Sunday, February 19, 2017

Shelley Gets Her Due in Dance: Frankenstein the Ballet

A new version of Frankenstein's Creature

As someone who's been a little obsessive about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I was ecstatic when San Francisco Ballet announced last year that they would be staging Liam Scarlett's new ballet Frankenstein, which promo pics indicated would be close to the novel, in 2017. On Halloween, I scored a $45 orchestra ticket in a special sale and guarded it as if it held the secret to life. But in the final weeks before the North American premiere, I wasn't the only one shivering with antici...pation. I've never seen this much excitement about a ballet. Co-workers, my roommate's classmates, acquaintances on twitter: everyone wanted to see Frankenstein. I finally got to see the ballet on 2/18/17, and it did not disappoint.

The biggest draw for me was that unlike the many movie versions, Scarlett's ballet is deeply rooted in its source novel. The lack of an adaptation loyal to Shelley's work is why I ended up planning my dream cast, and this ballet is probably the closest fulfillment I'll get. There are no Igors; castle laboratories; or green, bolt-necked behemoths here. Instead, even with the changes needed for three acts of dance, we get Shelley's novel. We get the stories of Victor Frankenstein, a university student who messes up big time; of his loving family and friends, whom he loses; and of the tortured life he recklessly brings into the world.

Although its world premiere was less than a year ago, Frankenstein feels like an established classic. It's worth noting that Liam Scarlett is only 30. With young choreographers like him and Justin Peck, ballet's future looks bright.

Frances Chung as Elizabeth and Joseph Walsh as Victor

I looked at casting as soon as it was available, but I accidentally looked at the matinee, the casting for which were principals Aaron Robison as Victor, Dores Andre as Elizabeth, and Luke Ingham as the Creature. When I checked again before leaving on Saturday night, I realized my mistake, and saw the cast would be Max Cauthorn, Lauren Strongin, and Taras Domitro. "Who is Max Cauthorn?" I wondered. He's a corps member - and a young one at that, being just a few years out of San Francisco Ballet School. He's also the only non-principal in the role. Likewise, Lauren Strongin, a soloist, is the only non-principal Elizabeth. (Both are also Bay Area natives. High-five!)

While disappointed that I wouldn't get to see Dores Andre again after she was such a standout in Program 1, I looked forward to seeing Strongin and Cauthorn, who are possibly under consideration for promotion. It's great to see home-grown former SF Ballet School students, like soloist Wei Wang, who was an apprentice the year before Cauthorn was, rise in the ranks. And (this is where I clarify that while a ballet fan, I am not a ballet expert) I really enjoyed Cauthorn's and Strongin's performances. They were lovely and youthful together, and their early effortlessness together made the emotional impact of Victor's later distraction and avoidance all the stronger.

Meanwhile Taras Domitro, in a scarred, nude bodysuit as the Creature, brought maturity and depth to his coltish, heartbreaking, menacing character. His pas de deux with Strongin, as his terrified would-be stepmother, and then with Cauthorn, as the immature father who regrets him, are both standouts. (Domitro isn't tall, but he's like 80% muscle, and Cauthorn seemed to have zero problems tossing him around like he was a willowy ballerina.)

From the original Royal Ballet production

Other things I loved:

-Henry Clerval! Although there was one huge Henry-related problem (see below), I was thrilled that happy, doomed puppy-dog Henry made the cut in this adaptation. Soloist Angelo Greco played Henry Saturday night, and brought lots of sweetness to the role.

-Justine Moritz! One element of Shelley's novel that Scarlett kept but altered was that Frankenstein family maid Justine Moritz's mother hates her. In the novel, Justine's mother is just part of her backstory, but in the ballet she's present as the housekeeper. Even though Victor and Elizabeth see Justine (soloist Julia Rowe) as a friend, Madame Moritz (soloist Jennifer Stahl) coldly and relentlessly keeps her daughter in her place as a servant.

Scarlett's reason for this subplot becomes clear at the end of Act II, when Madame Moritz's desperation, regret, and seconds-too-late arrival to Justine's execution add an absolute gut-punch. Characters danced by Stahl, who was promoted to soloist after her starring role in 2013's Rite of Spring, just have bad luck with executions.

-Music: composer Lowell Liebermann's music is sumptuous and intense.

-Anatomy Theatre scene: the anatomy lab dance, with a dizzying array of students, medical assistants, beakers, and body parts, is a visual delight with lots of great little details (the lechery of soloist James Sofranko's professor, an assistant's curiosity, Henry's queasiness).

-Talented kids: there are a few SF Ballet School students in this production, but the child dancer with the most time on stage last night was Jonathan Yee as Victor's little brother William. It's a demanding role for a kid, with lots of acting, a duet with the Creature, and a fair amount of time playing dead, and little Jonathan did great. Good job, Jonathan!

I've got some things to say about this

Things I didn't love:

-Here is the biggest problem the ballet had: Henry Clerval's costuming. The opening scenes establish Victor as wearing a red coat. He wears a red coat in childhood. He wears a red coat as a teenager. So when Act I, scene 3 starts at the university, and we see a guy with Victor's same wig wearing a red coat, it's obviously Victor, right? Wrong! It's Henry. When Victor arrives with his red notebook, everything becomes clear, but I was confused at first, and from what I overheard at intermission, a lot of people were.

Then in Act II, Henry is wearing a green coat. I will admit to owning more than one color of coat, but I'm not in a ballet where people in the balcony need to quickly recognize me. Since other characters' clothes stay similar throughout, why not just have him wear a green coat in Act I so we can easily distinguish him from Victor and the other neutral-wearing students? But the worst is yet to come. In Act III, he's wearing another, different red coat. You're killing me, costume designer John Macfarlane!

-Henry and Victor: also, I wish Victor and Henry's friendship had been better established in Act I. I feel that would have been a better use of scene 4, rather than the "college students gonna college student" episode in the tavern. Scarlett has Victor and Henry meet as freshmen rather than as children, but they barely interact before Victor's breakdown lands him back at home, at which point Henry is living with them and practically part of the family.

Liam Scarlett featurette with the Royal Ballet
SF Ballet's Vitor Luiz on dancing the Creature

Frankenstein continues at San Francisco Ballet through 2/26/17.

Image info:
Header: Erik Tomasson and AKA
Chung and Walsh: Erik Tomasson
Royal Ballet: Bill Cooper
Corps member Esteban Hernandez in that damn Act III coat: Erik Tomasson
Programs and tickets: my own crappy photo

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Manuscripts Don't Burn: Books for This

Ellen Manning's poster for The Master and Margarita

This is by no means what I consider a comprehensive list. I have no doubt there are a multitude of works from a multitude of people and places covering these issues, from tomes written by those who have lived in any of the world's dictatorships to the popular genre of dystopian science fiction novels. But these are the ones I know and suggest.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Perhaps ironically, the book that's buoyed me the most since November is a Russian novel. 1930s Stalinist Moscow is already such a surreal place that demonic visitation is hardly the weirdest aspect. There are mysterious disappearances, labyrinthine but unassailable rules about everything, and overbearing but unspeakable truths, so what's a talking cat or a dance for hell's denizens? Muscovite Margarita has lost her lover, a writer who was whisked away by the authorities due to the subject of his novel. Will a mysterious stranger and his mischievous coterie be able to help her get him back?

Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita knowing that it could never be published in his lifetime. He even burned an early draft, wary and despairing, but later soldiered on with his secret writing. The book's very existence is a testament to the survival of art in impossible situations and support for one of its claims: manuscripts don't burn.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

By Night in Chile is a feverish novella told in (mostly) one paragraph: the deathbed ramblings of fictional Father Urrutia, a priest and intellectual who was recruited to teach the "enemy tactics" of the left to the top brass of the new (and covertly USA-assisted) Pinochet regime. The defensive, opaque narrator is unsympathetic, but one wonders what he or she would have done differently, and what difference it would have made. While maddening in parts (it includes a Bolaño trademark: a lengthy, esoteric list - in this case a survey of churches using trained falcons to protect historic buildings from pigeon poop), the work reaches a heart-pounding climax when what lies beneath a literati dinner party is revealed.

By Night in Chile is a stark reminder that dictatorships come and go, but for their survivors, actions taken or not taken can last a lifetime in one's conscience.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I admit I haven't been able to re-read this one recently; much like George Orwell's 1984, it's too close to home now. However, I plan to steel myself and dive in, since it has an eerily well timed miniseries coming in the spring. The Handmaid's Tale, a novel of women's oppression under a far-right group that has seized power in America, is an important reminder of how quickly the unthinkable can turn into something you're being told to get used to.

The Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola

During this election season, I've been thinking of the French disaster (or La Debacle, as Zola put it) that was the Franco-Prussian War, where seemingly every bad decision that could be made was made. Zola's series of novels covering the years leading up to this war and the fall of the Second Empire - a time Zola lived through - has some intriguing parallels to today's society, especially the extreme social stratification. As a conduit of mid-to-late-19th Century French history, with its many protests and rebellions, the novels are also a reminder that progress is a struggle, and it's not always clear where or when a decisive victory will arrive.

In L'assommoir, blacksmith Goujet decides not to join in the protests of Napoleon III's 1851 coup d'etat, feeling burned out and discouraged by the protests of 1848. However, he does hesitate and wonders if, "one day the people might regret having stood by with folded arms." 

Suite Française by Irène Némirovksy

Successful writer Irène Némirovksy was living in France with her husband and children when Germany invaded. She immediately began work on a planned series of novels which were to chronicle the invasion, the resistance, and then whatever the outcome of the war would be. After finishing drafts of the first two novellas, however, Némirovksy, who was Jewish by birth (she and her husband were converts to Catholicism), was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. Her husband's arrest and death at Auschwitz soon followed, but the nanny managed to get the children to safety. Némirovksy's eldest daughter, Denise Epstein, found the drafts and an outline for a third book many decades later, when she was going through her mother's papers before donating them.

The surviving writings were published as Suite Française, a captivating and near-contemporaneous account of the chaos of the initial siege of Paris and then the strange new reality of life under German rule. Knowing Némirovksy's fate, the glimmers of hope are all the more bittersweet. 

Courbet's Le Pont Ambroix

And to finish, here is the poem "Good Bones" by Maggie Smith. "Good Bones," both comforting and clear-eyed, went viral in the wake of the Orlando massacre - a rare feat for a poem. A broadside is available here.

"Manuscripts Don't Burn" poster by Ellen Manning: Master & Margarita website
Le Point Ambroix: wikimedia

Friday, December 23, 2016

Favorites of 2016

Ed Ruscha at the de Young, Seonna Hong at Hashimoto Contemporary,
Yuri on IceAll My Puny Sorrows, The Makropulos Case 

It's no secret that 2016 wasn't great. But here are the pieces of art and entertainment, from an ice skating anime to paintings in Milan, that I loved in this crazy year. 


All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: One of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies this year are about suicide, but both in an oddly hopeful way. In All My Puny Sorrows, two middle-aged Mennonite sisters - struggling writer Yolandi and renowned pianist Elfreida - grapple with Elfreida's suicidal ideation and their family's long history of mental illness. This sounds like a dreary premise, but Toews's novel is full of warmth, humor, and fierce love. In a highlight, Yolandi furiously gives her sister the kind of defense most depressed people long for, but never get.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: As a The Tempest superfan, I was excited for Margaret Atwood's novel take on the Shakespeare play. The resulting work, Hag-Seed, is inventive and entertaining (if not terribly deep). When a smarmy board member removes egotistical but dedicated Felix from his role as artistic director of a theatre festival, Felix goes into hiding. But when he finds a job teaching Shakespeare to inmates at a local prison, he realizes how he could have his revenge.

Bloodline by Claudia Gray: Set seven-ish years before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this eerily topical Star Wars novel captures, from Senator Leia Organa's point of view, the political tensions and escalating disasters that make way for the rise of the First Order.

Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie: A spaceship trapped in a human body teams up with a drug-addicted former colleague in a quest for revenge: this is the story Ann Leckie tells in three beautiful page-turners. The trilogy is a masterclass in world-building; a breath-taking tour of imaginary planets, space stations, and cultures. Characters like measured, compassionate, quietly determined Breq; the sometimes heroic, sometimes a hot mess Seivarden; and zany, endlessly curious Translator Zeiat become quick favorites.

After dutifully carrying out a devastating order she wishes she hadn't and then losing her omniscience in a betrayal, former spaceship artificial intelligence system Breq tirelessly plots a course that will take her to the evil leader of the empire she once served. Along the way she gains companions and rights various social justice wrongs. The vision Leckie presents of a compassionate, justice-focused way of governing is enticing and needed, but her didactic impulse can get distracting as the trilogy continues (even on the climactic brink of a potentially existence-ending war, a lot of time and energy is devoted to browbeating an emotionally unstable character over a microaggression, for example).

Older Books I Read or Re-Read
Grace Marks (L), the subject of Atwood's novel

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: One of Atwood's finest, Alias Grace is based on real murders that happened near Toronto in 1843. Told by various narrators, newspaper clippings, and even some poetry, Atwood imagines the build-up to the crimes; the lengthy aftermath; and most importantly, the precarious and complicated lives of female servants.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: I revisited this classic on a whim, and got a little obsessed. (Bonus: on Halloween, I scored a reduced price ticket to San Francisco Ballet's forthcoming production of a ballet based on the novel!)

The Debacle (Le Debacle) by Emile Zola: Something I'm writing has required me to do a lot of research on the Franco-Prussian War, which lead to Zola's The Debacle. Because of this research I already knew the novel's ending, but I got so invested in the characters involved that I hoped I had misread it. I hadn't. :( The translation I read, by Leonard Tancock, was distracting (he makes the French peasants talk like English cockneys for some reason, like with them saying "tuppence" and everything), but the story of two Frances represented by two men who form an unlikely friendship on the battlefield is still powerful.

Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre and The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: I read Zofloya for the Venetian setting when gearing up for a trip to Venice, and had no idea going in just how bonkers the 1806 Gothic novel would be. It is very bonkers, with murders, affairs, magic, kidnappings, and lovers clasping each other on top of a mountain while lightning flashes around them. But then I went back to what is considered the first Gothic novel, the 1764 The Castle of Otranto, which starts with a teenager getting killed on his wedding day by a giant flying helmet. That definitely takes the bonkers gold. Reading these made me better understand Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, her 1817 novel in which a teenage heroine who devours these types of books sees Gothic drama in everything around her.


Swiss Army Man: This bizarre, gross-out indie about a depressed man and a corpse is also deeply affecting.

Moonlight: "That shit was perfect," announced a man behind me when the end credits started to roll. It's hard to argue with that assessment of Barry Jenkins's reflective portrait in three acts of a gay boy growing to manhood in Miami's mix of drugs, danger, and beauty.

Arrival: I was a bigger mess during this movie than in 50/50, The Fault in Our Stars, or Liz in September, and cancer wasn't even mentioned. I cried at the beginning of the movie. I cried in the middle of the movie. I cried at the end of the movie. This film about a linguist hired to communicate with recently landed, cephalopod-like aliens is based on the Ted Chiang short story, "The Story of Your Life," and I'd suggest avoiding spoilers.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: New Zealand director Taika Waititi, unlike many people, presumably had a good 2016. Not only was he filming Thor: Ragnarok, a hopefully lighter addition to the increasingly bogged-down MCU, but his adventure-comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople was released. When it looks like Ricky - a city-raised foster kid who has finally found home at a rural farm - will be returned to the system, he and his cantankerous foster parent go on the run in the New Zealand bush.

Midnight Special: I am going to be totally honest and admit that I 100% saw this because Adam Driver is in it. He plays an awkward, studious government agent who is tracking down a boy, Alton, rumored to have strange powers. Also looking for the boy are representatives from the cult in which Alton was raised. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst are Alton's parents, and chameleonic Joel Edgerton is a friend helping them flee. Like other artsy sci-fi films Arrival and Under the Skin, Midnight Special spends long moments lingering on its Earthen landscapes, in this case the American South at night. The shots of headlight-filled highways and glowing gas stations reminded me a lot of the Ed Ruscha show held at the de Young this year (below).


Yuri on Ice: I'm not a big TV watcher, but I watched my usual stuff this year: South Park, Gotham, Drunk History, hours of HGTV in the background, etc. But what completely captured my heart (and judging my twitter feed, the hearts of girls from Japan to Mexico)? Ice skating anime Yuri on Ice.

Morfydd Clark and Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Donmar Warehouse: Josie Rourke and the Donmar Warehouse are British national treasures we're sometimes allowed access to via National Theatre Live. I loved Rourke's take on Coriolanus a few years back, and her production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, was another stunner. (The show eventually made it to Broadway, but I saw it via telecast at the Lark Theater in Larkspur.) My favorite aspect of this production was how Rourke made use of what we know but the characters and Laclos did not: that in just a few years, the upper class's lives of luxurious boredom and bored excess would be upended by the French Revolution. As the play progresses, the sumptuous set is stripped bare, mirroring the protagonists' pretense and foretelling the storm to come. 

Much Ado About Nothing - Cal Shakes: This gender-bending, cater-waiter take on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays worked marvelously. 

King Lear - PacRep: I had no idea what to expect when my family decided to see some local theater while on a trip to Monterey, and was blown away by the caliber of acting and set design in this King Lear

The Makropulos Case - San Francisco Opera: The image of Nadja Michael in a Pierrot costume was enough to get me through the door for this 1926 Czech opera about a 300-year-old superstar looking to further extend her life. Michael's charisma makes the piece work, but I also truly touched by the story of the jaded diva and the everyday people who have been embroiled in a generations-long legal conflict partly of her making. 

Detail from Seonna Hong's "Brotherhood of Men"

Musee Massena - Charlotte Salomon: Vie? Ou theatre?: The Musee Massena in Nice, France, celebrated the work of a young artist who once sought refuge nearby from Nazism.

Palazzo Reale - Simbolismo: When my sister and I stopped in Milan for the night on our way from Nice to Venice, we didn't do much research beforehand and didn't know what to expect. Along with the Duomo and finding the perfect duck umbrella, this exhibition of the beauty, weirdness, and sometimes gaudiness of the Symbolism movement was a highlight.

Fine Arts Museums San FranciscoEd Ruscha and the Great American West & Wild West: Plains to the Pacific: The de Young's Ruscha show focused on the artist's work capturing both the sprawl and emptiness of the American Southwest. Its sister exhibition at the Legion of Honor was a clear-eyed survey of the West through many artists.

Hashimoto Contemporary - Seonna Hong, In Our Nature: I was immediately taken by Hong's intriguing images of youths exploring minimalist landscapes in pinks, greens, and grays. I even ended up buying a 2.5 x 2.5" painting - an addition to my tiny collection of tiny original art.

Ancillary Mercy, Swiss Army Man, Bloodline,
Moonlight, Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Previous Favorites:
Favorites of 2015
Favorites of 2014

Header and footer collages made in LiveCollage
Grace Marks: Murderpedia 
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: photo by Johann Persson
Seonna Hong: my photo of Hong's painting "Brotherhood of Men"