Sep 04 2019
Zacharie Dun in Grand-Maître’s Frankenstein / Photo by Paul McGrath
Except from the article Brought to Life Q & A with Jean Grand-Maître By Anne Dion
“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 Currentabout 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.
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