“Contains themes and imagery relating to infant death that some might find upsetting”. It could be easy to dismiss the innocuous-looking notice displayed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall's foyer but those with a sensitive disposition would do well to steel themselves. Arthur Pita’s The Mother, created for Russian superstar ballerina Natalia Osipova and now receiving its London premiere following performances in Edinburgh and Moscow, is shocking, gory and unrelenting – even for a choreographer whose penchant for dark, twisted storytelling is well known.

Natalia Osipova in <i>The Mother</i> © Kenny Mathieson
Natalia Osipova in The Mother
© Kenny Mathieson

Two years ago, Pita’s double-bill Stepmother/Stepfather combined abuse, murder and suicide with camped-up melodrama to darkly comic effect. By then, we had already witnessed his gift for black humour in works like Facada (2014), Pita’s first piece for Osipova (who revelled in her role as a throat-slitting bride), and Run Mary Run (2017), which saw a stiletto-wearing Osipova and a leather-clad Sergei Polunin jiving their way through a drug-fuelled relationship to The Shangri-Las.

What sets The Mother apart is its unremitting blackness. Then again, Hans Christian Andersen’s story on which it is based – of a mother who tries to prevent Death from taking away her baby – hardly makes for light reading. In her quest, she is gouged by thorns, loses her eyes in a lake and surrenders her beautiful hair. Pita’s synopsis is similarly bleak: she nearly dances herself to death, is ensnared by vicious vines and has her eyes removed with pliers. The South African-born choreographer pulls no punches – perhaps because, as he recently told The Times, his sister lost two children. That he is able to channel the emotional and physical wrench of a bereaved mother through Osipova is astonishing, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Natalia Osipova in <i>The Mother</i> © Anastasia Tikhonova
Natalia Osipova in The Mother
© Anastasia Tikhonova

As the audience enters, Osipova – barely recognisable in a dowdy nightdress, barefoot, her hair loose and lank – paces the stage. Yann Seabra’s set, a semi-circular stage, bathed in lurid light (David Plater is the lighting designer), is a grotty bedroom – yellowing wallpaper, tarnished mirrors and a brass-framed bed. Our eyes are drawn to a cradle and, as the lights dim, we hear a baby crying. The cries become anguished, and Osipova whirls about the stage in repeated spins before collapsing exhaustedly. With no medicine left, she calls for the doctor.

From the minute he arrives in white coat and spectacles, it’s clear that the baby’s in danger. After sedating Osipova, he exchanges the child for old rags and takes it away. Jonathan Goddard exudes an air of malevolence – his movements are jerky and he frog-jumps, Puck-like, into the air with viciously pointed feet and elbows. When Osipova wakes and the rags unravel in her arms, she screams. Thunder rolls, lightning flashes, and the gothic nightmare begins.

Goddard is a revelation, both as dancer and actor. When the stage revolves to reveal a masked Russian peasant woman cradling a crying baby (it’s actually a radio), the Rambert-trained dancer is bustling and insistent, forcing Osipova to keep dancing by walloping saucepans with a wooden spoon. The choreography has a traditional, Russian folk-like flavour, mirrored by stomping music with hints of the balalaika. Composers Frank Moon and Dave Price are on either side of the stage, surrounded by percussion instruments, ocarinas, xylophones, guitars, flutes and violins which they play as required (on top of singing, beatboxing and whistling), providing a responsive, live accompaniment that fluctuates between wordless vocal music, liturgical chant, lyrical melody and atmospheric soundscape.

Jonathan Goddard and Natalia Osipova in <i>The Mother</i> © Kenny Mathieson
Jonathan Goddard and Natalia Osipova in The Mother
© Kenny Mathieson

When Osipova returns to her bedroom, she finds it overgrown. Now Goddard is a gardener, dressed in a black frock, killer keels and a hat with a veil – but wielding giant shears and a garden kneeler. Soon Osipova is wrapped in spiky brambles which draw blood; for the rest of the ballet she remains blood-spattered. Other gruesome scenes include Death nonchalantly transporting a wheelbarrow of babies across the stage, and a derelict bathroom where the ferryman steals Osipova’s eyes to the ominous sound of a dripping tap. We return here for the climax when Death – Goddard again, wearing a head stocking and black bodysuit, and slithering about the tiled floor like Spiderman – plunges a gloved hand into the bath and pulls out a dripping-wet, lifeless, naked body of a baby. It’s a sickening moment. When he yanks it away from Osipova’s outstretched arms, she convulses as if the child had been ripped out of her body.

The choreography is occasionally striking: the tenderness of the pas de deux between Osipova and her soldier-lover; the nimble, unison footwork of Osipova and the Grey Witch; the slipping and sliding of Death around the bathtub; and Osipova’s sensuous undulations and languid leg extensions as she recalls the first throes of romance and cradles her imaginary baby. But Osipova’s steps often fail to express the emotions we see etched on her face.

We return to the opening bedroom scene and see a heavily pregnant Osipova, weighed down with gifts for the baby. Was it all a dream? A premonition? “It’s important to let the audience decide for themselves,” writes producer Alexandrina Markvo in the programme. I was just relieved it was over.

***11