The Human Seasons / After the Rain / Flight Pattern

Choreography David Dawson, Christopher Wheeldon, Crystal Pite

Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House

From 16 March 2017 to 24 March 2017

Review by Vera Liber

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Can dance show empathy with the plight of others? Is that a silly question? As if the arts haven't always done that. Dostoevsky’s humiliated and insulted are always with us and amongst us.

Or is it as much use to those fleeing tyranny, wars of attrition and poverty as ineffectual politicians who wring their hands and mouth platitudes? There’s the rub. Can contemporary dance choreographer Crystal Pite do it justice? Is she at the risk of being accused of exploitation, poverty porn?

It’s a subject that won’t go away and she seizes it with her usual integrity. Who wouldn't seize a Royal Ballet commission—contemporary dance has infiltrated the Royal Opera House, but when was the last time a woman was asked to choreograph for the main stage? Eighteen years ago, I’m told.

Who better than safe bet, award-winning (a Critics’ Circle Award for Polaris at Sadler’s Wells; an Olivier in 2015) Pite? She has performed with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt and Ballet British Columbia, has choreographed for many companies at home in Canada, where she has her own company Kidd Pivot, and in Europe.

In Metropolis film shuffle thirty-six dancers from amongst the youngest in the company sway, inch, ripple, and later skate, across the stage: the power of numbers, and the threat. Like albatrosses, wings wide, they fly; flock like starlings; plait together like chevron knit fencing.

In shades of Van Gogh grey, they look down, search the ground, look up to the sky, and on they go, heavy and weary, bas reliefs of some forgotten campaign, Soviet gulag victims stepping into the whirlwind. Pite’s hunched signature is not unlike Hofesh Shechter’s. The half hour flies by, like life itself, in the blink of an eye. Should destitution be made shabby-chic beautiful, for beautiful Flight Pattern is, in order to touch hearts?

A no man’s land, bleak, unwelcoming, there’s a chink of light in heavy doors the full height of the stage (set design Jay Gower Taylor, Pite's husband). Is it a Pied Piper trick, will it lead only to their demise? Lying down, shed clothes become bedding, but one woman can’t lie down, her child (a blanket bundle in her arms) is dead. Kristen McNally, pale and heartbreakingly gaunt, spine like a ridge of mountains, is the symbol of the Madonna lamenting for her son. More bundles are piled in her arms. Weep for them.

Soprano Jennifer Davis sings Henryk Górecki’s sorrowful song from his Third Symphony, popularly know as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, inspired by a text from WWII on a Polish prison wall. Do cattle trucks still await?

The doors open wide, light streams down—false hope? I think of Nazi camp fake showers. Snowfall decorates the night, the doors close, the woman and her man are left behind: she slumped rocking back and forth on the ground, he tearing his hair in angry despair. The muted duet between McNally and Marcelino Sambé (hair matted) is stark and desolate. McNally is magnificent.

Not an evening of joy, but of contemplation. The two very similar, neo-classical short ballets, that come before Flight Pattern set the tone. Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, created for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet in 2005 to mark Soto’s retirement and a time of change for both, is an elegiac twenty-minute piece.

I see the second cast, all first artists and soloists, but for principal Zinaida Yanowsky, soon to retire, paired with first artist Reece Clarke: maturity and youth, they are a fine fit.

To Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, visualized by lighting designers, 59 Productions, as a glowing blue square on grey frame light back projection (think Bauhaus Joseph Albers), three sleek couples evoke in fleeting partnering irregular rain pattering geometry.

Dark light changes to dawn’s peach and lilac, sun after the storm, the mood becomes more intimate; hair loose, Yanowsky in pink leotard and soft shoes now, Clarke bare-chested. She the prow of his ship, in backbend a table under which he slips, Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, mirror in mirror, sustains their intimate bedroom duet.

David Dawson’s The Human Seasons, inspired by Keats’s eponymous poem, opens the triple bill with the algebraic geometry of relationships: females manoeuvered by males, who wipe and polish the floor with them, carry them like lifeless effigies.

Objectified accessories, Akane Takada, Francesca Hayward, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Yasmine Naghdi do their best at the hands of their beaux, but perhaps because of little outstanding star power amongst the male second cast I fail to appreciate it as much as I did on first viewing. It all looks like hard work, this life of ours. Dawson’s subjects pass through it in stoic resolve on Eno Henze’s (Barnett Newman crossed with Dan Flavin) abstract expressionistic monochrome set.