Within the Golden Hour/ Medusa/ Flight Pattern – review

Royal Opera House, London
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s new ballet Medusa, with Natalia Osipova in the title role, is the tame centre of this Royal Ballet triple bill

A woman is raped, then blamed for her fate. Society makes a monster of her, but gives her the power of revenge, which is ultimately not enough. That is the version of a famous Greek myth that the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui tells in Medusa

, his first work for the Royal Ballet. In many ways, the ballet is a departure for Cherkaoui, a choreographer with a protean facility who has directed and choreographed operas, plays, films and an upcoming Broadway musical (Jagged Little Pill), worked with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and runs his own company as well as the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

Cherkaoui’s dance pieces tend to be complicated, swirling with big ideas about religion, culture and evolution, permeated by recited texts and stylised gesture, and packed with his distinctively slippery, bonelessly flexible movement that melds street dance with more formal techniques.

But the one-act Medusa, a world premiere in a programme with Christopher Wheeldon’s ravishing Within the Golden Hour (2008) and Crystal Pite’s rather worthy Flight Pattern

(2017), is a tamer and more contained affair. The ballet, set to songs by Purcell and an electronic score by Olga Wojciechowska, straightforwardly tells the story of the temple handmaiden (Natalia Osipova) who is raped by Poseidon (Ryoichi Hirano) and punished by the goddess Athena (Olivia Cowley). She is turned into a monster whose head of writhing snakes turns anyone who looks at her to stone, and eventually allows (in this version) the soldier Perseus (Matthew Ball) to kill her, liberating spirit.

The ballet opens with Athena’s handmaidens ascending and descending the shallow stairs at the back of the stage, framed by two tall pillars. The design, by Cherkaoui, is simple and effective (later, more pillars descend), the lighting (Adam Silverman) shimmeringly beautiful, the women’s draped oyster satin dresses (Olivia Pomp) gorgeous. Cherkaoui’s choreography is balletic, patterned, competent, but curiously unremarkable in this opening section, when it’s at first hard to distinguish Osipova from her fellow handmaidens. When Poseidon accosts Medusa, it’s the most tasteful rape in the history of dance, their bodies folding elegantly into one another, Osipova swirled on to and off Hirano’s back, then discarded on the floor.

Ryoichi Hirano and Natalia Osipova in Medusa.
Ryoichi Hirano and Natalia Osipova in Medusa. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The ballet is clearly intended as a vehicle for Osipova, but never quite becomes one, although the ballerina is never less than fully engaged with Cherkaoui’s movement, with its emphasis on sinuous upper body complexity and tangling, writhing arms. She is more convincing in her monstrous incarnation, wearing a rather tepid snake headdress, as she dominates a group of masked and helmeted soldiers (in sheer boilersuits of dubious allure). Here, Cherkaoui displays his most interesting choreography, the men skimming the floor on their knees in wheeling, fluid backbends and intricate entwining arms and hands, as they circle the ballerina and countertenor Tim Mead sings What Power Art Thou from Purcell’s King Arthur.

Medusa is a strangely mixed affair; narratively clear, tastefully attractive, partly interesting, partly dull. The ballet is full of awkward transitions and drops in dramatic tension, which feel like decisions made in haste. The final solo for Osipova, to O Let Me Weep (from The Fairy-Queen), is compelling at moments, meandering at others. Perhaps these are fixable flaws.

The piece sits well between its abstract partners on the triple bill. A special word for the endlessly inventive, musical Golden Hour – pretty much a perfect ballet, danced with energy, brio and wit by all.

Star ratings (out of five)
Within the Golden Hour ★★★★★
Medusa ★★★
Flight Pattern ★★★★

Within the Golden Hour/ Medusa/ Flight Pattern is in rep at the Royal Opera House, London, until 21 May

Roslyn Sulcas

The GuardianTramp

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