By Arthur Pita, with Edward Watson
Joyce Theatre, Sept. 18-29, 2013
In art as in life, there is no such thing as being faithful enough. Fidelity is an absolute. It cannot be measured in numbers of steps or scenes preserved any more than a romantic betrayal can be calibrated by the quantity of lovers taken on the side, though the numbers do tell some kind of story. Rather, faithfulness to a text, whether choreographic or literary, is a question of spirit. We want a given “Swan Lake” or, in the present case, adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis to honour the heart of the work (as we understand it).
The London-based choreographer Arthur Pita adapted “The Metamorphosis” for the stage in 2011 under the auspices of the Royal Ballet, with the hyper-flexible principal Edward Watson in the person—and bug—of white-collar drone Gregor Samsa. The chamber dance-play recently completed its two-week run at the Joyce Theatre in Manhattan, with the much-admired star reprising the lead. Compared to your average nineteenth century ballet, “The Metamorphosis” is supremely stable: the words in Kafka’s novella have not changed since its 1915 publication. And Pita does reproduce most of the plot (together with questionable interpolations). But he entirely misses the story.
“The Metamorphosis” does not require decoding. The novella’s genius lies in the doggedness with which it pursues an outlandish proposition: what if a punctilious travelling salesman, a sensitive, docile son, awoke one morning to discover he was a bug? Kafka describes with comic exactitude Gregor dropping onto his several legs with a quiet splat, splaying out on surfaces to cool his sticky belly, scuttling back and forth with mechanical intent, stopping and starting in perfect sync with the rush and halt of his pursuer, only a palm away (daredevil bug!), and, finally, creeping toward death. Meanwhile, Gregor’s thoughts dwell on his family: his easily threatened father, his endearing, enlivening sister, and a mother who stirs his most helpless tenderness. As the sole breadwinner, he is afraid for his family now that he is “indisposed.” The story’s comedy and tragedy arise from the stark contrast between the man’s compassion and sense of obligation and the bug’s dumb instinct.
But that is Kafka. In the ballet the bug hardly moves, from the very start of his insect life. No manic scurrying about, no dropping or plopping or splatting. Watson assumed yogic poses and held them, prehensile feet twitching, until I looked away, bored, to the family in the kitchen at stage left. He rocked on his belly in a yoga bow. He entwined an arm around a leg in a double-jointed, off-kilter crouch.
Gregor’s inner life was left to Watson’s face to express. And with the dancer moving so little, the ballet shed the intimations of mortality in bug Gregor’s eyesight dimming, his shell liquefying, and him growing still, that propel Kafka’s meditations on what defines a life beyond merely living—what distinguishes a human from a bug other than anatomy.
The permeable boundaries between human and creature, human and machine, are so integral to dance as to have emerged as ballet librettos—about sylphs and swans and mechanical dolls masquerading as human or aspiring to that state. The literary equivalent of these nineteenth century Romantic ballets are Keats’s odes to consciousness, which Kafka translates into industrialized, bureaucratic twentieth century terms. The bug replaces the nightingale. By the twenty-first century, the mechanization of labour and the elaborate machine of the State that shrinks humans down to squashable size have passed into the immateriality of global capitalism and an outsourced economy, which may explain Pita’s trouble gaining purchase on “The Metamorphosis.” In the West, at least, the metaphor of “worker bee” is half-dead.
In the Kafka, the Samsas never acclimate to Gregor’s grotesque form. In fact, their alienation only increases. For years Gregor’s role in the family was to serve a purpose. The parents lay about the house and the sister tended to her music while he worked. So when he is the one to lie—and scuttle—about, he makes no sense to them. The more feeble he becomes, the less use these strict materialists have for him and the less they feel for him. While at first they are willing to entertain the possibility that there is a bit of Gregor buried inside their monstrous flatmate, they ultimately decide that the bug is only a bug. Gregor, by contrast, maintains feelings for his sister and mother, however much they neglect him. He also reflects on his humanity. ‘Was he an animal, that music had such an effect upon him?’ he wonders as he listens to his sister play the violin to the indifference of the paying lodgers. He understands the music as ‘the way… opening before him to the unknown nourishment he craved.’
The ballet makes nothing of this irony and pathos. Partly it is a tonal problem: composer Frank Moon lends a horror-movie vibe to the story’s phantasmagorical aspects. But Pita is also plain old oblivious. There is no sense to the details he preserves as opposed to those he elides—no sense anymore to Gregor. For example, the sister screams in terror at the sight of the humongous bug that has replaced her brother, but later tangles with the oozy insect. Gregor is careful to stay in his room to spare the family the shock of him, but when the mother faints upon catching sight of her onetime boy he rocks her frozen body in his sticky arms in a random moment of creepy eroticism.
The humourless ballet also fails to underscore the likeness between Gregor’s work—hopping from train to train and city to city, lodging on the road—and his incarnation as a bug. The ballet begins with Watson laid out in his bed like a wide-awake corpse. So far, so good. When his three-fire alarm clock blares, he scrambles up and into his clothes, heads out the door to the coffee cart, then to the train. After work, he reverses this trajectory, ending back in bed staring at the ceiling cracks. The routine repeats gesture for gesture, with Watson appropriately dour and pinched. And it repeats again. But except for the moment when the sheets are pulled up to his neck and anxiety has pinioned him to the mattress, even this relatively effective scene is not bold enough to bring home the man’s absurd situation. It demonstrates none of the ingenuity of Chaplin’s Modern Times, which depicts the working man as a “cog in the machine” with a spectacular literal-mindedness that first prompts guffaws, then pity, and eventually recognition. If Watson had been scuttling and hopping-to, we would have registered his transformation as shocking déjà vu.
In short, if Pita had evinced some faith in dance—with its long, rich entanglement in metamorphosis—his sloppy interpretations of Kafka would not have proved so ruinous.