Royal Opera House, London
October 18, 2022
It looks insanely beautiful. Crystal Pite directs the ensemble to great effect, the movement ebbing and flowing again and again as it sweeps across the stage. The choreography is eloquent, whether dealing with the dislocation, struggle and loss of Part One, the caring of children of Part Two, or the loss and parting of Part Three. Tom Visser’s lighting is stunning too, especially a remarkable aurora-like effect full of streaks of light that look like ever-shifting cracks in the heavens. And that’s before we get to the music: Henryk Górecki’s atmospheric, layered, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Pite’s Light of Passage transforms her 2017 Olivier-Award-winning Flight Pattern into a full-length work by adding two further sections, ‘Covenant’ and ‘Passage’, and using the rest of the score. All three sections are built around the theme of ‘passage’, playing on different definitions of the word.
Part One, ‘Flight Pattern’, sees a sea of 36 bodies, pretty much indistinguishable one from another. In their huge grey coats, they sway back and forth, looking up and down. When they fall, it’s like a wave crashing on a shore. Variations in the unison allow us to see them both as a group and as individuals. There is support and togetherness as she shows us humanity on a massive scale. It’s impossible not to see the dancers as refugees, on a boat perhaps, or maybe on foot crossing some vast void. It yells dejection and hardship but also suggests that, somewhere, there’s a flickering hope that drives them on.
Little stories emerge. A woman searches for a loved one as she frantically works her way down the line. To the evocative, heart-rending Virgin’s lament for her son, sung potently by American soprano Francesca Chiejina, Kristen McNally cradles and rocks what appears to be a baby, but one that has not survived. The three pas de deux, including that when McNally is comforted and cared for by Marcelino Sambé, are equally powerful. Each is gorgeously fluid and full of effortless lifts, bodies swirling around one another and alternating supports.
The ten-minute Part Two, ‘Covenant’, has its roots in a version of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, written specially for children. At its heart are six Royal Ballet School Junior Associates aged between 9 and 11. Dressed in white, which serves to emphasise their innocence, the youngsters really are very good indeed. When they are not playing, skipping and chasing each other, they are guided, supported and lifted by 18 black-clad adults, who create corridors, hills and roads that the children travel and climb. One scene, when they are carried aloft back and forth across the stage as if floating weightless, is one of the highlights of the evening.
‘Passage’ sees a 36-strong ensemble joined by Isidora Barbara Joseph and Christopher Havell from the Company of Elders. Here Pite focuses on the ultimate passage: that from this life to whatever follows. As the pair twist and curl around each other, their movement is taken up by other pairs, effectively reflections of their younger selves. When Havell slides into the afterlife, Joseph rips through the corps, searching in vain, echoing a similar scene in ‘Flight Pattern’. It is, of course, all in vain, although there is hope even here, as the ensemble support her as life goes on.
It is all quite compelling: a meditation on humanity and life, showing people at their most vulnerable. But although billed as a whole evening work, and despite the link in theme between each part, I’m not entirely convinced. As good as Light of Passage is, and I accept there are logistical challenges, I have a feeling it might be even better run straight through.
Light of Passage is at The Royal Opera House to November 3, 2022. Visit www.roh.org.uk for details and tickets.