A hot beverage is highly recommended before viewing Crystal Pite’s first work for The Royal Ballet; preferably one that is liberally shot through with caffeine. This is not a slight upon Pite’s excellent choreography, more a reflection on the slow, slow, soporific impact of Henryk Górecki’s meandering Symphony No.3 (aptly sub-titled the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which followed Arvo Pärt’s ubiquitous Spiegel im Spiegel; the music for the long, tender pas de deux that occupies the latter half of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. This back-to-back, double dose of musical pathos exaggerated the poignancy of the choreography, as if intense sentiment being rendered by a large trowel.   

Artsists of The Royal Ballet in <i>Flight Pattern</i> © Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017
Artsists of The Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern
© Tristram Kenton | ROH, 2017

Pite is the second choreographer in succession to use the contemporary refugee crisis as inspiration for a new one-act work by The Royal Ballet (following Wayne McGregor’s Multiverse). It is the great global issue of our age but, for me, it seems beyond the reach of dance, particularly when performed in the opulent gold-and-velvet surroundings of The Royal Opera House. No doubting that Pite has created a beautiful, richly-layered and finely-nuanced work but, if anything, it is in spite of the subject that inspired her to make Flight Pattern. This is not refugees suffering – and drowning – in the Mediterranean Sea (the imagery of Multiverse), but more about the tedium of queues at border posts and the anguish of statelessness. It seemed to be about endless waiting; the time in limbo, somewhere between a homeland and an escape.

This world première gives yet more credence to the burgeoning reputation of its creator, particularly in her special strength of moving large numbers of dancers as a single organism. Swarm intelligence has fascinated Pite since her first choreography for a ballet company (Emergence for The National Ballet of Canada, in 2009) and she has taken inspiration from the patterns made by flocks of birds and the interactions of social bees. Here, the group formations are more-or-less ever-present from the long snaking, shaking line-up as the curtains rose; to imagery that often suggested the slow budding of a flower.

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

Her 36 dancers (not a principal amongst them) are efficiently drilled, evoking the science of swarm intelligence through the layering of individual actions, effectively co-ordinated into absorbing mass movement of considerable beauty. It’s not innovative, or indeed particularly original: Pina Bausch, Ohad Naharin and Hofesh Shechter are three choreographers that spring to mind for having created wonderful group formations, constructed from the patterns of many individual actions. Nonetheless, Flight Pattern is further evidence that Pite has a particular mastery of this large-scale ensemble art.  

The ending is counter-intuitive to the 25 minutes that have gone before. 34 of the dancers file out through narrowing black screens, leaving two to remain for a frenetic finale of dislocated, frenzied movement. I wasn’t convinced by this marked change of pace, which appeared not to be justified in the music, but it was refreshing to see Kristen McNally – such a long-serving stalwart of the corps de ballet – plucked out of the crowd, literally, to have this personal highlight.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in <i>The Human Seasons</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2013
Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Human Seasons
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2013

The other soloist was fast-rising Marcelino Sambé, who had earlier impressed in David Dawson’s The Human Seasons. Sambé exudes fluency and naturalness, at all times, complete with elevation that appears to be simultaneously forceful and easy. The Human Seasons was also a first commission for The Royal Ballet, back in November 2013, for a choreographer already well-in-demand-elsewhere; and, while it was interesting to see it revived on an altered cast, neither the cavernous set, with a backdrop looking like a giant, beige office paper-blotter bent at 90°, nor lighting that often kept dancers in the dark, have grown in my appreciation since the première. The programme identified a couple of last-minute replacements (including a background waste of the foreground talents of Vadim Muntagirov), which may have accounted for an occasional lack of unity in supposedly harmonised activity.

Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares in <i>After The Rain</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2016
Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares in After The Rain
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2016

After the Rain was created for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto (New York City Ballet), back in 2005, and came into the repertoire at Covent Garden, last year. It’s a curious, brief work – just 20 minutes’ long – comprising two pieces that are connected in no way other than through Pärt’s music. At first, there is an energetic neo-classical pas de six, danced in three couples to Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; then the mood changes dramatically with the aforementioned switch to Spiegel im Spiegel and a poignant, mesmerising duet for Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares. This choreography is infused with personal meaning for both its creator and these dancers, emphasising the intense emotional poignancy of the final scene. Nuñez has a hypnotic impact throughout the duet; and the onstage chemistry between these dancers – until last year, husband-and-wife – is crammed with emotional intensity.