Choreographer Arthur Pita’s production of The Metamorphosis – I hesitate to call it a ballet, for it is much more than that – is an eerie, thrilling and wonderfully collaborative piece of dance, led most assuredly and most grotesquely by Royal Ballet principal Edward Watson, here touring to the Joyce Theater, New York.

Edward Watson © Danielle McGarry
Edward Watson
© Danielle McGarry

Watson takes on the role of Gregor Samsa in this adaptation of Franz Kafka’s famous novella of the same name, and I cannot help but wonder how much courage it must’ve taken for Mr Watson to transform his elegantly sinewy ballet carriage into the angular and monstrous being that he becomes – something part insect, part nightmare. Ballet is an art form usually obsessed with beauty (though more and more choreographers are rightly pushing the boundaries of what can fall neatly into the category of ballet-acceptable), and Mr Pita seems to be throwing all ideas of what a ballet dancer should be doing onstage out the window. Mr Watson crookedly wraps his arms around his legs; he spews a dripping black substance from his mouth and is later completely covered by it; he flexes the ball of his feet again and again, with toes splayed and at a terrifying speed; he slithers across the slick floor and rocks along the length of his spine like some deformed infant. In one powerful moment, Mr Watson, on his knees, contracts his torso into a beautiful and yet horribly exaggerated C-curve, with his arms above his head. He is in profile. Every muscle and vertebra is on display. He is horrifying.

I found myself so completely immersed in Mr Watson’s portrayal of a man who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a monster alternately scorned and pitied by his family that I didn’t even notice musician Frank Moon crooning insect-esque ambient noises into a mike on the floor with the audience, downstage right. His score is appropriately evil, but it is so filled with tension that I found myself longing for a reprieve after a while.

Simon Daw’s set is magnificent: it can turn on its side; it is starkly white in contrast with Gregor’s vile excretions (how do they clean up such a mess, night after night? The cleaning bill for the costumes alone must be exorbitant, I found myself thinking). Supporting players Nina Goldman as Mrs Samsa and Anton Skrzypiciel as Mr Samsa are well-versed in the three-dimensionality of their characters, with particular unexpected grace and household tension coming from Mr Skrzypiciel. In Pita’s version of this story, Grete Samsa, danced by Corey Annand, is an aspiring dancer; Ms Annand is a talented little actress – I found myself smiling as I watched her bounce her feet up and down, body quivering with excitement, as she watched the door, waiting for Gregor to come home from his traveling salesman job early on in the piece. Her transformation from a stiff and clumsy beginner ballerina to a young lady with considerable talent is one of the few moments of humor in the show.

This lack of comedic relief seemed to settle heavily on the audience – even when the bearded boarders, prim and exacting, arrived on the scene, I felt too weighed down by Gregor’s grief (he slithers on the right side of the stage or crouches in its shadows throughout the entire piece) to let myself relax and smile. Mr Pita’s transitions from drama to comedy were far too abrupt. His moments of partnering felt forced, too: Ms Annand, in particular, was lifted again and again by characters in moments that felt like Mr Pita just wanted to stretch his pas de deux choreography legs, without regard to the rest of the piece.

But these moments are easily forgotten in the face of Mr Watson’s flailing limbs and utter panic. He is a genius in this role.