Royal Ballet triple bill review – five stars for Crystal Pite

Royal Opera House, London
The Canadian choreographer cuts to the heart with the Royal Ballet’s first new work by a female dance-maker in 18 years

The Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite is one of the finest dance-makers on the world stage. Her works address the human condition with fearlessness and compassion, and find light in the darkest night of the soul. Unsurprisingly, Pite is one of the dance world’s most sought-after artists, so it is no small triumph that the Royal Ballet has commissioned a new work from her. Entitled Flight Pattern, the work deals with the plight of refugees and displaced communities. It’s an important piece, and Thursday’s first night was lent added significance by the astonishing and dismaying fact that Pite is the first woman to choreograph for Covent Garden’s main stage this century.

Flight Pattern isn’t long, but it cuts to the heart. To the opening chords of Górecki’s Third Symphony, we discover a roiling, swaying phalanx of grey-clad figures. Three columns of 12, nervously scenting the air. Skirmishes break out, frantic couplings occur. What drives the lines forward we don’t know; perhaps simply the instinct to keep moving. They are at once a wave of humanity, and the storm-blown waves of a sea that may claim their lives.

They reach a way station, and undress in cowed unison. Kristen McNally performs a distraught duet with Marcelino Sambé, after which the others load her with their coats. She collapses, the ensemble swirling about her. Snow falls, and the lines move upstage, passing through a dark and ever-narrowing portal. McNally cannot go on, and subsides to the ground, where she rocks and shivers anguishedly. Sambé, staying with her, launches into a convulsive whirl of movement, a last mute cry of fury as darkness falls.

Crystal Pite talks about Flight Pattern

Flight Pattern is a sombre and deeply affecting work, and it’s gratifying to see McNally given her due as the fine dance actor that she is. The piece is clearly resonant in the context of world events, but it also raises profound questions about the identity and direction of the Royal Ballet. Should the company be staging work whose style is so far removed from classical ballet?

The issue has been much argued over, but the current triple bill, in which Pite’s piece is preceded by ballets by David Dawson and Christopher Wheeldon, makes one thing abundantly clear. Classical choreography, in its current and overwhelmingly male iteration, has painted itself into a very tight corner indeed. The Human Seasons (Dawson), and After the Rain (Wheeldon) are skilfully made works, and they are very well danced by the Royal. But for all the flawless dovetailing of their construction, repeated viewing of these and similar ballets confirms that this is not art but product.

Marcelino Sambé, Marianela Nuñez and Claire Calvert in The Human Seasons by David Dawson.
Marcelino Sambé, Marianela Nuñez and Claire Calvert in The Human Seasons by David Dawson. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

High-end product, naturally, as befits its context. Like expensively finished pieces of tech, all streamlining and organic contours, these works are objects of desire. But they are also empty, requiring that we ourselves charge them with our preoccupations. Where Flight Pattern throws open vast enfilades of inquiry and feeling, Dawson’s and Wheeldon’s works offer crystalline, but merely reflective, surfaces. There’s no resonance, no existential echo.

That work of this kind now fills the repertoire of the world’s ballet companies is profoundly dispiriting. It’s as if an entire creative dimension has simply been deemed unnecessary. The work, you are constantly told, is about itself. It is “about dancing”. Entire choreographic careers are now built on the luxurious, hyper-designed packaging of dance technique. On work that risks nothing, because it says nothing, and whose values, particularly vis-a-vis gender, are deeply conservative, in that the more prominent a female dancer is, the more likely she is to be lifted, manipulated and otherwise ungrounded by men. In this context, Pite’s multi-dimensional work is more than justified, it is essential.

Star ratings (out of 5):
Flight Pattern ★★★★★
The Human Seasons ★★★
After the Rain ★★★

• The Human Seasons/ After the Rain/ Flight Pattern are in rep at the Royal Opera House, London until 24 March


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill – review

Wheeldon, McGregor and Scarlett offer something old, new and gothically blue, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

14, Apr, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill – review

The outstanding Steven McRae evokes Baryshnikov in Frederick Ashton's demanding Rhapsody, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

20, Mar, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill | Dance review

Royal Opera House, London
The combination of McGregor, Wheeldon and Balanchine is all about glamour, deviancy and artifice, writes Judith Mackrell

Judith Mackrell

25, May, 2010 @9:40 PM

Article image
The Royal Ballet: Triple Bill: Viscera, Infra, Fool's Paradise – review
For all its accomplished abstraction, this mixed bill from Covent Garden's in-house choreographers could be more contemporary, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

11, Nov, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
The Royal Ballet: 21st-Century Choreographers review – racing out of the blocks
Works by Christopher Wheeldon, Crystal Pite and rising star Kyle Abraham reveal a company eager to pursue expressive and exciting directions

Lyndsey Winship

19, May, 2021 @10:45 AM

Article image
The Winter's Tale review – 'a ballet to keep'

For Christopher Wheeldon and for British ballet, everything was hanging on his new full-length work. Happily, for the most part it's a ravishing success, writes Luke Jennings.

Luke Jennings

12, Apr, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Within the Golden Hour/ Medusa/ Flight Pattern – review
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s new ballet Medusa is the tame centre of this Royal Ballet triple bill

Roslyn Sulcas

12, May, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Black Ballet; Royal Ballet review – a mixed bag and beauty in motion
The dancers shone in a double bill to mark 20 years of Cassa Pancho’s company, while at Covent Garden Kyle Abraham’s new work was suffused with longing

Sarah Crompton

03, Apr, 2022 @8:00 AM

Royal Ballet triple bill – a purely surface rendering of Auden’s Age of Anxiety
Liam Scarlett’s new ballet only skims the surface of Auden’s Age of Anxiety, writes Luke Jennings

Luke Jennings

16, Nov, 2014 @12:05 AM

Article image
Royal Ballet triple bill review – yet more sexual violence
This mixed programme – including a piece with yet another rape scene – suggests the Royal Ballet’s commissioning policy needs a total overhaul

Luke Jennings

12, Nov, 2017 @8:00 AM