It’s “Dream House” by Mary Ellen Childs, Marika informs me when I ask, a composition reflecting Childs’ experience of having her house torn down and rebuilt. Musicians are the New York-based string quartet, ETHEL whose unique, classical-but-not-entirely sound Marika admires. The second vignette, “Shopping Cart,” brings in an utterly beautiful, plaintive violin lament, reminiscent of John Corigliano and The Red Violin. Later in the ballet will come a more jarring, percussive, drum-infused musical movement, which signals the arrival of the police, bent on dispersing the sleeping transients. But for now, bittersweet tenderness.

Throughout From Shadows, the choreography, much like the music, is steeped in classicism, technically assured movements that leave plenty of room for more contemporary touches: heads thrown back; arms flung out; staccato touches that hint at instability, mental illness, the dark side of addiction. It’s movement that is both beautiful and stark. It is the humanity behind the shadows, illuminated.

Marika Brussel grew up in New York, the daughter of hippie artists. In ballet, she took quickly to the structure and discipline her household lacked and ballet mandated, showing great promise at an early age. She was selected to be a scholarship student at the Joffrey Ballet School. But pre-professional ballet training is fearsome, daunting, with countless sacrifices, physical and emotional. It’s a heavy burden for a pre-teen girl, made worse when her father was kicked out of the household for his heroin addiction. He sank deeper, and landed on the streets of New York when she was eleven. “I would walk around Chinatown and Greenwich Village looking for him,” she shared in an essay recently published by Street Sheet. (http://www.streetsheet.org) “Usually, I knew where he would be – he had found a home of sorts in a theater dressing room. But sometimes he would be nodding out at Bagel Buffet, near where I went to ballet classes. And sometimes he would be just in the doorway of my ballet studio, watching his daughter, like any father, except he hadn’t bathed, and his many layers of clothes told his story, right there for everyone to see.”

                   

Marika remained doggedly committed to ballet until age 18, when, now aware of how much normal teen life she’d sacrificed through her adolescent years, she decided she wanted to experience other things in life. At twenty, she moved to San Francisco, curious to explore what it was like to be a young adult in a new city. “I wasn’t dancing at the time, but working on a novel,” she shared. “The loss of ballet had created a void in my life, which was filled somewhat by writing. But it wasn’t until I came back to ballet that I felt wholly myself again. In 1999 I moved from San Francisco to Santa Fe. I started dancing again there, professionally, with Ballet Theater of New Mexico. There, I started dipping into choreography, a little, although it wasn’t until 2014 that I started seriously choreographing.”

She and I discuss writing. It’s not often I get to connect with choreographers who also have MFAs in creative writing, and I relish the opportunity. When she asks about my current novel-in-progress, I tell her it’s set not in the professional ballet world, like my two previous novels, but in Africa, an ex-ballet dancer’s response to living there, its harshness, its mysticism. Her eyes light up. She asks whether I’m familiar with the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, and his novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I tell her “yes” on the former and “no” on the latter (which I’ve since remedied—what a vivid, amazing, intensely African novel). It’s the story of a boy who inadvertently wanders over to a land populated entirely by ghosts, dozens upon dozens of communities of them, and the curious adventures he encounters during his time there. In one of those “small world!” moments, she shares that this African novel provided the spark for this ballet’s creation.

“Originally, I was interested in doing a ballet version of the novel,” she tells me, “but I couldn’t connect to it on a deeply personal level. Another choreographer asked me what resonated and I realized it was that the ghosts in the novel were neither dead nor alive. They were their own thing. The homeless seem to be like that too: not quite living, but also not dead.”

Back in rehearsal, the cart itself has become an interesting partner. During breaks, Theresa idly improvises with the cart, and it’s amazing, the grace and beauty from this pedestrian vehicle, as it supports her arabesques, her pirouettes. At one point, her two legs press together to give the illusion of one leg, hobbling along, made mobile only by the shopping cart. It’s a beautiful leg, a gorgeous line, en pointe, pretty as can be. But since most humans have two legs, the image becomes ugly by inference. Which somehow describes the experience taking place near the studio, in the heart of the Mission District. The homeless and the home-owners co-mingling. Some hurrying, some loitering; some reeking, others perfumed. Some conversing on their cell phones, others conversing with themselves. Such disparity. Yet every last one of those people were, at one time, whole, beautiful, healthy.

   

A second rehearsal three weeks later allows me to watch what is sure to be one of the ballet’s most riveting scenes, the “Invisible Police” movement, where the arriving police (portrayed by flashing red lights) violently disperse the homeless in their encampment. There is chaos, confusion, a perfect mesh with the boldly propulsive music. Today is the dancers’ first glimpse of the choreography, only recently created by Marika. “I’m a little nervous,” she tells me, with a chuckle. “I’ve never worked this with a large group of dancers before. And I’ve only marked it in my kitchen.”

Two more dancers, Cal and a second Emily, have joined the others today. The six of them mark the steps and then dance them. Again. Again. Again. Emily No. 1 (“Emily H”) radiates tireless energy as she runs, alerting the others, and embarks on a circle of impressive grand-jeté leap turns. Later, I watch as Nina and Cal, closest to me, nail the ensemble passage, flinging their bodies through the movements with razor precision and technique. It’s a lament of sorts, eyes and arms to the sky as violence swirls around them. “Why this? Why us?” they seem to be asking. “Are we not people, too?”

Marika’s father, homeless on New York’s streets, was one of the lucky ones. He came clean after two years, went through rehab, and remained clean, off the streets, through the last twenty years of his life. He did it, he told Marika, for her and her brother. Meeting Marika in San Francisco at one point, he called out an easy greeting to one of the homeless people clustering on the sidewalk. It turned out to be someone he’d met in rehab, who, regrettably, had gone back onto the streets. But his sense of familiarity with the transients, the way he really saw them, engaged with them, burned a permanent impression in Marika’s mind. Now she tries to do her own part, to help them, engage with them. See them.

I asked Marika what she would like audience members to draw from watching her ballet. “In a word,” she replied, “empathy. But in more words, I hope the ballet starts a dialogue about how we can change the situation in our culture of seeing homeless people as “other,” as a threat, and instead treat them with dignity and compassion.”

A grant from The Fleishhacker Foundation gave her the opportunity to expand this from an eleven-minute piece to a sixty-minute ballet. She is also the recipient of a 2017 Classical Girl Giving donation, awarded to companies, choreographers and dance organizations that strive to take ballet out in the world or use ballet to deliver important social messages.

Want a taste of From Shadows? Here is part of that original, eleven-minute piece:


From Shadows: a ballet about homelessness, will be presented on Thursday, October 12 and Friday, October 13, both at 8 pm. Run time is one hour. ODC Theater is located at 3153 17th Street near Shotwell in San Francisco, a short walk from the 16th St. BART station. Tickets are available at the door, $25 regular; $40 community partner ($20 from each ticket will be donated to the Coalition on Homelessness and Farming Hope) A percentage of the proceeds from the performances will go to local homeless organizations such as Project Homeless Connect and Farming Hope.

You can find out more about Marika by going to her website HERE, or take a ballet class from her at ODC, where she teaches adults on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:15. She teaches Dance for Parkinson’s Disease in Berkeley on Mondays at 12 noon and in San Francisco on Thursdays.

 

***

PS: A “thank you!” to the dancers who allowed me to watch them rehearse on 8/29 and 9/19 respectively. They are: Nina Pearlman (pictured in rehearsal photo above with Marika), Emily Hansel (ditto), Nick Wagner, Theresa Knudson, Cal Thomas, Emily Kerr. Joining them for the performance will be Sharon Kung, Ruby Rosenquist, Alexandra Fitzgibbon, Allie Papazian and Jackie McConnell.

PPS: HERE is intriguing backstory of Mary Ellen Childs’ “Dream House” which opens with ETHEL performing the “Invisible Police” movement.

PPPS: Want to hear more from the string quartet, ETHEL? You can find it HERE.

PPPPS: It was getting a little crowded up above, so I couldn’t make room for this lovely pic of Theresa, but I say, hey, there’s always room for an extra notice, or pic, in the PS section. Am I right?

PPPPPS: See what I mean? Plenty of room, still. And, by the way, that’s Emily H, Cal, and Nina in the photo above. And since we’re squeezing in pics that I wanted to use but couldn’t, and by now, the readership is down to the people who like to read to the very end, much like those who watch movie credits to the very, very end (count me in here!), here is one last goodie. It’s of Marika, dancing, from years past. Maybe she’ll chime in here and give us an exact year. Cool pic.  And no, it wasn’t planned in any way that her leotard bears an uncanny resemblance to Theresa’s above. Let’s just call it one of those serendipitous, end-of-the-blog-and-still-reading kind of moments.

PPPPPPS: Last one. I promise. Nick, the shopping cart, and his recent acquisition (Theresa)

PPPPPPPS: I lied. Nina, in silhouette. I mean, why WOULDN’T you want to see this very cool pic?

World Ballet Day 2017 – save the date!

Three cheers for World Ballet Day, which will make its return for the fourth consecutive year on Thursday, October 5, 2017!

On this auspicious day, you’ll be treated to 20 hours of live, behind-the-scenes footage from five of the world’s leading ballet companies. Same as last year. And, like last year, you can watch this live-stream broadcast as it links the ballet world, literally and figuratively. On the big day, you can find that link embedded here, on each of the companies’ websites. Like last year, you’ll see four hours each of the following companies:

  • The Australian Ballet
  • Bolshoi Ballet
  • The Royal Ballet
  • The National Ballet of Canada
  • San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet

Are you new to the World Ballet Day experience? You should plan on seeing all sorts of fun stuff, including company class (my personal favorite), rehearsal footage, interviews with choreographers and leading dancers, and pre-recorded vignettes from another dozen companies around the world.

New information will be forthcoming as we approach the date. I’ll stay on top of things for you, so stop by regularly between now and October 5th for updates!

Want a taste now? Following is the class portion of The Royal Ballet’s live stream. One of my favorite companies watching one of my favorite portions of the coverage. Enjoy!


And to get you excited about the entire 20-hour event, check out this preview from 2016. (Note: the date of World Ballet last year was October 4th, but this year’s, 2017, is October 5th.)

 

PS: check out my coverage of 2016’s World Ballet Day HERE and 2015’s coverage HERE, which also includes detail on the day’s scheduling at each location – just scroll down.

10 ways to spot a bunhead

Bunhead (noun): an extremely dedicated female ballet student or professional. Derives from “bun” (a tight roll of hair in the shape of a cinnamon bun, on the back of the head) and “head” (that thing humans tend to have on top of the rest of their body).

                

It’s summertime, which means the jackets are off, skimpy clothing is in, which makes it the ideal season for spotting bunheads.

Bunheads come in all sizes and shapes. Ages, too. In their juvenile form, a bunhead is easy to spot. The bun, for starters. The gangly limbs and thin frame, the earnest expression, the leotard, the preference for staying in a pack (young bunheads are very conformist). They can be found either en route to the ballet studio, or returning from it, or anywhere lost in thought, dreaming of what happened, or will happen, at aforementioned studio.

Bunheads don’t die off young, as one might be led to believe, given the dramatic drop in bunhead sightings past age sixteen, and further reduction after age 25. It is simply that older bunheads opt for camouflage and/or cease to venerate conformist attire and behavior. Thus disguised, they retain their private identity as they move into adulthood, through middle age, and even beyond. Yes. A sixty-year old woman can be a bunhead, no matter what she wears or what her hair looks like.

The adult bunhead can still be spotted by the discerning observer. Below are ways and places in which such an encounter might occur.

10 Ways to Spot a Bunhead

  1. In yoga class: she’s the one lifting her hip in Warrior 3 position, and balancing in Tree Pose with a turned-out foot, instead of the preferred yogic parallel position. Attempts by teacher to remedy position will not last, as the bunhead body rapidly returns to what is ingrained.
  2. At a public swimming pool: you’ll see her practicing her développé a la seconde in five feet of water, grinning because her extension is so high and effortless. Will also perform grand jeté leaps underwater while arm remain still and pretty.
  3. In the post office line: she’s the one who waits by standing in fourth position. Or fifth. Or, if the line is super slow, watch closely and you will spot her doing a furtive tendu to the front, to the side. Maybe even a little relevé. In extremely long waits, a shift to one foot, with the other foot tucked in a neat coupé or sur le cou de pied.
  4. In long hallways (think empty corridors, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, shopping mall), you can spot the urge in them to take off running into a tombe, pas de bourré, glissade, and big-assed leap. On very rare occasions, the adult bunhead will lose inhibition and go for it. Such inhibition usually requires considerable consumption of alcoholic beverage beforehand.
  5. In the wild, during an unexpected downpour in a rain-deprived region, where the adult bunhead might lack the inhibition of the previous situation. Sightings are less rare, but still relatively uncommon.

Below is rare footage of an adult bunhead spotted in the wild:

6.  On the beach, under the shade of an umbrella, where beach bag includes water, nutty snacks, 70 SPF sunscreen (bunheads rarely seek out a tan—their species prefers to remain pale and unblemished) and one or more of the following paperbacks: Astonish Me, Bunheads, Off Balance, (PS: this one is FREE this week!) Girl Through Glass, Misty Copeland’s Life in Motion.

7.  At the grocery store, where her cart will include yogurt cups, bottled water, Diet Coke, plus over a dozen Luna or Kind bars, or one of the dozens of healthy-but-not-totally bars out there.

8.  In restaurants, where they sit very tall, erect, like a princess at a state dinner, and try, not always successfully, to avoid the carbs and scarf down the protein. Gives self brownie points for eating all her vegetables. (Literal “brownie” points.)

9.  At the pharmacy/drugstore, her purchase will include bobby pins, black ponytail holders, Band-Aids, hairspray and corn pads.

10. Her phone has a classical music ringtone that, invariably, is Tchaikovsky and, equally invariably, is an excerpt from Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker.

Have you spotted a bunhead this season? Got any dead-giveaway tips to add? We’d love to hear about it, and encourage you to share your stories of sightings of bunheads in the wild. Send me a photo and I’ll add it to this post. In the meantime, here are two sensational photos from photographer extraordinaire, Jordan Matter, taken from his book, Dancers Among Us. Check it out; the photos are sublime. You can visit his website HERE.

photographer Jordan Matter

photographer Jordan Matter

Diablo Ballet Celebrates 23 Years

It was an evening of celebration and great dance as Diablo Ballet fêted its 23rd anniversary Thursday night at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. Adhering to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas’ mission to offer diverse and relevant works that inspire and engage, the company presented Sally Streets’ 1994 Three to Tango, excerpts from Petipa’s Raymonda, and Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination. The celebration program included a short film, plus a slideshow that commemorated the company’s PEEK outreach program, to live music performed by Minor F Jazz Quartet (comprised of students from the Oakland School for the Arts), all of which demonstrate the wonderful synergy between company and community. That Diablo Ballet thrives at twenty-three years is no small feat, and no coincidence.

The 23rd anniversary is referenced in a charming fashion through Three to Tango. In 1994, choreographer and Diablo Ballet artistic advisor, Sally Streets, set this work on Lauren Jonas in the company’s inaugural season. On Thursday night, pianist Andrea Liguori (who performed it in 1994 too), was joined by by cellist Andres Vera for a lively rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s alluring tango music. New company member Felipe Leon, replacing Jamar Goodman for the performance, dazzled with his clean, articulated movements and focus in this classical-based choreography with Argentine twists. Also new to the company is Oliver-Paul Adams who partnered the reliably excellent Rosselyn Ramirez in a pas de deux with proficiency if not particular ardor. Streets’ stylized blend gave us partnered pirouettes with a knee in parallel passé, some ending in a tango step. Ramirez stretched into a beautiful 180 degree partnered arabesque, and the men’s solo passages showcased their strong scissoring leaps.

Oliver-Paul Adams and Rosselyn Ramirez in Three To Tango, photo by Aris Bernales

Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda, like his earlier creation, The Sleeping Beauty, seems to embody Russian Imperial courtliness and grace. Set to Glazunov, it’s old school classicism at its finest. Thursday night’s performance gave us the Pas de Deux and coda, staged by Joanna Berman, company régisseur and former San Francisco Ballet principal. Raymond Tilton and Jackie McConnell, as the pas de deux couple, mostly succeeded, although a few initial rushed poses kept McConnell from looking fluid, her movements fully inhabited, stately and deliberate. Otherwise, the two were a pleasure to watch on the Lesher Center stage. Costumes designed by Sandra Woodall (and Renee Rothmann, Rebecca Crowell Berke), courtesy of Marin Ballet, looked great. A partnered arabesque released from a challenging balance for McConnell, reminiscent of Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” in The Sleeping Beauty, gave way to a confident, self-supported pose. Tilton, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a perfect fit for classics like this. A solid final partnered pirouette ended the piece impressively for both dancers, and the coda that followed, which included three more couples, a flurry of tutus and brisk, well-rehearsed movement, was well executed.

Diablo Ballet

Jackie McConnell in Raymonda, photo by Aris Bernales

Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, a 2016 world premiere, is set to Camille Saint-Saêns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux, and conjures the rich, colorful inner world of a boy’s imagination. Christian Squires reprised his role as “Seven,” or “Our Protagonist” with the same engaging, theatrical flair as last year. Some roles seemed more refined this year, such as the buoyant gleefulness of Pippas (Jackie McConnell), Seven’s imaginary playmate, which hit all the right buttons for me, without ever feeling over-the-top. I particularly enjoyed McConnell’s red-sneakered, flex-footed leaps, their momentary suspension midair. Standouts this year included “Constellations” a dazzler with fiber optic costumes for the women that, along with Jack Carpenter’s dimmed, dappled onstage lighting, simulated a midsummer’s night. Partnered leaps and lifts (Amanda Farris, Larissa Kogut, Rosselyn Ramirez with Oliver-Paul Adams, Jamar Goodman and Raymond Tilton) looked nothing short of magical. “Colors of the Rainbow,” too, offered visual appeal and strong dancing by Adams, Tilton and Felipe Leon. McConnell and Squires charmed in “The Shadow,” and later were poignant in their depiction of a boy outgrowing his imaginary friend. Dekkers’ choreography flows throughout, engaging and creative. An all-cast pillow fight at the end, everyone now clad in onesie pajamas (all costumes designed by Christian Squires), feathers flying, was just plain fun.

Carnival of the Animals

Christian Squires and Amanda Farris in Carnival of the Imagination, photo by Bérenger Zyla

Twenty-three years as a successful dance company is indeed something to celebrate, and Artistic Director Lauren Jonas had every reason to be proud of this troupe and the full house and enthusiastic audience Thursday night brought. Really, it does the heart good in these times to see a vibrant local community supporting a vibrant dance company. While a trip to Walnut Creek might not prove possible for everyone (good news: they tour the region), Walter Yamazaki’s short films featuring Diablo Ballet give all a chance to see these talented dancers. Thursday night marked the world premiere of Libera; gorgeously produced, with an original score by Justin Levitt, narrated by Jamar Goodman.  Here’s one from 2015, AETERNA XXI created by Yamazaki for their 21st Anniversary celebration, with a gorgeous score by Brian Crutchfield. Enjoy.

San Francisco Ballet’s “Frankenstein”

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

It was the perfect setting, weather-wise, for attending San Francisco Ballet’s Frankenstein last Saturday night, following Friday’s North American premiere of this co-commission with the Royal Ballet. Storm clouds scudded over the darkened February skies, recent rains abated, an uneasy truce between storms that you knew would not last. Frankenstein weather. Something big was about to happen.

People tend to draw their Frankenstein acumen through one of two sources: the 1818 Gothic classic by Mary Shelley, or the 1931 movie adaptation (or, truth be told, through Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein). The latter group might not be aware of the love story the original contains, nor the chaos wreaked because of love withheld. Choreographer Liam Scarlett calls his production, “a story of betrayal, curiosity, life, death, and above all, love.” This is Scarlett’s first full-length ballet; at only thirty, creator of the acclaimed 2014 Hummingbird, among others, he’s currently the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence. Employing the talents of John Macfarlane’s stage and costume design, David Finn’s lighting and Finn Ross’s projection design, this production is a feast for the eyes.

One of the benefits of attending the second night of a production is seeing the second cast. They were brilliant, to the last. In addition to powerful performances from Max Cauthorn and Lauren Strongin, as Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza, and Taras Domitro as The Creature, Julia Rowe and Angelo Greco delivered memorably as well. Act 1, set in late 18th century Geneva, allowed us to witness the metamorphosis of two young friends—Victor and the orphaned Elizabeth taken in by the Frankenstein family—who grow to fall in love. Cauthorn and Strongin paired wonderfully as young adults in love in a tender, lyrical pas de deux, replete with rapturous back arches, leaps, partnered turns that morphed into lifts. Both are dancing well beyond their rank—Cauthorn is in the corps and Strongin is a soloist—and surely promotions are imminent. (Please, Mr. Tomasson, promote Max Cauthorn now. Tonight. He’s earned it.) **Editor’s note on March 13th – Cauthorn’s promotion to soloist was just announced! Yippee! Big congrats, Max!

As this story goes, the death of Victor’s mother in childbirth throws a pall over the household on the eve of Victor’s departure to medical school. There, at Ingolstadt University, the grieving Victor takes keen interest in his professor’s lectures on the possibility of reanimation. Macfarlane’s circular anatomy theater set is spectacular, period-specific, featuring an 18th century replicate electrostatic machine, with wires and tubes and such that emit staticky  pops and snaps.

One of the ballet’s structural problems reveals itself around this time. At close to three hours, the production runs long. The fifty-minute first act has five scenes (and a prologue). Although the story delivered up to this point preps the audience nicely for what is to come, it might prove overlong to those anxious for the “real” drama to begin. Instead, ensemble dancing within each scene often seems presented to assure plenty of “ballet” and not just pantomime exposition. That said, a medical students’ cavort was charming, and soon a quartet of solemn-faced nurses in long skirts joined them, assistants to the Professor (James Sofranko). It began to feel odd, though, within this academic, institutional setting. Some places, like churches, libraries, psych wards, don’t lend themselves aesthetically to ballet. The presence of a cadaver splayed out behind the dancers on an observation table likely didn’t help. And there is simply no way to watch someone dance with a dismembered limb or a brain in a jar without it seeming either creepy or hilarious, or a mix of both. Which may not have been the goal.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

But finally, after a tavern ensemble frolic, the long awaited moment: Victor’s return to the anatomy lab that stormy evening, his inspired efforts, the patched-together cadaver being raised to the skies as lightning flashes all around, the machine exploding in a pyrotechnic dazzle, accompanied by Lowell Lieberman’s wonderfully dramatic commissioned score. It was spectacular, operatic in its intensity.

Taras Domitro, as The Creature brought to life, delivered an unforgettable performance. Costumed in an unearthly pale unitard with the to-be-expected stitches and gashes and blood speckles that worked brilliantly and showcased Domitro’s superb form and musculature, he brought a nuanced vulnerability to the role. You could almost love this Creature. You’re certainly stirred to pity at his plight, as Victor recoils in horror and rejects his creation. The Creature’s “other-ness” was cleverly depicted in quirks: little head rolls, cocking the head in a not-normal way. We, as the audience, get to follow his evolution. In the beginning, he can hardly walk, but learns by observation and imitation. By the final act, he has discovered how to effortlessly fit in to a crowd of waltzing revelers, employing a “blink and you’ve missed him” ninja presence that rattles Victor terribly, who continues to reject this horror he’s created. The power The Creature now holds is formidable—but what powers The Creature, in turn, is the childlike longing to be accepted, loved by his creator, to not be so alone.

The story doesn’t end well, as you probably know (unless your reference is Young Frankenstein, which ends quite adorably). Victor’s attempts to block out his deed and The Creature fail. The Creature’s failed attempts at love and acceptance have curdled into maniacal rage. And yet, still the longing. In the final scene, Elizabeth’s sorrowful pas de deux with The Creature (who has learned to perfectly imitate Victor’s movements) is so poignantly danced by both, it breaks your heart to watch. So does the ensuing pas de deux between The Creature and Victor, desperate and grappling, overflowing with raw emotion. These two final pas de deux showcase Scarlett’s choreographic brilliance, and the dancers at their best. Utterly unforgettable.

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

I loved this ballet. I didn’t love it because I thought it was a perfect ballet and did everything right. I loved it because it was a great story to slip into, with fabulous sets, music and dancing, and the honest human—or inhuman—emotions conveyed. In its scope and appeal, it’s very cinematic and, as such, holds tremendous potential to draw in new viewers, particularly males who might not otherwise consider going to the ballet on the grounds that it’s too girly. Even my teen son told me, “now that’s one ballet I would go to.”

Do yourself a favor and check it out.