Good ideas for dance seem to come along in pairs. Following Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein, Akram Khan’s Creature – also to be based on Mary Shelley’s gothic novel – has recently been announced for English National Ballet’s next season; and hot on the heels of Jasmin Vardimon’s Medusa (2018) comes a ballet of the same name by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Natalia Osipova (Medusa) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Natalia Osipova (Medusa)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Anything by Cherkaoui is to be keenly anticipated, even more so for his first work at the Royal Ballet, and the Medusa mythology offered huge potential for innovation around an exciting narrative. Anyone who has seen Clash of the Titans (in either its 1981 or 2010 incarnations) will be aware of the latter part of Medusa’s story, as the serpent-haired, hideous monster who turns men to stone with her stare, only to be tricked and beheaded by Perseus. Medusa’s back story, as a beautiful goddess raped by Poseidon and then viciously transformed by a jealous Athena, is less familiar. It is a #MeToo story handed down from mythology.

Cherkaoui chose to interpret the whole Medusa myth although his treatment is sometimes ambiguous and not helped by aspects of the design. After Athena’s punishment, the change in Medusa is just a bad hair day. Far from serpents writhing around in her hair, it looks as if she got caught in the rain. And the regular raising and lowering of columns from the flies was a distraction that broke the work’s momentum, leading to surprisingly flat portions.

Olivia Cowley (Athena) and Natalia Osipova (Medusa) © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Olivia Cowley (Athena) and Natalia Osipova (Medusa)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Natalia Osipova did her best to convey the two sides of Medusa: both the winsome priestess, who unwittingly seals her fate by offering a silk scarf as a token of good luck to Perseus; and the vengeful gorgon, overcoming the recalcitrant hairdo with her piercing stare and deadly kicks. Olivia Cowley stole her scenes in a glorious incarnation of the goddess, Athena; Ryoichi Hirano was the abuser, Poseidon; and Matthew Ball, the heroic Perseus (albeit in a costume that seemed incongruous to the role).

Cherkaoui’s eclectic choreography incorporated neoclassical ballet; ground-based writhing; street-style movement pulsing through bodies like electric current; and deadly capoeira-style kicks. No turning men to stone for this Medusa: she kicks them to death with razor-sharp feet, mixed with neck-breaking twists that would have made Buffy the Vampire Slayer proud! Osipova’s final duet with Ball is like an Apache dance in reverse, with Medusa battering Perseus relentlessly until he tricks and beheads her (although here, it is more like a scalping) with the gorgon’s dying agonies poignantly observed by Osipova.

As in the mythology, there is some suggestion that the winged horse, Pegasus, springs from her neck but if that was represented here, it passed me by completely. There appears to be subliminal content that might gain in clarity with further viewings and Cherkaoui’s Medusa has much to commend, particularly it its imagery, which was reminiscent in its mannered style to José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Ryoichi Hirano in <i>Within the Golden Hour</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Lauren Cuthbertson and Ryoichi Hirano in Within the Golden Hour
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

This world premiere was enveloped by two modern works that are standing the test of time. Firstly, a revival of Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour; a gorgeous suite of dances to a set of string works by Ezzio Bosso plus a section of a Vivaldi violin concerto. It is a ravishing work, made even more so by Jasper Conran’s shimmering costumes, beautifully offset by Peter Mumford’s ever-changing coloured light shading against the backdrop.

The dances are varied in terms of pace and personnel. Three very different duets for the leading couples are interlaced with group dances, engaging four supporting couples. Wheeldon’s choreography is always strongly influenced by his love of theatre, mixing fluid classical movement in varying moods and style but without ever losing momentum. There is no time to think about dinner while watching a work by Wheeldon.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in <i>Flight Pettern</i> © ROH | Tristram Kenton
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pettern
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The evening finished with a welcome early revival of Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. Inspired by the interminable refugee crisis, it is a superb ensemble work, building upon Pite’s considerable capacity to interpret in group dance the emergent movements of nature. Like a murmuration of starlings, or the coordinated waves of sea anemones, the 36 dancers move like a single organism for large swathes of the piece: anonymous, desperate, homogeneous in their uniform grey coats. Eventually, the focus shifts to the plight of just two, Kristen McNally and Marcelino Sambé, ending on a poignant image of enduring despair.

The music in both Medusa (Purcell, supplemented by Olga Wojciechowska's electronic composition) and Flight Pattern (set to music from Górecki’s sublime, haunting Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) is punctuated by dreamlike vocals. Ailish Tynan (soprano) and Tim Mead (countertenor) for the former and Francesca Chiejina (soprano) investing sorrow into Górecki.

***11