There was a particularly rapt hush at Covent Garden on Thursday evening in the moments before Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern began – and small wonder. For one thing, this is the Royal Ballet’s first new main-stage work by a woman in 18 years. For another, the 46-year-old contemporary choreographer has, in recent years, delivered a succession of first-rate pieces (for her own troupe, Kidd Pivot, and others), whereas most of the Royal Ballet’s new works of late have been duds. Might the Canadian be the person to stop the rot?
Gosh yes. As its title suggests, this 30-minute piece was inspired by the refugee crisis that rages still. “It’s my only way of coping with the world at the moment,” Pite told me recently, and the result is a dark, dreamlike, profoundly empathetic portrayal of people in limbo between their necessarily abandoned homeland and a still-distant better future.
A piece knowingly relevant to countless, tragically repeated periods of history, it plays out to the brooding, palindromically structured first movement of Górecki’s third symphony, in Tom Visser’s artfully maintained twilight.
It begins with all 36 cast members huddled together in tight rows, staring blankly up at a high, mist-shrouded point of light. They rock backwards and forwards, occasionally shoot glances about them, fall in and out of line.
Together with their completely colourless garb, the effect is of people drained of all identity by their predicament. And yet they're lent considerable dignity by the poetic ripples of their shared movement, and - increasingly, as the piece progresses - by the touching friction between the dancers' stolidly planted feet and the hope implicit in their outstretched arms.
A tall fissure opens up at the back of the stage (the work of designer Jay Gower Taylor, also Pite’s husband), the gate to some kind of holding pen. Once in, their body-language is initially even more hunched, self-protective, forlorn. But soon – in a more dance-theatrical passage – each person is trying to eke out a bed space, a tiny plot they can call their own, while the shared, oh-so-subtle pulse to their movement here feels like a collective heartbeat that refuses to be extinguished.
Although there are no principal dancers, the spotlight soon falls on one couple: Kristen McNally and Marcelino Sambé. I won’t say exactly how, but their central vignette – as soprano Francesca Chiejina’s voice soars – suggests a devastating loss that, by the stunning, snow-speckled close, appears to have laid waste to their hopes. (McNally cuts a tragically dignified figure; Sambé is astonishing in his closing paroxysms of despair.)
Pite’s marshalling of this huge ensemble is remarkable – never more than in the marginally more upbeat, expansive passage that seems to reflect the characters’ miraculously indefatigable optimism. Meanwhile, marvellous (and mavellously performed) choreographic flourishes abound: the groups repeatedly trying to break out of the fold but suddenly freezing in formation, exactly like water turning to ice, come most readily to mind.
In short, Pite really seems to understand these dancers – and they, her. Together, they've created a heart-rending but extraordinarily beautiful emotional odyssey that nevertheless seems to pass in the blink of an eye.
Preceding Flight Pattern is Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Created in 2005 for New York City Ballet, this blissfully spare abstract piece (to music by Arvo Pärt) is here given its full dues by the sextet in the first half and, supremely, by Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in the second. Here, Wheeldon channels Pärt’s shimmering Spiegel im Spiegel (“The Miror in the Mirror”) into an exquisitely intimate slow-motion duet to which the former husband-and-wife bring an almost overwhelming tenderness and poignancy.
The Human Seasons (2013), by David Dawson, is the weak link of the evening. This gently melancholic, Keats-inspired look at the passing of the years has a good score by Greg Haines, a limpid second movement, and also inspires some strong performances: as in After the Rain, Claire Calvert shines out especially for the generous expressiveness of her dancing. But in this company, it looks fussy, unfocused, less than the sum of its parts.
So, an evening of life-cycles and looking-glasses, patterns and palindromes – hardly upbeat, but sleekly done, and with an unmissable new creation at its heart. Go if you can.
In rep until March 24. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk