A dark liquid flows through Arthur Pita’s telling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa, once transformed into a cockroach, opens his mouth in a silent scream, and the filmy substance pours from his mouth, grazing his shoulder before trickling down his chest. Later, three black-clad figures, seemingly coated in it, appear to Gregor in a nightmarish vision and fling it at his pristine walls as though painting a Pollock. It’s both literal filth and a metaphor for the shame and disgust that fills Gregor’s family and forces them to retreat from him—and an effective metaphor, at that. I may never eat chocolate syrup again.
It’s a shame, though, that this ubiquitous ooze, and other elements—the full use of the stage and the theater’s aisles, and the ominous score performed live by composer Frank Moon—are more memorable than the choreography of this production, which premiered in London with the Royal Ballet in 2011 before arriving at the Joyce Theater this September.
Where dancing is concerned, this Metamorphosis is essentially a one-man show. As Gregor, Edward Watson, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, achieves prodigies of contortionism. Limbs bend and intertwine in ways that seem impossible—sometimes it’s unclear which are arms and which are legs—and his fingers and toes flutter like feelers. Once a cockroach, he never stands upright. It makes the stomach turn, and we share in the Samsa family’s revulsion. The trick-filled solos, however, quickly wear thin. The arresting vocabulary of Gregor’s transformation never develops. Similarly, Gregor’s duets with his sister, Grete (Corey Annand), mother (Nina Goldman), and their maid (Bettina Carpi), which brim with unconventional and unharmonious lifts and balances, reveal an inability to connect, but little else.
So it happens that in this dance-theater production—emphasis on theater—ballet succeeds more as a plot point than as a medium for the storytelling. In one of the most significant departures from Kafka, young Grete shows an interest in dancing. The human Gregor surprises her, after arriving home from work, with a pair of neatly wrapped pink ballet slippers, and throughout the hour-long work she develops from an unfinished dancer to a disciplined student—all while Gregor, in the next room, descends into the grotesque.
For all the black slime and the deformity of Gregor’s dancing, the piece’s most horrific moment belongs to Grete. As Gregor’s family’s disgust reaches its peak, she storms into the kitchen, turns the phonograph on, and performs her ballet exercises as the maid scrubs stains from the surrounding floor. Her face frozen in a stern expression, Grete rattles off routine steps—passés and battements—but her combinations begin to take on a perverse, angular, insect-like quality. Is Gregor’s condition contagious? Hereditary? Or does this Metamorphosis imply that classical dance—its impossible shapes and demands—and Gregor’s ugly contortions aren’t so far removed?
The Metamorphosis, September 17 - 29 at the Joyce Theater.
RYAN WENZEL is Dance Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He also writes about dance on his blog at www.rpwenzel.com. Find him on Twitter at @rpwenz.