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Photo courtesy of Paul McGrath

Elegant and macabre: Frankenstein comes to life at Alberta Ballet

By Kristy Koehler, November 7 2019—

Alberta Ballet, under the visionary artistic direction of Jean Grand-Maître, wrapped up its final performance of Frankenstein in Edmonton last weekend. The production ran from Oct. 23–26 in Calgary and in Edmonton from Oct. 31–Nov. 2.

Against the seemingly ballet-averse backdrops of a blood-spattered lab and a meteorological station beset by a fierce blizzard, Grand-Maître brought Frankenstein to life with a mixture of both contemporary and classical ballet styles. 

This isn’t Alberta Ballet’s first encounter with horror. In October 2016, the company offered up their rendition of Dracula as part of its 50th anniversary season. The Brides of Dracula were unforgettable in the performance — expressive yet vapid at the same time. When Frankenstein was announced, I expected to be just as dazzled by the choreographed version of Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus as I had been by the haunting spectacle I saw a few years ago. I was not disappointed.

Frankenstein was an entirely different sort of production. While ballet normally involves the use of various hand positions, the fingers as much a part of the choreography as the feet, dancer Zacharie Dun’s portrayal of the monster brought the use of the hands to another level. As Victor attempts to bring his creation to life, the monster’s hands clench, fingers contort and every inch of Dun’s body displays his struggle in the chasm between life and death. When the monster is finally brought forcibly to life, that back-arching, first inhale of sentience could not have been portrayed any more beautifully.

Among the many unique scenes were the ones set on Newbury Street. The dancers portrayed a bustling street in a captivating, mixed-medium fashion I’d not seen before. Some danced, and others walked — cell phone in hand, gliding past one another, fading into the background yet taking center stage at the same time. 

Another standout scene saw the brilliant ensemble cast perform in a cadaver lab, set to Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s third movement of “Summer” from The Four Seasons concerto. The music fits perfectly, a blend of familiarity and innovation, accompanying the energetic dancers as they writhe by the gurney.

Photo courtesy of Paul McGrath

Grand-Maître’s retelling of Frankenstein foregoes the top hats and horse-drawn carriages of the past. Instead, the tale is set between Mar-a-Lago, home of the Florida elite, and a modern-day Harvard University. The subtle incorporation of an Alberta landmark — Jasper Park Lodge as a backdrop for the honeymoon scene — exemplifies the level of detail used in every aspect of the performance. 

Frankenstein also featured the use of surtitles, normally reserved for opera performances. Various pieces of Shelley’s 200-year-old literary masterpiece are displayed, carrying the story along and guiding the audience toward important themes: man as creator, immortality, revenge and ambition. The performance lays bare the dichotomy — and the harmony — of the beautiful and the macabre, the grotesque and the elegant.

Grand-Maître continues to push the envelope at Alberta Ballet. Quite simply, he’s a genius. While other Canadian ballet companies are offering up traditional performances of Romeo and Juliet, Gisele and Swan Lake — and there certainly needs to be some classics in every ballet company’s season and repertoire — Grand-Maître seems to be the only artistic director making waves. In the last few seasons, in addition to the two exceptional horror-motif ballets, he’s provided audiences with Dangerous Liaisons, a lusty, erotically-charged blend of dance, music and art as well as a post-apocalyptic performance set to the music of The Tragically Hip. He’s also curated seasons that offer stunning renditions of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella just to name a few.

The rest of Alberta Ballet’s 2019–20 season brings to the stage the annual Christmas tradition of The Nutcracker, as well as Peter Pan and the classic Swan Lake. A full description of the season can be found online

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