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The Illustrated Farewell/The Wind/Untouchable review at Royal Opera House – ‘a variable triple bill’

Scene from Arthur Pita's The Wind at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Scene from Arthur Pita's The Wind at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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There are two ways of programming mixed bills: either locate a common theme and encourage choreographers to riff around it or take three diverse talents and jam them together to see what happens. This is the latter.

Doyenne of dance Twyla Tharp makes a prequel to her 1973 interpretation of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony with a lengthy, accelerated duet, Arthur Pita damps down his mischievous surrealism for a dance version of Victor Sjostrom’s silent movie The Wind and Hofesh Shechter revives his collective, martial Royal Ballet debut.

Tharp’s piece starts well with Steven McRae leaping on to the stage like Le Spectre de la Rose through the window. In another entrance he skitters like Roadrunner to collide with Sarah Lamb.

The duet shifts from the adrenaline-fuelled exhibitionism of a new relationship through the comfortable folding and gestural mimicry that comes later. The tics of the duo’s louche street swagger nipping at the heels of classicism contrasts with the dancers who subsequently flood the stage in a frenzy of neo-courtliness. The increasing isolation of the couple – the woman especially – from the world beyond the relationship is uncomfortably evident especially when they appear high above the stage on a platform, no longer participants but observers. A lean, mean, faintly chilly ballet.

In complete contrast. Arthur Pita’s work – his first for the main stage – is crowded with set and business; three enormous wind machines and a railway track dominate as he deploys a chalk-white zombie Comanche as a kind of spectral talisman for a severely conflated version of the Lillian Gish film.

With cowboys authentically dressed in leather chaps, fringed jackets and long duster coats it resembles the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. Plastic sheets wave across the stage as a woman arrives in the remote west, a civilised stranger in a strange, wild land. She is at the mercy of the relentless, unforgiving elements with the wind turbos becoming part of the dance as if presaging the coming industrialisation of America.

Pita’s choreography is variable. The wedding night awkwardness is thoroughly unconvincing and makes do with crude caricature rather than the suppressed eroticism and fumbling innocent tenderness of the occasion. While the woman discards her veneer of civilisation and embraces her primal essence having shot dead the man who rapes her the world is moving in the opposite direction – towards fences, railroads, man-made hurricanes. Not surprisingly, Pita can’t quite pack it all into 37 minutes.

Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable has gained in weight and import since its premiere in 2015. The organic interflow of the ensemble, like t’ai chi crossed with krav maga, and the gender fluid combat fatigues hint heavily at the Israeli Army at work and play. The swirling percussive soundtrack hammers through the piece like an exotic heartbeat.

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New works by Twyla Tharp and Arthur Pita feature in a triple bill that promises more than it delivers