Swans are semi-regularly represented by ballet dancers; bugs – not so much. However, the Royal Opera House has presented a version of Franz Kafka’s greatest literary work. With just seven cast members, Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis ballet was first shown in the Royal Opera House’s intimate Linbury Studio Theatre (2011). The dance theater production won a South Bank Sky Arts Award; and Edward Watson won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance for his portrayal of the main character.

A recording of the 2013 performance was broadcast online as part of the Royal Opera House’s #OurHouseToYourHouse digital series for one month from April 17, 2020.

The From Our House to Your House programme was included in our dance at home resources list, along with other companies that are streaming work and broadcasting classes online. Royal Opera House also streamed Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia ballet from 15 – 28 May, 2020. 

A man in white shorts lunges on stage
Edward Watson plays Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis. Photo credit:Tristram Kenton

Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis Ballet Summary

The modern ballet production of The Metamorphosis, as choreographed by Arthur Pita, is just 80 minutes (sans interval). We meet Gregor Samsa, who lives at home with his parents and younger sister and spends his days working as a traveling salesman. Life carries on in a rut, until he morphs into a monstrous insect over night. The rest of the show focuses on how Gregor’s relationships with his family develop, or rather, fester.

“For me [‘The Metamorphosis’] has so many themes… someone being trapped, illness, being alienated, sexuality, rejection, growth, change… It’s never-ending.”

– Arthur Pita, ‘The Metamorphosis’ choreographer
Main character Gregor Samsa as an insect in ROH's 'The Metamorphosis'
Dancer: Edward Watson in the Royal Ballet’s production of The Metamorphosis
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

Royal Ballet: The Metamorphosis Review

Nearly a quarter of the show establishes the daily routine of Gregor (Edward Watson): son, brother, employee and patron. (Spoiler alert: Yes, you really do watch his regular regime three times.) He heads to and from work, grabbing a coffee in the morning and a vodka on the way back, before returning home and dutifully watching his sister practice ballet. Gregor leaves the dinner table early, prompting a long face from his mother; the table is cleared and Gregor retreats to his room.

In the space of a short blackout meant to represent one evening, Gregor mysteriously morphs into an enormous insect. A few dribbles of black ink on his neck and chest are only costuming change; Gregor’s posture and movement are much more telling of his rapid metamorphosis into an invertebrate: his limbs are stuck in the air, extremities constantly shifting and moving, as if trying to sense the atmosphere like antennae.

“[After the transformation into an insect] I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t pick anything up… So we really, really deconstructed a whole human and made [the character] as insect and animal as we could.”

– Edward Watson, Gregor Samsa in ROH’s ‘The Metamorphosis

Gregor’s absence prompts a colleague and his family to bust his door open. The colleague flees, and his family members shrink away in horror. Alone, contorts his body and writhes on the floor, before perching on the windowsill. His sister, Grete (Laura Day), reticently re-enters the room and futilely attempts to manipulate his body back into that of a human.   

The unsuspecting cleaning lady (Bettina Carpi) stumbles upon Gregor next. At times she shoos him away, but her brusque matter-of-fact manner and willingness to confront Gregor allow her to usher him into bed. Her caring, yet business-like attitude, is like that of a medical practitioner, which starkly contrasts to the emotional responses of Gregor’s parents. His father (Neil Reynolds) refuses to enter his room and his mother (Nina Goldman) faints at the sight of him.

In a duet with his inanimate mother, we see Gregor’s longing to connect with her. He scuttles forward with her on his back, embraces her and raises her up with his legs – much like a parent playing “airplane” with a child. But his intentions are misconstrued when the family think he tried to attack his mother. They yell and throw objects at him until he withdraws back into his room.

The most spectacular scene depicts Gregor’s internal emotional landscape. We don’t find skeletons in a closet, but rather, an obsidian figure that lurks beneath the bed and another that slithers down from the ceiling. The shadowy figures dominate him and mirror him (this definitely looks like the inspiration for the abstract climactic scene with Natalie Portman in Annihilation). They pose his body into insect-like shapes and roll him through a pool of black ink.

Dancer: Edward Watson plays Gregor Samsa in ROH’s The Metamorphosis by Arthur Pita
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

As his condition worsens, Gregor loses sympathy from his sister. Grete enters the room, screeching at him, as he curls up on the floor. Her unrestrained rage and disgust completely deflate him. His spirits remain low, even with a visit from the cleaning lady, who feeds him. Gregor slumps on the bed and makes his way out the open window.

His family members, dressed in black for his funeral, re-enter the room. Warm light pours through the window, where he made his fatal escape, and they face the outdoor world. In the novel, the family remains largely unrepentant, but this Samsa family looks remorseful for their second and final loss of Gregor.

Star Rating:

The plot is absurd, but the themes of shame, isolation and rejection are sharply felt throughout Pita’s show. The stark set and lighting designs (by Simon Daw and Guy Hoare, respectively), as well as the atmospheric music (played live by Frank Moon), heighten the dramatic choreography.

“You can look at it in a lot of ways… Has [Gregor] gone mad? Has he had some kind of breakdown? Or is it just some kind of physical deformity – he’s had an accident?”

– Edward Watson, Gregor Samsa in ROH’s ‘The Metamorphosis
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Have you seen Arthur Pita’s version of The Metamorphosis – or any other stagings of the show? What sort of themes did you pick out? Let us know in the comments!

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