A kindly cowboy, an East Coast bride, adultery, murder and madness. The Wind, Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 Texas gothic novel (and Sjöström/Gish movie), offers rich pickings for dance narrative and was selected by Arthur Pita for his Covent Garden main stage debut. What could possibly go wrong?
Pita has made some terrific dance dramas — notably 2011’s Metamorphosis for a treacle-glazed Edward Watson — but The Wind is a massive disappointment, looking thin and underwritten despite hefty production values. A miniature railway dollies pointlessly around the stage perimeter and the wind of the title is supplied in tedious abundance by two custom-built threshing machines (the cold front could be felt in the upper circle).
Characterisation and costuming are equally crude. Thiago Soares is a hayseed in chaps, Thomas Whitehead a vile seducer in a big (black) hat while poor Edward Watson whirls through miles of billowing gauze as a Native American wind spirit wearing enough wet-white to mark up a tennis court.
A more sophisticated storyteller — Kim Brandstrup springs mouthwateringly to mind — would have relished Scarborough’s conflicted, homesick heroine. Repelled by her homespun husband, she dreams of rescue by the mysterious stranger she meets on the train west, but Pita robs the climactic seduction of any ambiguity, reducing her to a demented rape victim (just what ballet needed). Even the improvisatory abandon of Natalia Osipova’s final solo couldn’t rescue the whole sorry business from cliché.
This underwhelming programme gets off to a deceptively strong start with Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ in which the New York choreographer adds a prequel to a piece she made for Joffrey Ballet 45 years ago to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45.
The designs — brown clothes, black backcloth — are dismal and the new material looks tacked on, but there is a career-making performance from 19-year-old Joseph Sissens and the exultant opening duet for Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb is a thing of wonder.
Lamb skims blithely through her steps with toy-like speed and precision and while Tharp’s solos for McRae don’t tell us anything new they are a dazzling celebration of his gifts: classical high jinks sprinkled with Tharpian shimmies and slouches — like a smiley badge on a mink coat.
Tharp’s choreography is tailored to the talents at her disposal but Israeli dancemaker Hofesh Shechter doesn’t work that way, preferring to deploy unique, idiosyncratic artists as anonymous components in his own well-worn mechanism.
His 2015 Untouchable is lent spurious theatrical weight by Lee Curran’s virtuoso lighting, and the dancers’ frisking jumps and quicksilver shifts of direction very nearly spin straw into gold. But Shechter’s trademark trudgings and ‘oy vey ist mir’ port de bras don’t require the talents of a major international ballet company. It’s like getting Raymond Blanc to fry you an egg.
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