Performance

Transforming the Beauty of Ballet into Something Kafkaesque

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” (photograph by Tristram Kenton, courtesy Joyce Theater)
Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis” (all photographs by Tristram Kenton, courtesy Joyce Theater)

The story of a man who wakes up transformed into a hideous insect isn’t exactly the showpiece you would imagine for a lithe principal of London’s Royal Ballet, but in The Metamorphosis dancer Edward Watson takes all the refined control of each muscle and transforms his body from grace into an image of the grotesque.

Climbing up to the ceiling in "The Metamorphosis)
Climbing up to the ceiling in “The Metamorphosis)

Currently at Joyce Theater in Chelsea for a two-week run that opened on September 17, The Metamorphosis choreographed and directed by Arthur Pita works the Kafka novella of salesman Gregor Samsa’s waking up turned into a monster — usually translated from the vague German “ungeheures Ungeziefer” (“monstrous verm”) as a cockroach, although lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov considered him more of a gargantuan nondescript beetle. From there, for those who weren’t assigned the text in high school, such as the women sitting next to me whose sustained repulsion and surprise suggested they were expecting something with less literal shapeshifting, he generally freaks out his family while they attempt to come to terms with the unexplained change.

It’s a hard plot to sustain, especially in a dance work with minimal dialogue, and none of it in English. Like Samsa’s family, you gradually get used to this twisted form writhing in brackish brown liquid on the stage which first drools down from his lips over his throat and then eventually destroys the pristine white modernism of his previously sterile room in the mid-century style set by Simon Daw. It’s quite a visual spectacle of horror theater, as one attendee accurately assessed with a positive post-performance exclamation: “It’s like a cross between The Grudge and Moulin Rouge!”

Gregor Samsa and his mother (the stage is much more at this stage in the NYC production than in this photo from the London)
Gregor Samsa and his mother (the stage is much more slippery in the NYC production than in this photo from London)

Yet while there are lulls, when it works it is deeply unsettling. This is thanks to Watson himself who fully deserves the acclaim he’s received from the piece’s performances in 2011 and 2012 at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. He effortlessly contorts into seemingly impossible shapes with limbs curving through the others, toes and fingers extending like inhuman feelers, body continuously warped into something so repulsive it’s almost a shock when he strides out on stage at the end standing upright for the curtain call. When his sister reaches out to dare to touch him, or his mother collapses in his filthy room and he attempts to revive her, there’s the same feeling of revulsion as if you were to reach out and stroke the back of a skittering cockroach that suddenly appeared in your kitchen. And it’s all set to an eerie score by violinist and composer Frank Moon who gasps out creepy insect screams into a microphone while looping strings and sounds pulled from the stage, like Samsa’s mother’s breathing machine or a record player left to spin endlessly, into an increasing drone of unease.

Taking a drink of black liquid
A just-transformed Edward Watson taking a drink of black liquid

The production does have its lulls and would perhaps be better as an hour-long piece — it goes to 90 minutes, giving ample time for more of Samsa’s gross secretions to soak the stage, and one wonders if they just destroy the whole thing each time or have bought cases of bleach from Costco. Yet it’s worth seeing Watson take his impressive skills as a dancer and make that elegance into something revolting, and remind you that it’s that personal discomfort with the repellant person you could easily become that has made Kafka’s insectean story so enduring.

The Metamorphosis is at the Joyce Theater (175 Eight Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 29.

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