Just one minute into David Dawson’s Metamorphosis, there is a sublime wake-up call to his choreographic wisdom. It is when James Stout picks up the flow of the two-note repetitions following the descending chords at the beginning of Philip Glass’s eponymous piano composition by spiralling around Anna Ol, almost as if symbolically describing the flowing lines of a treble clef. He bends towards her and she arches her back in reciprocity as her partner gently but swiftly caresses her cheek with the back of his hand, while appearing to whisper in her ear. At the end of their duet, after an anguished separation, the circling, caressing and whispering gestures are repeated in reverse. These transient moments of evanescent beauty are the only narrative device that Dawson needed for this gorgeous pas de deux to carry a powerful intent.

James Stout and Anna Ol in Metamorphosis I
© Hans Gerritsen

Dawson has described his new creation for Dutch National Ballet as a “vehicle of hope”, about moving forward and not giving up in the belief that there is “light at the end of the tunnel”. And, it certainly hits the spot. That opening pas de deux – tenderly performed – is subtle and impactful, full of contrasts in fast feet and agonisingly slow movement, and through moments of separation and intimacy. It is a cliché to praise the fluidity of Dawson’s movement: his unpretentious choreography allows the music to flourish with moments of stillness that others might be persuaded to fill with even more steps. Dawson has that rare skill of leaving out.

The sections of Metamorphosis correspond to the five transcendental tracks with that title, first recorded in Glass’ Solo Piano album of 1989; inspired by Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis. Here the music is played with smooth sensitivity throughout by Olga Khoziainova. From that opening pas de deux, which ends with Stout carrying Ol in a presage lift to their hopeful future, Metamorphosis II switched to a ten-strong ensemble dance, which opened to the same repeated notes, albeit with subtle differences from the left hand, to fast, rolling fingerwork in the high notes; this is the music familiar as the main theme from The Hours (the Stephen Daldry film in which three women’s lives are connected to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway).

Constantine Allen and Floor Eimers in Metamorphosis III
© Hans Gerritsen

Dawson’s choreography has a Baroque flavour in its grounded elegance with sweeping arms and elegant, courtly gestures and he has persistently refused to hurry the choreography, allowing it to glide across the piano flurries. Lined in a diagonal, there are isolated moments where the dancers’ coordinated arm movements don’t quite gel but it is nonetheless beautiful as they peel away one by one, like aeroplanes in formation, to spiral offstage. The dancers are dressed in white throughout: women in sleeveless leotards, high cut at the leg, and pointe shoes; men, in loose long-sleeved t-shirts and white footless tights. Dawson has designed the costumes himself, along with Eddie Grundy, and they are in balance with the pure naturalness of his movement, contrasting with the blackness of the stage and backdrop.

Jingjing Mao and Jared Wright in Metamorphosis III
© Hans Gerritsen

Metamorphosis III has been choreographed for four men with each dancer arriving sequentially on stage to build from a solo, through a long duet to a quartet. The chords in this third piano piece are more insistent and aggressive, which Dawson has interpreted in male virtuosity with jumps replacing the grounded movement of the preceding piece, although he also brings this movement to an end with a brief but elegant solo. The fourth section is opened by three women (Floor Eimers, Erica Horwood and Jingjing Mao) in a trio that continued the theme of elegant Baroque-style movement with arched backs and interweaved spirals of movement, their separations suddenly brought together in unison. In this section, Glass builds the motifs of Metamorphosis I-III together into a flowing melody. As the other two women surreptitiously disappear, Eimers is joined by Constantine Allen for a brief duet before Martin ten Kortenaar and Jared Wright arrive to complete the trio of partners. Choreographed over tiny Zoom screens from his home in Berlin, Dawson has nonetheless made use of the full stage and Altin Kaftira’s otherwise excellent film direction struggled to keep all the dancers in the frame during a frantic mid-section. Once again, the group choreography dissipated to allow a soloist (Eimers) to bring the sequence to a graceful close.

Riho Sakamoto in Metamorphosis V
© Hans Gerritsen

There is a touch of counter-intuitive genius in Dawson concluding the work with a single dancer (Riho Sakamoto) performing to Metamorphosis V, which opens with the same descending chords and rippling fingerwork of the first piece. Many of Dawson’s earlier motifs are pulled together in this closing solo, which is a feast of neoclassicism, superbly illustrated by Sakamoto’s elegant movement and beautifully expressed arms, as she glides in and out of Bert Dalhuijsen’s dusky lighting. At just 35 minutes, this new work is yet another tremendous addition to Dutch National Ballet’s extraordinary output through this pandemic and further evidence that Dawson is Britain’s greatest choreographer in exile.   


This performance was reviewed from the Dutch National Ballet video stream