Moving monster: How artistic director Jean Grand-Maître stitched together a modern telling of a horror classic

Frankenstein (Dancer Zacharie Dun) // Paul McGrath
Frankenstein Alberta Ballet
Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Oct 31 – Nov 2

When artistic director of Alberta Ballet Jean Grand-Maître decided he wanted to do Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for his first horror ballet, he originally designed a period piece—with top hats, horse carriages, and everything in between. It wasn’t until he met with the other designers that he decided to modernize the story of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. 

“We decided that if we were to create another top-hat period piece of Frankenstein, people would forget it,” Grand-Maître says. “So I had to change everything and modernize it. It was easy because the story is still relevant today. I mean, as Picasso said, ‘Art must be dangerous.’”

Rather than setting the story in 18th Century Italy and Germany like the novel, the creation of the ballet’s monster takes place at Harvard University. The story then moves to Jasper and ends up at weather station in the Northern Yukon.

In order to modernize the science in the ballet, Grand-Maître researched the modern science for mutation, life replication, and cloning. 

“I was just reading that at Yale University they brought a pig’s brain back to life. So how close are we getting?” he says. “You hear about genetic mutations in other countries where tunnel vision and science seem to be running amok. I’ve heard of human genes even being mixed with rat genes, all sorts of horrible things going on.”

Simply, science isn’t always white and pure, looking for the betterment of mankind. No, much like Mary Shelley predicted, it can be very sinister—especially if you extrapolate the darker side of science into a novel.

Frankenstein // Paul McGrath

“Victor Frankestein is essentially playing god and looks to bring a corpse back to life from assembled parts. Today if you’re at medical school you can actually order parts and they arrive in cooler boxes to your apartment,” Grand-Maître says.

The reason Shelley’s novel has remained a cult classic is its lasting relevance 201 years later.

“Chemistry and physics were just exploding when she wrote it,” he says. “There was the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and it created this fear of science in society. She wrote the first science fiction novel ever written all at the age of 18 and many scholars say that she also created the first myth since the early Greeks, with the creature.”

As for the movement of the creature in the ballet, Grand-Maître wanted to tell the tragic story of the monster through dance. In his research, he found an interpretation of the story from director/monster fanatic Guillermo del Toro. 

“Monsters for him can represent something in humanity that no other story can tell,” Grand-Maître says. “He thought Frankenstein’s monster was the most moving and beautiful of all monsters because he was born without asking to be born.”

In the actual novel the creature starts off vegetarian, living on nuts and fruits. It’s not until he is shunned by society and his creator that he begins a rampage built on carnage and hate. 

“So you can tell that in movement,” he says. “All of the scenes with the monster had to be very supernatural in aesthetic to create fear. Mary Shelley doesn’t describe the way we see him move. She describes him being able to scale a mountain at incredible speed. So the movement has to be powerful and agile but also very non-human. It has to be broken up. We worked a lot with staccato rhythms and he evolves throughout the show.”

Aptly, opening night of the ballet is Halloween and Grand-Maître encourages guests to dress up for the costume contest and be prepared for a few frightful shrieks. 

“People who come to horror come for horror and it’s very difficult to scare someone 60 feet away from you. The psychology of Shelley’s story is a slow descent into hell so the ballet moves that way too.”

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