Theatre review: Metamorphoses by Kim Brandstrup

Metamorphoses, Ustinov Studio, artistic director: Deborah Warner; choreographer: Kim Brandstrup. 29 January – 10 February. Words by Emma Clegg

The vibrant assortment of Ancient Greek myths includes the stories of the Minotaur and Theseus (first traced on an urn from 670-660BC) and that of Cupid and Psyche (2nd century AD by Platonicus). These – and a host of other myths – have fed storytellers, theatre- and film-makers, artists, dancers and musicians richly over the centuries. Here now are two more interpretations in this double bill by choreographer Kim Brandstrup, with Minotaur fresh from the Edinburgh International Festival and Metamorphoses a new work. No matter; neither of them are ‘also-rans’.

Minotaur tells the tale of Ariadne and Theseus and the slaying of the Minotaur, a creature half man, half bull. He is also Ariadne’s half brother (her mother Pasiphaë coupled with a bull and birthed the Minotaur), which makes it as emotionally complex as it is physically challenging. The Minotaur is confined in a labyrinth and Ariadne, who guards the gate, helps her lover Theseus navigate the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur, but Theseus then abandons Ariadne.

The open Ustinov stage is pared back, subsumed by darkness, with, at the start, Theseus (Matthew Ball, Principal Dancer at The Royal Ballet) touching up the painted scarlet slashes dividing the dark surfaces of the large canvases. A bed angled to the right supports the sleeping Ariadne (Kirsten McNally, The Royal Ballet). The haunting, resonant music of Tsintskaro by Hamlet Gonashvili, a Georgian folk song, resounds like a dirge, melancholy but life-affirming. The performance is divided into frames with projected words such as ‘Seduction’, ‘Combat’ and ‘Deus ex machina’. As Theseus moves towards his violent act he (literally) climbs the walls of the theatre stage, moving from ledge to ledge in the blackness. As Ariadne is seduced by Theseus, her dances with him trace her enmeshment and her flowering, as well as her ultimate, heart-rending betrayal as she watches the conflict (in her red dress) from the hidden open doorway high on the wall.

The Minotaur (Olivier Award nominee Tommy Franzen) appears with his huge black head and curved horns, and, despite knowing that he is sustained by the blood of nine Athenian youths every nine years, the audience feels his entrapment and his tragedy. The walls – now dance floor – also see him clambering up and around them in a flowing but disturbed search for escape from his fate, hyped up by Schubert’s evocative, pulsating Piano Sonata No 20 in A major. This is dance, but in the hands of Ball, McNally and Franzen it is not self-conscious – these are active, tuned-in movements driven by emotion and energy, and untramelled by formulas.

Metamorphoses also has darkness as its keynote, as Cupid (Matthew Ball) takes Psyche (Alina Cojocaru, former Royal Ballet and English National Ballet Principal) to his castle where she enjoys a life of luxury, and unites with Cupid at night, on condition that she can only be with him in darkness. The progress of their relationship over three nocturnal meetings is punctuated by elevator-style judderings and projections of bulky, shadowy stone walls. The appearance of Franzen as archaeologist with head lamp during these junctures (alongside symbolic motifs) represents the stages of the relationship’s journey. All this indicates the passing of time, the impenetrable fortress of the castle, and raises multiple queries about what exactly Cupid is hiding.

Ball, statuesque and athletic, and Cojocaru, small, wraithlike and elegant, form a powerful partnership, she like a dainty, expressive branch, outstretched and malleable as she cascades through Ball’s arms. Cojocaru also has massive presence, offsetting her size with round ballooning movements of arms and hands, expressing her life force and her emotional pathway. Once Psyche has shone a light on Cupid, it’s over, and the connection drops, accompanied by Arvo Pärt’s funereal and angst-ridden Lamentate Fragile e Conciliante.

What are you left with? For me it was a feeling of having been stirred up, electrified and raised to the top of my frame by the animated strands of two age-old stories recharged with new life – with staging, music and dance as equal collaborators on a small stage.

Matthew Ball and Alina Cojocaru in rehearsal for Metamorphoses. Photo by Claire Egan

Metamorphoses runs until 10 February – but all tickets have sold out.