A ballet involving a prince and a bird-woman who longs for transformation might sound like pretty familiar territory, but Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl is a thoroughly modern and captivating piece of dance theatre. McGregor’s first narrative work, an adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel, tells the story of a postman (Edward Watson) who falls in love with a raven (Olivia Cowley). Their daughter, the raven girl (Sarah Lamb), is born with the soul of a bird but, much to her dismay, an earthbound human body.
Set designs inspired by the source material cleverly propel us from scene to scene and immerse us in Niffenegger’s strange fairytale world. There’s a craggy grey cliff face populated by perching birds that gives way to an uninviting cityscape of blank terraces, then a lecture hall filled with diagrams of spliced-together mutants under which pickled-looking specimens in latex writhe and coil. Fortunately, costume-wise, there aren’t any great big novelty beaks, but rather monochrome and masks to mark out the avian contingent. Meanwhile, Gabriel Yared’s score is a cinematic affair that modulates from lush melody to sinister soundscape.
McGregor is known for abstract works that contort his dancers’ bodies to physical extremes, but here his use of movement is cleverly suggestive of character. Birds are particularly well-rendered. Cowley’s skittering raven is wonderful to watch, as is the cock-headed corps of ravens that mesmerically amass, pair off and then disperse across the stage.
Lamb is excellent, a combination of delicate physicality and daring that captures the girl’s vulnerability and frustration at her flightlessness. Interactions with imaginative props help to convey her desire to ascend into the air: there’s an aerial trapeze hoop and a precarious-looking tower of chairs from which Lamb fearlessly stretches, on pointe, towards a suspended window frame. A pair of wings create a startling image – they’re at once brutally bolted-on contraptions and shimmering instruments of flight. Finally, in her pas de deux with the raven prince (Eric Underwood), Lamb can finally take flight into dreamy, swooping lifts and sky-high extensions. It’s a fine combination of tenderness and technical virtuosity.
The second part of this double bill was more concerned with c-fibres than fairytales. Alistair Marriott’s Connectome, first performed last year, takes recent developments in neuroscience as its starting point – namely, the theory that identity is not formed in our genes but in the connections made between our brain cells. Mapped out, this complex pattern makes up each individual’s ‘connectome’. Here, the emotional trajectory of a solitary woman (Lauren Cuthbertson) is shaped by contact and connection with two men (Steven McRae and Edward Watson). There’s a poignant core to the work, which is set to Arvo Pärt’s fervent score. After a series of ragged lifts, Cuthbertson hurls herself at Watson to be caught and roughly spun. It’s an encounter that speaks of desperation and emotional abandonment. As Watson glides out from her circled arms, she is left, as she emerged, alone.