THE LOOP — The spooky season has pervaded Chicago’s cultural offerings this month, from scary movie marathons to pop-up pumpkin patches.
The Joffrey Ballet is not immune, as its adaptation of one of the most influential pieces of 19th-century literature, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” debuts Thursday at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive.
The Chicago premiere of this production features atypical ballet elements like blood, cadavers and plenty of existential angst.
And that’s not the only incongruous notion this production will upend.
“Most people think of Frankenstein as a green creature with bolts coming out of its head,” said Stefan Goncalvez, who read Shelley’s 1818 novel in preparation to portray The Creature.
Thanks to the costume and makeup designers, when the show opens Thursday, he’ll bring to life a sensitive character marred by seeping red scars — someone simultaneously more human and more disturbing than the traditional Universal movie monster that first seeped into our cultural DNA 90 years ago.
To portray the Creature, Goncalvez wears a nude body suit criss-crossed with giant scars. The look was conceived by the internationally renowned Scottish stage designer John Macfarlane, who imagined the sets and costumes.
Meanwhile, Goncalvez’s dark-blond hair is concealed by a bald cap, with wounds and bruises stretching onto his face, thanks to Brittany Crinson, head of hair and makeup at Joffrey Ballet. It’s a troubling depiction of the macabre surgeries of Victor Frankenstein, who stitched a new being from corpses.
Bringing this tragic story to visual life provided the opportunity to flex some creative muscles not often used at Joffrey Ballet, but it’s nothing new for Crinson, who first moved here from Detroit in 2011 to work on wigs and makeup at the Lyric Opera.
“I’ve had the privilege to work on other John Macfarlane designs,” she told Block Club. “My first production at the Lyric was ‘Elektra,’ and that was a bloodbath, so I was thrown into gore. It’s fun to get back into it now.”
Working from drawings done by Macfarlane, Crinson ended up crafting the scars “in a very old-school way, with liquid latex and cotton.” When Block Club met with the Joffrey team at the beginning of October, Crinson and an assistant had only put the makeup on Goncalvez once, for a promotional photo shoot weeks beforehand.
That trial run proved very instructive — in an initially uncomfortable way. The first step was to slick back the dancer’s hair, then cover it with a wig cap, followed by a bald cap. But during that process, 28-year-old Goncalvez experienced an allergic reaction.
“I think [the reaction] was to the glue with the hair gel,” said the Uptown resident. “I have very sensitive skin.” So they started over, using just water to flatten his hair. Eventually they were able to shoot footage for a compelling teaser trailer.
This production will be the Chicago premiere of this version of “Frankenstein,” the brainchild of choreographer Liam Scarlett, who died in 2021.
“When we think about the language of ballet, people tend to think very 19th century: ‘Giselle,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Swan Lake’,” said Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “What is so brilliant about Liam is his unique voice: His dance language is rooted in classicism, but it’s much more contemporary than that.”
Turning the legendary horror/sci-fi tale into a ballet with 54 dancers has driven lots of buzz for The Joffrey. Wheater notes that both single-ticket sales and season subscriptions have increased — a notable feat during a time when many performing-arts companies are struggling.
“At this time of year, everyone’s into Halloween,” observed Crinson, who credits seasonal appetite for some of the increased interest. But the appeal of a 200-year-old story runs deeper than that, she added: “This is a love story. The Creature longs for connection, and he’s not able to get that because of his appearance. Human connection is something people today also have a hard time with.”
“It’s about humanity and how we pre-judge others,” agreed Goncalvez, who grew up in Sao Paolo and came to the U.S. at age 13. He joined the Joffrey in 2015 and has since danced in many productions, including “The Nutcracker,” when he played the toy-to-prince title role.
“Growing up in Brazil, it was very difficult being a dancer, because it’s a very machista [male chauvinist] country,” he said. “I was very much bullied then. People called me names and screamed at me… So I try to channel the feelings I had back then.”
After calling up that vulnerability in rehearsals, “I usually just cry,” Goncalvez says. “I let the feels come out. I remind myself: I’m in a better space now, and I have people who love me.”
The Joffrey Ballet’s Chicago premiere of “Frankenstein” debuts Thursday and runs for ten performances, until Oct. 22, at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets start at $36. For more information, visit joffrey.org.
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