Crystal Pite finds beauty and bravery with gripping vision of the refugee crisis
Dance Royal Ballet triple bill Royal Opera House, London
It’s been 18 years since a woman last choreographed a ballet for the Opera House main stage. But as Crystal Pite breaks that unconscionably dry spell, the brave, gripping and beautiful work she has created could not be less open to charges of tokenism.
Flight Pattern is set to the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, frequently misinterpreted as a work about the Holocaust. Pite uses its immense, piercing musical landscape to choreograph the refugee crisis that is the humanitarian nightmare of our own times. It’s a daunting subject, risking emotional bombast or trivialisation, and Pite does in fact strike one false note. But for most of the work’s 30 minutes she handles her material with a courage and humanity that are exceptional and entirely convincing.
The ballet is cast for 36 dancers, and during most of it Pite works with the full ensemble. We see them first as a rocking, shuffling huddle of displaced humanity, uniformly dressed in grey, but as they begin to journey in search of safety, Pite brings life to the group. The choreography’s abstraction becomes textured with knotted braids and waves of movement; it is given human variety with small, vernacular gestures that speak of dignity, determination and desperation. And at moments it is punctuated by concentrated vignettes, windows into individual lives that include a flaring, excitable duet for two men, a joyous lovers’ reunion and an almost unbearably harrowing pieta in which one woman (Kristen McNally) discovers that the baby she is cradling is dead.
The work falters only when Pite allows emotion to spill into histrionics. As the ensemble file off stage through a narrowing doorway and into a snow blizzard, Marcelino Sambé is left alone to dance a solo of frantic, frustrated fury. This makes sense, yet musically and stylistically the solo seems untethered to the rest of the choreography, and rather than nailing the ballet’s theme, its anguish feels unearned.
It’s a mystery why certain dancers at certain moments are able to reach out from the stage and steal our souls. When Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares perform the extended duet in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain they actively play down the ballet’s physical dramatics. Yet they are so immersed in each other and in their unravelling currents of trust and communication that we’re drawn in just as deeply. It’s not so much dance we’re watching, but states and shapes of pure emotion.
In David Dawson’s Human Seasons, it’s skidding speeds and pyrotechnic partner work that are designed to impress. Dawson is a seriously inventive choreographer, with a special gift for structure, and this ballet is a lovely showcase for some of the Royal’s junior talent. But the stage is too busy, too clever with steps, and there are moments where Dawson needs to give his choreography the chance to feel and breathe.
Thirty-six dancers begin as a huddle of displaced humanity, but come to life as they search for safety
A ballet for our times … Flight Pattern by Crystal Pite