Event, Reviews

The Phantom Corpse

The human body is composed of a myriad of intricacies and defining traits of the individual, every one with the same basic functionality but never in complete similitude. Stripped of the skin which contours to the body or the hair that denotes a person’s personality, however, a body becomes a specimen. The lack of these humanistic traits creates an absence of association between a human and a body, a concept which is furthered by the decision to separate the physical form from who it used to be in life. In the exhibit, Body Worlds Decoded, multiple human figures stand stripped of these defining characteristics, presented with titles as opposed to names in order to purposefully separate the living audience from the concept of death and mortality.

The Singer
The Singer at Body Worlds Decoded: Tech Museum of San Jose

The singer is displayed with its chest flayed and various muscles separate from the body in order for the audience to see the inner workings, primarily the lung capacity, of an extraordinary human. While the audience is aware that this is the body of someone who was a singer, no other facts about this person are presented, giving the most minimal amount of detail to the life of this corpse so as to present it as not a corpse at all, but a representation of life exposed in a way no living being could be.

Victor Frankenstein acquired the parts for his creature from the graves of churchyards and the bodies of criminals. Like the bodies on display at the Tech Museum, the contributors of limbs, nerves, and organs for the formation of the reanimated creature remain nameless to the reader, as does the creature itself once it is given life. In disassembling these once people, Frankenstein performs the ultimate form of dehumanization both physically and metaphorically in that, he breaks down their human forms as tools and elements to be combined with one another which removes the sense of individualization from each corpse desecrated. In selecting organs for the ideal human, Frankenstein would have been comparing the various bodies, further dehumanizing them by ranking their working parts as quality or insufficient.

Healthy Lungs, Shriveled Lungs at Body Worlds Decoded: The Tech Museum of San Jose

The two representations of lungs presented at “Body Worlds Decoded” are a prime example of what Frankenstein would have required and what, upon discovery, he would have discarded.

Having stripped unnumbered bodies of their physical remains and human status, Frankenstein attempted to create a new type human from this conglomeration of inhuman bits, succeeding to a degree while failing to attain that human status for his creature. Although Frankenstein indeed created life from death and so bestowed a consciousness to a fully formed body, the creature never receives the title or status of human, evidenced by its remaining totally nameless throughout the novel as well as the total separation from the rest of humanity because of its outward appearance as a mass of other humans’ features.

This scientific and analytical perspective of the creature translates seamlessly into the world of artistry and representation. Dehumanized and shunned from humanity as a specimen no longer dead yet unable to claim the title of human, the creature fades between physical and phantasmagorical when represented through visual media. As an accumulation of parts from unnumbered sources, the creature represents multiple persons, yet none at all in this single entity. Bereft of human connection and the ability to rise above the human parts that formed him into inhumanity, the creature exists apart from the living, represented as a being in between the worlds of the scientific dead and the romanticized ideal living.

Waiting in the shadow of the wings, the creature stalks and crawls, watching the dancers perform onstage, unseen by those entranced by the fluidity and grace of those center stage. For them, the creature acts as a phantom, one minute invisible, and the next appearing mid-step alongside his human counterparts. Elusive in his movements and frighteningly sudden in his stage presence, the creature of the San Fransisco Ballet’s “Frankenstein” haunts, not only those onstage, but those in the audience and in the balcony seats, those who see him, and those who don’t.

The Hidden Creature of the “Frankenstein” Ballet

The evolution of the creature throughout the ballet mimics that of the original Frankenstein novel by Mary Shelley in that the creature develops an eloquence in communication by mirroring the actions of others. While the novel portrays the creature as having an eloquence in speech and reasoning, the ballet cannot represent this method of learning and adaptation through spoken word, but rather forces the creature of the novel to adapt further in this visual medium. The way in which this is accomplished is through an evolution in movement. While the creature at first allows the audience the chance to see him in the shadows of the stage, as his character develops, he no longer gives this chance at discovery, but disappears and reappears completely unnoticed, due to his learned eloquence in movement.

The Creature Fleas the Stage in “Frankenstein” Ballet

What the ballet is capable of that the novel is not is audience participation, which the creature encourages by his singular position as a non-participant in the dance. The role of the creature is a liminal, in between, state wherein he is incapable of joining the dance of humanity without disguising his deformity, and so becomes himself an audience member. Because the audience can connect with the creature in this way, whether they know it or not, they seek him out on stage in order to see if he too is there seeing what they are seeing. This somewhat post-modern view of the ballet reflects the process of audience to audience relation, wherein an audience member looks to the side to see if those around them are also witnessing and reacting in similar manner, a process driven by human curiosity. In this way, the creature is always the center of attention, even when he is offstage.

Throughout the ballet, the audience, while interacting with the creature, is experiencing the paranoia of Victor in seeing the creature in all places while every other dancer is unaware even as he dances alongside of them. In contrast to the entirety of the ballet, the final scene ends with the creature center stage as the center of attention in his authentic state as deformed creature, yet with the constant of being alone and singular, unable to participate with the rest of the corps as he is the only one left alive onstage. As the final haunting image, the phantom disappears one last time behind the final curtain drop.

The Final Haunting Image of the Creature in the “Frankenstein” Ballet

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