The world premiere of Medusa is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s 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, Beyoncé videos and much else. It’s possible he is spreading himself too thinly, certainly on the evidence of this piece.
The beautiful priestess Medusa (Natalia Osipova) is raped by Poseidon and punished by Athena, who turns her into the snake-haired Gorgon. There’s some first night untidiness and unstable partnering, but the real problems lie in the clarity of storytelling. I’m no fan of watching women be raped on stage, but the nature of Medusa and Poseidon’s encounter is unclear. A groin-centred shiver from Medusa at first suggests something consensual. Later, Matthew Ball’s Perseus dances a pas de deux close enough to Medusa’s face to get snake-bitten but it’s not obvious how he’s protected from her stony gaze. It feels as if not enough time has been spent with these characters, or on their connections, and it’s in the connections between people that stories exist.
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 Perseus’s ribs. Cherkaoui’s 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 bill’s other ballets effortlessly rescue the evening. Christopher Wheeldon’s 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 ballet’s go-to, but remains measured, meditative and dreamily wistful. He shows real class.
Finally, as arresting as on its debut in 2017, is Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern, an important work that gets under the skin. It depicts the flight of refugees to the sound of Górecki’s 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 doesn’t 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. It’s a work that is genuinely moving and quietly brutal.
At the Royal Opera House, London, until 21 May