New Creations: Frankenstein Adaptations in Dance

Frankenstein is a novel by Mary Shelley which has entered nearly every sphere of modern art. The novel has inspired plays, movies, sculptures, TV shows, and paintings. While its most famous iterations are often in movies, the plot of Frankenstein has now begun to reach audiences through a new medium: dance.

Before we delve into dance Frankenstein adaptations, let’s begin by defining dance as an adaptation. Dance can have the broad definition of being movement. If this is the case, every play, film, musical, and visual adaptation contains dance. There is a narrower definition as that of planned, stylistic movement. This definition would narrow the scope to ballets, musicals, and contemporary dances. However, I think for our purposes, it makes the most sense to utilize the narrowest definition of dance as that of planned, stylistic movement that lacks dialogue between characters. This category would include ballets and contemporary, shorter dances and would exclude musicals or operas. We will be examining those dances which refer to Frankenstein, the work by Mary Shelley, or its adaptations.

The novel Frankenstein was first published in 1818. Thus, to understand how the novel has reached dance audiences since, it makes the most sense to begin to study the adaptations chronologically. Unlike some of the other art forms, the adaptation of Frankenstein to dance began in a very organic fashion, after Frankenstein had become a cultural phenomenon through film, plays, or other types of adaptations.

Many of the earliest records I found of dance were in the early 2000s or late 1990s, over a hundred years since the publication of Frankenstein. Given, there is a chance that the advent of the internet had a significant influence on the availability of Frankenstein dance adaptations. However, these early 2000s adaptations were never performed by professional companies of dancers. Instead, they were usually performed by children or adolescents for a competitive routine.

Competitive dance is a form of dance where participants can enter in a variety of categories to attempt to win the competition. They can be of many ages, and can compete in ballet, jazz, contemporary dance, hip hop, tap, and others. These dance routines are usually scored based on criteria involving tricks, costumes, choreography, execution of choreography, technique, stage presence, and more. There is not a general set of criteria in judging, but differs from competition to competition.

It is not uncommon for competitive dances to have plots or themes to give the audience more context than a two-minute dance can allow. Therefore, it appears that the “Frankenstein” theme was chosen because it was already established in pop culture via other mediums, such as film. This theme would have given the dance an immediate plot, and a well-known point of reference for the audience and judges. I found at least seven of these types of adaptations:

In a similar vein, So You Think You Can Dance, a gameshow variation of competitive dance, featured a Frankenstein– themed dance in Season 4. Performed by Courtney and Joshua in 2014, the dance features Courtney “coming to life” in a frame, apparently brought to life by Joshua, imitating the role of Victor. The two go on to perform a hip-hop duet, with a deal of romantic interest between the two characters, but do not use any motions to reference Frankenstein after this. This is a prime example of how Frankenstein has been used as a cultural shorthand to give more of a story to a dance which otherwise lacks the capacity to contain a narrative due to time limitations.

Until recently, Frankenstein has not been adapted to ballet. Ballet is defined by Merriam- Webster as “a theatrical art form using dancing, music, and scenery to convey a story, theme, or atmosphere,” (citation here). Ballet is also one of the oldest and most established forms of dance. According to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, ballet began around the 15th century as a part of the Renaissance movement. Since then, ballet has been considered a high art form, usually enjoyed exclusively by aristocrats up until recently, when it has become more accessible to a wider audience.

In 1985, the Royal Ballet commissioned a one-act adaptation of Frankenstein, which was choreographed by Wayne Eagling. There is almost no trace of it anywhere, and no evidence that it made any kind of splash, likely because it was only one act. Regardless, this was the predecessor for the full-length production of Frankenstein commissioned by The Royal Ballet in 2015. Frankenstein was choreographed by Liam Scarlett, who had tried his hand at other shorter ballets in the past with much success. The ballet featured scenes which pushed the boundaries of convention, like the scene where performers clutch limbs and use them as props during a dissection.

However, critical reception felt that Liam Scarlett’s piece fell flat. Their critiques were varied, but could be summed up in saying that the ballet took too much of a traditional approach. See the following New York Times article, written by Roslyn Sulcas, for more information regarding the negative critical reception that Scarlett’s work received:

Critical reception was not the rule, however, in how influential Scarlett’s work was in the world of ballet. Since its debut in May 2016, several Frankenstein productions have popped up in ballet companies in the years following. The first, of course, was with the San Francisco Ballet, who partnered with The Royal Ballet in its own production in February 2017. After this, the phenomenon of Frankenstein ballet spread throughout the country. Two of these productions include the College of Southern Nevada’s Bride of Frankenstein performance in 2017 and the not-yet-performed production of Frankenstein by the Roxey Ballet. For tickets or further information about the Roxy Ballet’s production, see the following:

            Thus far, the field of Frankenstein adaptations within dance is just now receiving critical attention by a variety of dance companies around the world. With a nearly blank slate, unlike the Frankenstein-saturated mediums of film, plays, and novels, I predict we will be seeing more of our favorite “made man” in dances very soon.

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