The Metamorphosis, Linbury Studio, London
Jewels, Royal Opera House, London

Kafka's disturbing vision of a family man's double life as a gigantic insect makes a dramatic ballet

Some dancers are born to a role; others make roles happen.

In a well-known piece of fiction, a man wakes up one day to find he has turned into an insect – a promising premise for dance-drama. Yet Franz Kafka's novel of the absurd might have stayed on the page, without the suggestive physicality of the dancer Edward Watson. A rare combination of height, speed and hyper-flexibility, for years an inspiration to choreographers at the Royal Ballet, gives him a clear head start in the earwig stakes.

Arthur Pita's "re-interpretation" of The Metamorphosis does a fine job in translating the book's smarting humour, particularly in its riffs on Gregor Samsa's family. There is his brittle, hypochondriac mother (Nina Goldman) who spends half her life in an oxygen mask – an undeniable proboscis. There's his stiff, irascible father (Anton Skrzypiciel), whose habit of hiding behind the newspaper looks decidedly beetle-like. And there's his bright, annoying little sister (the teenage Laura Day, very impressive), whose initial sympathy for Gregor's odd plight turns to spite when he proves immune to her winsome charm as a ballet student (a more ticklish kind of insect).

There is also much to commend in Simon Daw's set, two all-white rooms into which the audience peers from two sides like prying neighbours, Gregor's bedroom one side, pristine family kitchen the other. Invisible walls and doors are made vividly real by Guy Hoare's lighting, and by the creaks, clicks and squelches Frank Moon's soundscore. Melody, too, pours from Moon's own fingers and lips backstage, as he adds finger-clicking colour to the score on klezmer clarinet or gypsy fiddle.

So why did the show work best in its first 10 minutes? It was the discipline. With the economy of a stopwatch, Pita conjures in one neat cartoon loop the deadly continuum of Gregor Samsa's life: the coffee on the way to work, the slivovitz coming home, the dinner-time family soup ritual, the return of the suit to the wardrobe. Watson is horribly convincing as a blank-eyed salaryman, pre-delirium.

And he's repellently brilliant as an insect, too: at first beached on his bony back, his long toes quivering (I've never seen toes move so independently), later crawling painfully on crabbed claws, balanced on the insides of his wrists. It's a grisly tour de force. But from then on things unravel, with too many stretches of mayhem and shouting (all be it in Czech) and quantities of what looks like squid-ink, smeared over Watson and the stage. Peculiarly, given the potential of movement to excavate the surface of a story, it remains unclear how Gregor feels about his new excuse to stay home from the office. With work, the more unruly elements of this bold effort could come into focus: it's too good an idea to waste.

In the same building, the Royal Ballet launched its new season with an evening of Balanchine. Jewels – purportedly inspired by a visit to a Fifth Avenue jewellery shop, though more likely the result of a canny Mad Men-style publicity stunt (it was 1967) – is really three distinct ballets linked by a slender theme.

Emeralds, the Romantic opener set to second-rate Fauré, is so demure and low-key that you almost expire with longing for an interval drink. Tamara Rojo's glimmering contribution aside, it could be scrapped tomorrow and no one would mourn it. But then, ker-pow!, along comes Rubies with its Manhattan swagger and showgirl slink, set to scorching Stravinsky in off-kilter jazz mode. The company has been dancing this segment of Jewels for some years now, but never as sharply as this. The night concludes with the heady glitter of Diamonds, expunging all memory of anything less expensively appealing. A great night.

'Jewels' (020-7340 4000) to 5 Oct

Next Week:

Canada's celebrated La La La Human Steps mark their 30 years of speed

Dance Choice

Birmingham Royal Ballet's autumn season opens with David Bintley's darkling Beauty and the Beast, at Birmingham Hippodrome (from Wed to 2 Oct). Meanwhile, Northern Ballet kicks off its own season with David Nixon's Cleopatra, with a score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, composer of Les Misérables. At Nottingham's Theatre Royal, Tue to Sat.

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