After the huge success of The Metamorphosis, Arthur Pita’s adaptation of Kafka’s short story, made for the Linbury Studio Theatre – in the bowels of the Royal Opera House – back in 2011, this exciting choreographer’s debut production on the main stage has been eagerly anticipated. The signs have been good. Pita’s choice of Dorothy Scarborough’s desolate story of a young woman from Virginia, transported to the frontier waste lands of Texas, where she suffers prairie madness, is raped and shoots her abuser, seemed to be rife territory for Pita’s unique brand of spectacular dance theatre.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in <i>The Wind</i> © Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017
Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Wind
© Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017

But, as they say, "there’s many a slip between cup and lip"; and somehow the sum of all the many parts that make up The Wind fails to galvanise the brilliance that we have come to expect from this fast-rising choreographer. In particular, the staging is too busy and the stage too cluttered; and my experience would have been greatly improved if the representation of incessant gales across the Texan desert had been handled with more imagination and some subtlety.

Three giant wind machines dominated the stage, like huge one-armed bandits in a Las Vegas casino for giants, only the constant rolling of the three reels was devoid of any fruit, or other symbols, and there was no pay-out whatsoever. For me, these machines ruined the spectacle; occupying too much space and destroying the allusion of nature; suggesting sci-fi machinery in the Wild West landscape that resembled an outtake from Cowboys & Aliens. With a railway track permanently bordering two sides, and the door frame and furniture of a frontier log cabin descending from the flies, the stage becomes so crammed that any suggested illusion of the wide open prairie spaces is gone for good. 

There is much to admire, if only it could break free from these distractions. The introductory silhouettes of the cowboys, solid black against the ochre hues of the desert beyond, was a striking image, and the costumes – by Yann Seabra – created authenticity of place and period, accentuated by the handcar that travels along the railway line; and the spiritual interpretation of the wind, as a spectral indigenous Indian warrior known as Mawarra (The Lost), enigmatically portrayed by Pita’s muse, Edward Watson. Another of the choreographer’s go-to performers, Elizabeth McGorian, brings a commanding presence to the wild woman, Cynthia (based on a real person raised by the Comanche).

As the incomer, Letty Mason, Natalia Osipova managed to carve a meaningful theatrical journey amongst this clutter, arriving wide-eyed and innocent to the “windy city”; meeting and marrying – although, plainly, not loving – a cattle-man, Lige Hightower, played with sensitivity amongst the swagger by Thiago Soares; before being cornered and raped by the predatory Wirt Roddy (the threatening presence of Thomas Whitehead). In a drawn-out dénouement, Mason shoots Roddy dead; although this happens so far stage-left that only part of this key action is visible to those in the auditorium’s right wing.   

There are excellent performances and several glimpses of Pita’s brilliant sense of theatre but much of this is blown away by those infernal wind machines.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in <i>The Illustrated Farewell</i> © Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017
Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in The Illustrated Farewell
© Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017

The triple bill had opened with another new, or rather, refurbished work in Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’, augmenting her piece to the final two movements of Haydn’s 45th Symphony (nicknamed The Farewell) choreographed for the Joffrey Ballet, in 1973, by front-ending it with the prequel of a long duet for Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb. As ever, they make a delightful pair and their marathon duet poses no problem of endurance, as Tharp mixes lyrical classical movement with quirky gestures (there’s even a “high five”) that sits especially well on the natural insouciance of McRae.  

It feels – unsurprisingly – like two ballets sewn together, an effect that Tharp attempts to mitigate by bringing McRae and Lamb back in the closing adagio, dancing high up on a platform hidden in the black backdrop – a surprising coup de théâtre – as if a distant memory for Mayara Magri and Joseph Sissens, dancing below. The symphonic conceit of The Farewell is that Haydn gradually reduced his orchestra during the final movement and the final moments of Tharp’s choreography might have worked better with Sissens (a fast emerging talent) dancing the sorrowful last section alone.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in <i>Untouchable</i> © Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Untouchable
© Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017
Untouchable, Hofesh Shechter’s debut work for The Royal Ballet, from 2015, returned for a second run and seemed more satisfying, perhaps because its première was sandwiched between two modern classics (Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and MacMillan’s Song of the Earth). Here, the contrast with the two preceding ballets played to its advantage. Shechter achieves arresting imagery from a large ensemble of anonymous players. This twenty-strong androgynous group produced compelling patterns, coordinating their different actions into a fluid kaleidoscope of movement and bringing them together as if a single organism.  

The choice of Tharp to open this programme with a “new work” was a fascinating statement, whether accidental, or intended, since her Mr Worldy Wise, which premiered in 1995, before sinking without a trace, was famously to remain the last new work on the main stage for The Royal Ballet by a woman for over 20 years. This return to the company represented the second consecutive new ballet by a woman, following on from Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern, earlier this year. Perhaps times really are a-changing!