Weirdness That Works, Courtesy The Royal Ballet

September 19, 2013

Drastic, hilarious, bizarre—Arthur Pita’s Metamorphosis is not what you’d expect from The Royal Ballet. And yet that’s what the company brought for its first foray to the Joyce Theater. This full-length dance-theater piece was developed at the Linbury Studio Theatre, which is the experimental arm of The Royal Ballet in London. The wit and clarity of the storytelling has something akin to Matthew Bourne’s work. But—different from Bourne—there is absolutely no sexual innuendo. It’s fresh and enthralling in its own way.


Edward Watson in Arthur Pita’s
Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy of The Joyce


The shock of waking up one morning as a different species (thanks to Kafka’s wild imagination), is the impetus that drives the narrative. At almost every moment, the horror is laced with humor and vice versa. But more than that, this is a genuinely moving production.


In the hands of Portuguese choreographer Arthur Pita, dance is used brilliantly in at least three ways. First there is Royal Ballet star Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa. As he says in our “Quick Q&A,” he observed that the source of the creepiness of insects is that there is always something moving on them. Fingers fan out or crumple up and toes flutter constantly. Beyond that, the sense of a person trapped in an insect’s body is visceral and heart-rending. Though Watson’s face is dimly lit, we feel what he’s feeling while his limbs snap, furl, or stiffen of their own accord. When, covered in primeval goop, he tries valiantly to carry his unconscious mother over to her breathing device, your heart goes out to him.


Second, there is his younger sister, who is excited to receive a pair of ballet slippers from her brother. Her progress from being a nearly spastic  beginner to a young lady executing decent tendues to joining in a folk dance with grace, provides a parallel story of transformation. She is played by the very vivid Corey Annand.


Third, the three Bearded Men who come to the Samsa household as boarders dance a Jewish folk dance so liltingly that you almost want to join in. The choreography is both gentle and inventive. These three could be brothers of the bottle dancers in Jerome Robbins’ Fiddler on the Roof.


Watson as Gregor Samsa and Nina Goldman as Mrs. Samsa
Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy The Joyce


Threaded through the movement of both the sister and the Bearded Men are echoes of Gregor Samsa’s movement—a leg as an antenna, an elbow cocked. It’s as if his plight were contagious.


Watson is, as everyone across the pond has said, extraordinary in the central role. But equally good is Corey Annand as his sister. Her little-girl giddiness in the beginning is pure delight, yet somehow contains the dark edge that follows. She is the one in the family who approaches the insect/brother with empathy. And yet at the end, it is she who screams at him in anger—an intensely poignant moment.


This Metamorphosis is both harrowing and heart-rending, both dark and light. Though the plot is outlandish, it leads us to ask questions like, Who am I? What is my relation to my surroundings? How do I react to change?


Although, as I said earlier, this type of performance is hardly what The Royal Ballet is known for, Metamorphosis is a story expertly told. The last time I was in London, I saw the company in Fokine’s Firebird, another story well told. In both cases, the story is so gripping that you really want to know what happens next.


The Metamorphosis designs by Simon Daw, which also go through a transformation, and the eerie music by Frank Moon help make this a complete experience. The production continues until September 29, 2013 at the Joyce.