Category In the News

Stefan Goncalvez and José Pablo Castro Cuevas in the Joffrey Ballet’s 'Frankenstein.' Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Dennis Polkow, Newcity

“It is an epic, epic production,” says Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater of “Frankenstein,” which runs October 12-22 at the Lyric Opera House. “It’s so beautifully created and so beautifully designed. I think that [choreographer] Liam Scarlett really has told Mary Shelley’s story with such heart, such empathy for humanity. It’s glorious. We’re digging in deep because there’s a lot here to get our heads around.”

Rehearsals for “Frankenstein” began in early August and are continuing right up to opening night. “There’s so many parts and density to it. Every single person in the company is involved. Getting it taught is one thing, but getting it up to performance level takes a lot. It’s a very rich language and it demands a lot of rehearsal.

“Plus, the production aspects are huge. It’s probably the largest production that we’ve ever done. Even according to people at the Lyric, this is like big-time opera. The physicality of it is enormous. It has a huge amount of pyrotechnics and all the health and safety that goes with that. It is a glorious show. But it is complicated, much more than your average ballet.”

Wheater had Scarlett’s ballet in mind when he was considering moving the Joffrey from the Auditorium Theatre to the Lyric Opera House. He says, “In 2019, Liam was here and we knew that we were moving to Lyric. He said, ‘Now that you’re moving, I would really love it if the Joffrey would do “Frankenstein.”’ He created it for the Royal Ballet and it premiered at Covent Garden in London. I’ve always wanted to bring it here. I felt, why should people on the East Coast and the West Coast get everything? There’s so much good happening in Chicago. I’m beyond thrilled to present the production in Chicago and beyond because it’s magnificent. The stage of the Lyric Opera House is big enough and the house capability in terms of lighting, in terms of hanging the scenery, in terms of moving the scenery on and off stage, it’s the only theater in Chicago where this could be done.”

Scarlett will not see the Joffrey production. The talented young choreographer took his own life in 2020, at the age of thirty-five. “Liam no longer being with us makes it even more important to me that we’re presenting his work. He was one of the truly great choreographers of his generation. I feel that people should look at his work and realize the talent that he was. There’s a wonderful woman called Kristin McGarrity who worked with Liam when he created ‘Frankenstein.’ She is here and we have a team. Everyone believes in what Liam created so it is wonderful to have so much commitment from so many people.

“It is the same production as the original that premiered in Covent Garden. Of course, it is a whole new company that is learning and performing it. For the artists at the Joffrey Ballet, it is a very important moment for all of them because it will challenge them technically and dramatically and emotionally—and that’s everyone in the company. I think that it’s an ideal piece for the Joffrey because everybody here dances everything. And there are so many great roles for people to deliver on.”

Before the pandemic, Scarlett worked with the Joffrey on his piece “Vespertine.” “We had many dreams for future projects with Liam because he wanted to come and create other things for the company,” says Wheater. “We’re also presenting his abstract repertoire piece called ‘Hummingbird’ that is truly magnificent. I think to see two sides of a choreographer like Liam, in his narrative form and then in his abstract form, shows his brilliance.”

I ask Wheater what those of us who grew up watching horror-film versions of “Frankenstein,” such as the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff and its many sequels, should expect. “I think there’s a big difference between horror like ‘Dracula’ and a story like ‘Frankenstein.’ The book is about who we are as people. It’s not as if the Creature is scary. It just happened to be something that Victor Frankenstein created in the true belief of furthering science and mankind. I don’t think it was intentional that the Creature would become a horror character.”

Monsters onstage are nothing new. Béla Lugosi caused a sensation playing “Dracula” on Broadway nearly a century ago before landing the iconic 1931 film role. The Broadway musical version of “The Phantom of the Opera” that opened in 1988 and closed last April is the longest-running show in Broadway history. There have also been the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” opera and musicals, “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Dracula: The Musical” as well as other singing and dancing monsters.

What makes the notion of a “Frankenstein” ballet so enticing, however, is that the Creature, as Mary Shelley calls it, starts off mute. Ballet is mute. Movement is all the Creature has to communicate who he is. “That’s where the language of dance can succeed because it’s so physical and so clear in its storytelling,” says Wheater. “We identify. Our eyes identify with what’s in front of us.”

But the Creature in Scarlett’s vision must communicate by responding to music. “Frankenstein” is set to an orchestral score commissioned from composer Lowell Liebermann that will be performed live each night by the Lyric Opera Orchestra. “Liam worked so closely on the score with Lowell. It’s such a beautiful score. The music follows the narrative beautifully. More and more we’re getting commissioned scores for new full-length works, which is really wonderful and exciting.”

Scarlett’s rendition stays true to the original Shelley story rather than later stage and movie adaptations. “The book is filled with empathy and filled with love. Unrequited love,” Wheater says. “There are so many aspects of it that are humanitarian based. And we feel that throughout the production. Whether it’s between Victor and Elizabeth or Victor and the Creature, it’s so beautifully woven. We have empathy for this Creature that Dr. Frankenstein put together so there is a beautiful moral to the story. And it’s heartbreaking. Because consequences happen. Do we forgive someone those consequences because they didn’t know any better?

“In our art form, we need to expand our storytelling, what the language of dance and ballet can be. ‘Frankenstein’ is such a story that is so relevant to so many people. The book is beautifully written. I think it’s a fantastic story for the stage. I think that every element that is in the production furthers our art form. You know, I think the days of another ‘Swan Lake,’ another ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ another ‘Giselle’—as lovely as they are—we need to move on.

“We need to move forward and show our audiences that there are other ways to access the ballet. You do not need to be an aficionado or a lover of dance to come and embrace this compelling production and story. What this production does is take you into the world of Mary Shelley in the most visually stunning way, beautifully designed by John Macfarlane. It is a tour de force of theater. It has had unbelievable success. And I’m really hoping that every Chicagoan will come out and see this incredible, beautiful epic production.”

Joffrey Ballet’s production of “Frankenstein” runs October 12-22 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets start at $36. More info at

Read the Newcity article here.