As the Royal Ballet’s new Raven Girl went its turgid way, several unhappy things became apparent. In a staging which proposes a narrative – albeit one of stunning archness devised by Audrey Niffenegger, writer of the graphic novel – Wayne McGregor has no little difficulty in telling a story in dance, suggesting a tenuous command of classic ballet’s potential as an expressive language. Add to this the determined quaintness of Niffenegger’s means which dictate so much of the production’s manner: a naggingly winsome tale; insistence upon shades of black and grey and on Gothic (indeed, Gothick!) lettering – a visual language as depressing as it is monotonous in the designer Vicky Mortimer’s realisation. And how to endure Gabriel Yared’s commissioned score, which has escaped from some dire region where cinematic clichés are, very properly, impounded for sins of blatancy? The event, regrettably, joins that Frankensteinian catalogue of ballets that should never have been allowed to hit the Royal Opera House stage.
Warning signs could be detected in the programme notes, in which Niffenegger and McGregor discourse at not inconsiderable length about what they are offering their eager public. The argument of this “fairy tale” has a postman father – such the wonders of miscegenation – a child by a raven. This morose offspring decides to seek surgery to replace arms with wings and so discover her true identity, rejecting a human suitor and finally meeting her Raven Prince. It pre-supposes aesthetic gullibility at its worst: an elaborate if monochrome staging, replete with ceaseless and distracting projections; choreography of a classic-dance-as-cliché kind and enfeebled narrative grasp.
Such fine artists as Sarah Lamb (the Raven Girl), Edward Watson (the raven-fetishist Postman, mit bicycle) and gifted Paul Kay as the unsuccessful suitor, drag out the tale for an aching 72 minutes while the score wends its way. The production is, I feel, a betrayal of the Royal Ballet’s identity, of the past implicit in its unrivalled repertory. Acceptance of the modish, which this fatuous affair blazingly is, suggests a great troupe in danger of losing its way. The coarse-grained Alice, last season’s preposterous Sweet Violets and this exercise in the twee, are cause for unease. The programme is completed by Balanchine’s light-filled Symphony in C, most welcome of antidotes.