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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
David Jays

Light of Passage at the Royal Opera House: Crystal Pite’s new work is deeply felt and long overdue

Light of Passage

(Picture: ©Tristram Kenton)

If the world wasn’t terrible, this wouldn’t be the Royal Ballet’s first full-length work by a female choreographer in almost 30 years. Crystal Pite’s commission is long overdue and the Canadian choreographer – a contemporary dance whizz for whom classical companies clamour – creates a tender ballet about gateway states of being, set to Henryk Górecki’s pulsing Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

Flight Pattern, Pite’s 2017 Olivier-winner prompted by the refugee crisis, opens the evening. Thirty-six dancers form a huddled mass, alternately with heads thrown back or bodies hunched forward, swaying between hope and dejection.

We’re at some kind of border – the walls inch open, barely enough to sigh through. There’s always another line to join, snaking forward in uncertainty. Individuals clamber through the crowd, and brief moments – a hug, a caress, an arc of distress – hint at the stories within this surging group.

Górecki sets anguished texts about bereaved mothers. An incisive Kristen McNally rocks what seems to be a child, but it no longer lives. She throws herself into a frantic, reckless dive – notable amid the hushed, constrained moves – and charismatic Marcelino Sambé steps in to hold her: partnering as an act of care.

Covenant is inspired by the United National Convention on the Rights of the Child (©Tristram Kenton)

Meanwhile, the ensemble moves onwards. Arms flap wide like wings, then fold protectively. All pass through a final gateway: only McNally and Sambé remain, he spiralling under the force of his own distress. What can we live for? What can we live without? It’s a work of richly resonant questions.

Flight Pattern remains the evening’s intent heart, mined from pragmatic and poetic images but rooted in real-world grit. Pite’s new acts explore childhood in peril and old age in extremis.

Covenant is a vignette of nurturing inspired by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Adults give safe passage to six buoyant young children. They form a bridge across the stage, or corridors through which to skip and chase, stepping aside when required. Tom Visser’s lighting catches their hands, not faces – we focus on their care, their cradle and ballast for vulnerable tots.

Two senior performers join Passage, the final act: Isidora Barbara Joseph and Christopher Havell from the Company of Elders. They curl around each other, shapes taken up by pairs of younger dancers like echoes of their former selves. These young bloods can twist and slide more freely, but all bodies are fallible. When Havell crosses the irrevocable border into death, Joseph shoves dancers aside to reach him, but in vain. They lie like rocks on which her hopes are dashed, but also support her to recover as they lift and reach – life carrying on.

Does Light of Passage feel sentimental? Yes, a bit. But danced with luminous commitment it also makes a reflective and deeply felt meditation on navigating life at our most vulnerable. For the Royal Ballet, too, it’s a rite of passage.

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