- Far from the Tree: Choreographies of Family Obligation in the Ballet of Frankenstein
Their stories point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family.
Intimacy with difference fosters its accommodation.—Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree
Frankenstein is, like many canonical literary works, generative, traveling across time, place, and form as it is adapted to the various uses of literary narrative in the Western tradition. A story that addresses such deep human truths as Frankenstein travels extravagantly across adaptations ranging from horror movies, Halloween costumes, campy comedy, advertising, academic conferences, and now to a ballet. The dramatic story of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature extends its literary pedigree through the story of its own creation. Authored by the daughter of two famous Enlightenment intellectuals and political theorists who defined the Western liberal tradition, Frankenstein emanates from a young woman writer entangled in a semi-scandalous, theatrical liaison with one of the leading poets of nineteenth-century English Romanticism. The elaborate Gothic tale emerges from a parlor game among the avant-garde literati of the time, including the infamous Lord Byron, cooped up restlessly together on a dark and stormy night in a villa on Lake Geneva at the dawn of the European scientific revolution. Further securing Frankenstein’s narrative prestige is its gush of classical allusions, from its subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus,” to Ovid, Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible. [End Page 464]
The genre of classical ballet fits the intellectual and aesthetic aristocracy that surround the novel’s inception and the ample allusions to the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment to which the author of this story, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, was the unlikely heiress. Unlike many of the popularizations and adaptations of Frankenstein in the twentieth century—ranging across the genres of grotesque, horror, supernatural, pop, and parody—the classical ballet adaptation of the novel fits well with the elite allusions and the intellectual interests of the circle surrounding its romantic launch. Shelley’s Frankenstein reaches toward high art through a classically arranged, costumed, and staged ballet version choreographed by Liam Scarlett and performed by the Royal Ballet in 2016 and the San Francisco Ballet in 2017 and 2018.1
The Meaning-Making Possibilities of Adaptation
My purpose here is threefold: first, to show what meanings emerge from the story of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature through the adaptation from novel to ballet; second, to explicate how the ballet carries story through the gestural expressive forms of classical and modern dance; and third, to offer a bioethical reading of the Frankenstein ballet as a cautionary tale about the precariousness of familial attachments when the usual expectations and familiar patterns of procreation are disturbed.
The adaptation from novel to ballet, from one aesthetic genre to another, enables a story about the proper and improper relations and mutual obligations between parent and child to emerge with clarity, economy, and strength. The expressive possibilities of the dance form intensify and concentrate the Frankenstein family drama, transforming Shelley’s narratively complex Gothic plot into a succinct, stylized performance that embodies character and familial interrelations in ways the novel form and many of the subsequent adaptations obscure. A story about the ethics of family obligation materializes as Shelley’s multiple plotlines, settings, characters, and points of view condense into a series of tightly choreographed major scenes performed by principal dancers and supported by a corps de ballet.2 The introduction of the alien Creature into this highly conventional structure of expression makes flesh the spectacle of familial bonds by turns forged and sundered, claimed and renounced, restored and violated. The Frankenstein ballet tells a story of proper familial creation, belonging, recognition, and acceptance gone awry. The ballet—to use Henry James’s narrative [End Page 465] axiom—shows rather than tells the agonizing interrelations that come from parental rejection of a child who differs from the parent and from parental expectations.3
Far from the Tree
Andrew Solomon, in his critically acclaimed book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, narrates the lived stories of families that understood themselves as typical or nondisabled until the entry of disabled children who...