Royal Ballet: Within the Golden Hour / Medusa / Flight Pattern review monsters and melancholy

Crystal Pite reinvents the corps de ballet, alongside Christopher Wheeldons classy meditation and a flawed world premiere by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

The world premiere of Medusa is Sidi Larbi Cherkaouis first commission for the Royal Ballet. The Belgian-Moroccan choreographer has made brilliant works in the contemporary sphere, for his own company and others, all while serving as artistic director at Royal Ballet of Flanders, performing himself, and working on feature films, Beyonc videos and much else. Its possible he is spreading himself too thinly, certainly on the evidence of this piece.


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    The beautiful priestess Medusa (Natalia Osipova) is raped by Poseidon and punished by Athena, who turns her into the snake-haired Gorgon. Theres some first night untidiness and unstable partnering, but the real problems lie in the clarity of storytelling. Im no fan of watching women be raped on stage, but the nature of Medusa and Poseidons encounter is unclear. A groin-centred shiver from Medusa at first suggests something consensual. Later, Matthew Balls Perseus dances a pas de deux close enough to Medusas face to get snake-bitten but its not obvious how hes protected from her stony gaze. It feels as if not enough time has been spent with these characters, or on their connections, and its in the connections between people that stories exist.

    Lauren
    Lauren Cuthbertson and Ryoichi Hirano in Christopher Wheeldons Within the Golden Hour. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

    Osipova, a dancer who gives everything, is emoting her heart out without a real sense of purpose or nuance. Her Medusa is a straight-up baddie, her vengeance manifested by bitterly kicking a pointe shoe into Perseuss ribs. Cherkaouis movement is effective in mood-making (if not always very choreographically interesting), with snaky bodies writhing, a sensual cat-like curl and stretch, and lots of twisting and tangling arms. The stage is stylish, with a mean Medusa in black and red against a putty-coloured set and cast apart from Olivia Cowley as imperious Athena, in a gold-and-white cut-out costume two buns short of Princess Leia. The music alternates Purcell arias with the atmospheric swells and glitches of electronic composer Olga Wojciechowska, and it works. But there is no rigour here when it comes to the things that really matter.

    Thankfully, this triple bills other ballets effortlessly rescue the evening. Christopher Wheeldons Within the Golden Hour is a cascade of loveliness, musical bodies shimmering across a richly coloured stage that glows like something precious. It centres on a series of duets, most notably Lauren Cuthbertson and Ryoichi Hirano sinking into a slow pas de deux that never defaults into the kind of melancholy yearning that is often ballets go-to, but remains measured, meditative and dreamily wistful. He shows real class.

    Kristen
    Quietly brutal Kristen McNally in Flight Pattern by Crystal Pite. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


     

    Finally, as arresting as on its debut in 2017, is Crystal Pites Flight Pattern, an important work that gets under the skin. It depicts the flight of refugees to the sound of Greckis Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, music that mirrors its protagonists, always moving forward but never arriving. Pite is a genius choreographer. She has no need for drawn-out and tortured emoting; she can put a lump in your throat with a single well-chosen gesture. She doesnt do fiddly steps, but pulls motion and intention through the whole length of the body, toe to crown. She reinvents the corps de ballet, a body morphing en masse, reshaping the architecture of the stage. Most importantly, she makes deeply human work, even when the dancers are mostly anonymous. With clever pull focus, we see churning individuals within the mass, each with history, desire, hope and their own story of loss. Its a work that is genuinely moving and quietly brutal.

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