Royal Opera House, London

Dance review: Raven Girl - Crack, flutter ... and a baby classic is hatched


The Royal Ballet's new fledgling may well grow to rival that famous swan, but a tribute to 'Rite of Spring' doesn't take off

Keep ploughing the same furrow. That's what artists tend do in a crowded field, and what our two best-known dance-makers, Wayne McGregor and Akram Khan, have been doing in different ways for well over a decade. Last week, though, both broke new ground that, in one case at least, proved surprisingly fertile.

Wayne McGregor wasn't anyone's idea of a ballet man until he was appointed the Royal Ballet's choreographer in residence in 2007. Before then and since, his work has been abstract, spiky, and verging on dysmorphic. His interest lay in brain science, not fairy stories: in the snap of synapses and the speed with which such messages are relayed to a hyper-flexible body. Now he's swerved down another path. Raven Girl may nod to dance history – avian precedents such as Swan Lake, The Firebird and Merce Cunningham's Beach Birds. It may also have a prince, a transformation, and a narrative arc that, almost literally, achieves take-off. But in McGregor's hands its tropes feel vitally fresh.

The gist of the story is spelled out at the start, in Gothic type and with amusing perfunctoriness, on a scrim. "Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven." Don't ask why or how: fairy tales defy such logistical snags. Edward Watson makes a sharply melancholy Postman, forever walking, or cycling, in circles. Delivering a letter to a far-flung address, he finds a nestling fallen from a raven's nest, takes it home, cares for it fondly, and lo: "Some time passes and they have an egg."

The book on which the ballet is based is byAudrey Niffenegger, best known for The Time Traveller's Wife, but also a writer of short graphic novels. Her sombre drawings are incorporated into both Vicki Mortimer's picture-book stage sets and Ravi Deepres's ravishing film overlays. One moment these are filling the sky with drifting pearly clouds, the next with whorls of birds.

Sarah Lamb is the half-breed hatchling: human in appearance, but yearning to fly. At university (naturally) she studies evolutionary biology (here McGregor is closer to his home ground), and persuades the Doctor (a manic Thiago Soares) to perform an operation that will remove her arms and give her wings. Glimmering X-ray images thrillingly show the likeness between the structure of a human arm and hand, and the intricate pin-bones of a wing.

Alas, the moment Raven Girl gets her wings, prompting a heady balletic impression of swooping flight, is the point at which McGregor's tale starts to unravel. Dastardly interventions from a disgruntled boyfriend and the horrified parents prompt too many questions, and Eric Underwood's Raven Prince is ill defined. Is he a man-raven, or a raven-raven? We need to know.

Yet for all its flaws, which can be tweaked, McGregor has achieved something rare: daring in its simplicity, yet deliciously layered. Gabriel Yared's score brims with surprises, the chugga-chug of a postal sorting office and the rhythmic flap of wings slipping into driving orchestral textures that surge in Wagnerian waves. Paired with the clean, white symmetries of Balanchine's Symphony in C, it makes for a nicely balanced evening. Raven Girl's evolution, I predict, is just beginning.

Akram Khan's contribution to the Rite of Spring centenary, on the other hand, is a non-starter. Charged by Sadler's Wells to choreograph a response to Igor Stravinsky's game-changing 1913 score, Khan opted to commission completely new music from not one but three composers, and put himself In the Mind of Igor, hence the titular acronym iTMOi (Sadler's Wells, London **). Pretentious, presumptuous, or both?

But on the evidence, Khan is kidding himself. His ensemble piece – he doesn't appear personally – isn't about Stravinsky's processes at all, bar a reference to the stabbing asymmetric rhythms in Rite. It's an attempt to match its shock value. And on this level, iTMOi meagrely succeeds.

An opening rant from a revivalist preacher cues a ritualised, chaotic yet desperately slow enactment of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Yes, a human sacrifice again ... but it's there that any resonance with Rite ends.

As ever, Khan's dancers move with a wild and thrashing energy, sometimes impressively in sync. And tiny Ching-Ying Chien, as the Isaac figure, does almost dance herself to death. But the scenario is bewildering to the point of bathos. The Butoh-slow woman in a white crinoline baring one breast may have been God, but I'm only guessing, and the man crawling around with horns on his head just looked silly.

Only a riot in the stalls could have made this evening memorable.

Royal Ballet double bill, to 8 June

Critic's Choice

In 2011 they played to capacity crowds in the circus tent at Glastonbury. Last year they were part of the Piccadilly Circus Circus. Now, Pirates of the Carabina, a company of daredevil aerialists, stunt artists, dancers and musicians aged from 19 to 67, have brought their show FLOWN to Udderbelly, the upturned purple cow on London's South Bank. Opening today, it runs till 22 June, before heading off to Glastonbury again, then Edinburgh.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own