Guest author Matthew Paluch reviews the opening night of Crystal Pite's Light of Passage, her first full-length ballet for The Royal Ballet.
|Title||Light of Passage|
|Company||The Royal Ballet|
|Venue||The Royal Opera House, London|
|Date||18 October 2022|
There's always a de rigueur modern choreographer in the ballet world – in fact, there have been many. Big players: George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, David Dawson… and now Crystal Pite. They all use the danse d'ecole as a basis, though some more obviously than others, with Pite being different in both gender and her more contemporary use of language in the ballet environment.
We haven't seen a huge amount of Pite this side of the Atlantic but 2017 was a good year with Betroffenheit (a complex, successful example of Gesamtkunstwerk) at Sadler's Wells and Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House – her first commission for The Royal Ballet.
Flight Pattern, a choreographic exploration of the ongoing refugee crisis was very well received – Olivier award-winning even – so naturally it returned. First in 2019 and now as the opening movement of Light of Passage, a full-length work of three pieces by Pite using the entirety of Górecki's atmospheric and tranquil ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'. Following Flight Pattern are Covenant, looking at the child and children, and Passage, which examines the journey between life and death, amongst other things.
The ROH blurb highlights Pite's “distinctive movement style” which I feel I somewhat recognise already. Grounded and weighted downstairs; sculptural and abstractly inquisitive upstairs. In the name of research, I attended an Insight evening held in the Clore Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House on 6 October.
An intimate event, it really gave an ‘insight' into Pite, the work and her delivery. She's very inspirational and that's evident in the faces of the people around her. In the working environment she has the perfect balance of rigour and humility, which isn't an easy gig. She's wonderfully positive as well as demandingly precise with her feedback. What's also evident is her desire to understand how the dancers contemplate the embodiment of her movement.
When the ROH sent the performance info pre-premiere it was a little LOL. The show comes down at 9pm, and the new material equates to 30 (?!) mins. So all in all we're getting 60 minutes of dancing. Is this what constitutes a “full-length” work nowadays? The Sleeping Beauty is basically four days long!
So how does everything fare in reality? Either when being revisited or seen for the first time.
Flight Pattern is better than I remember, but still leaves a sense of dissatisfaction. It might have something to do with the sedate dynamic throughout. Both movement and production-wise. The visual palette: fifty shades of grey. Pite uses groups well. She builds tension in space and is a big fan of the canon. Perhaps too much of a fan. Think migrating birds with inflections of insect-style arms as they go. Often seen are slides in socks – something the modern dance scene is a little oversaturated with. I like her use of tableau. Dante vibes. She offers stone and lava in these moments, and both read well.
The Royal Ballet have some good conveyors of Pite's style with Calvin Richardson and Marianna Tsembenhoi standing out from the mass. I was trying to work out why… Use of the head? Kinesphere exploration? Depth of plié?
Kristen McNally has a featured role in the work. She presents a powerful pliability in her spine and conveys the emotional weight one assumes inherent in such an existence. Her partner is Marcelino Sambé. He's the one aspect of Flight Pattern that feels full-energy in conviction – and sadly it feels out of place. No matter how well executed, the heavily informed sedate environment makes it feel OTT and faux, which is a shame.
The close of the piece descends like a non-event, but perhaps that's part of the new bigger plan.
One of the main inspirations for Covenant was The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The convention explains “who children are, all their rights, and the responsibilities of governments”. It seems Pite is thinking about these rights in relation to the young people caught up in the refugee crisis and whether their realities allow for these rights to be even considered, let alone realised.
She spoke fondly of her experience working with the young cast (all Junior Associates of The Royal Ballet School) and remarked on their openness, bravery and presence in the creative process. And she's right to do so as they are super. Such conviction in performance can't be easy for 9 to 11-year-olds in a space as big and daunting as the Royal Opera House. It says a lot about them, and also the way Pite worked with them.
Pite shared her choreographic intention from Covenant in the Insight evening: the adult cast forms structures to create passageways and landscapes for the young cast to navigate in their movement/life journeys. And that's basically the gist. It's impressive in a The Snowman kind of way – ickle people flying through the sky etc. But this approach turns the 16 company dancers into major background fodder. Dressed completely in black they support the young people like puppeteers or glorified stagehands. And any ‘movement' they have we've already seen. Like tableau and canon work.
The backdrop is impressive though. One of reflective light designed by Pite's husband Jay Gower Taylor together with Tom Visser. With red and magnolia hues the abstract images look how one imagines outer space or a celestial endpoint. Covenant is only 10 minutes long, so it comes and goes in a flash. If you're human, kids will always pull at the heartstrings, but the overall impact of the piece isn't majorly powerful or resonant, and has a similar non-finish.
And finally, after a short in-auditorium pause, Passage. Passage addresses mortality and the capability of letting go. Pite also seemed very focused on the concept of the unknown in conversation: where-do-we-go-after-life-as-we-know-it? style contemplation. Her ‘after' is very beige in colour, with long brown paper pillars of light.
The piece opens with an older couple. This of course has a strong visual impact but also feels very similar in tone to the lone skipping child in Covenant‘s opening. Is this all a bit too obvious? Passage has 36 dancers, eight of whom are featured. Richardson is back and moving very expressively again. He's joined by Luca Acri and Benjamin Ella, who also stand out in Flight Pattern. Here Pite gives them a duo which makes no obvious comment or play on sexuality. This isn't easy to do in a ballet company context as so much of the repertoire is visually and narratively heteronormative, so it's intriguing to see partnering between two men that is neither sexual nor testosterone fuelled in its underpinning. Very skilled, original work.
Pite is clearly comfortable choreographing partner work. It features a lot and is consummate, though at times it feels a little relentless in manner. It undulates and rotates endlessly, creating the desire for stillness or more obvious suspension within the phrasing. Something I'd definitely enjoy seeing explored more.
The strongest moment of the evening happens in the last few minutes of Passage. All 36 dancers come together, building slowly, two, four… until all are in unison under wave-like lights. It's the most obvious sighting of the classical lexicon within the whole work. Suspension accessed through elongated pose arabesque, elevation through temps levé, spiral through attitude pirouettes. The impact caused not solely related to balletic connotation but rather the fact it feels like dance.
Pite is brilliant at structure, mood and atmosphere, but at times one craves more actual dancing. It's difficult to explain. She's obviously a dance choreographer as she works with the body and movement, yet what she creates doesn't always feel like dance language. The bodies get from A to B, generally in an interesting way, but it can read more like a detailed commute than dance phrasing: the focus on the ‘what' rather than the ‘how'.
I'm defo here for more. But I need more. Less atmosphere more tangible work. Less style more substance. More filling in the Pite sandwich.