In the Linbury studio theatre of the Royal Opera House, the scene is set for an existential crisis. The stage of Arthur Pita’s dance theatre adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is decorated sparsely; whitewashed walls and a simple selection of props draw us immediately into an eerie, neurasthenic environment. At the centre of the stage lies a bridge connecting the room of Gregor Samsa [Edward Watson] with that of his family [Laura Day, Nina Goldman, Anton Skrzypiciel], portending the physical and emotional divides that will come to devastate them.

It might seem strange at first, to create a dance adaptation of one of the most surreal works of the twentieth century – the novella that famously begins: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ But as the production develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the medium of dance theatre is in fact the perfect choice for a work that so fiercely depends on this suspension of disbelief. Kafka’s novella has been adapted into almost every format – film, theatre, opera, even graphic novel – but Pita’s combination of the uninhibited creativity of modern dance and the tight narrative structure of drama produces a unique interpretation with wide appeal.

Indeed, Pita’s production seems purposefully prepared as a blank canvas for us to colour with our own interpretations – staged in traverse with the audience on all four sides, the story is viewed from every angle, available to be considered from every perspective. As the audience file into the theatre, the Samsa family are already going about their daily business – reading the papers, washing the dishes, listening to music. We pose no disruption to their routine, which becomes an almost religious rite as Gregor’s transformation progresses.

The opening scenes of the production reinforce this, as we watch Gregor’s mechanical, repetitive life before his metamorphosis. Every movement is choreographed to military precision, the whole family moving like clockwork, perfectly in time with the music. But rather than becoming tedious for the audience, this humdrum routine actually increases our anticipation – the very regularity of the scenes becomes unbearably tense, because we know it will soon be completely shattered.

The box office appeal of this production was always going to be how Pita dealt with transforming Royal Ballet principal Edward Watson into Kafka’s hideous insect onstage. And it has to be said that the task was dealt with real ingenuity – as Gregor sleeps, he suddenly writhes into the staccato movements of an insect, vomiting up a kind of brown, oily goo that drenches his exterior, and visually ostracises him from the rest of the pure white stage. Along with Frank Moon’s cacophonous score, the scene almost becomes too much to bear.

Watson himself is a revelation as Kafka’s insect. As Gregor learns to use his new body and move on all fours, Watson too is effectively teaching himself to become more flexible, to eschew all classical dance moves. He also manages to convey a brilliant sense of animalistic helplessness throughout, especially poignant in the duet scenes with the Samsa family, who turn against him one by one. As Gregor becomes further isolated from his family, Watson’s movements similarly mimic those of an insect in decline – huddling up into foetal position in fear, scuttling across to hidden crevices in the stage, and moving with spasmodic convulsions of pain.

After an incredible nightmare sequence in which the stage walls literally come crashing down, similar monstrous insects descend upon the stage, dousing Gregor and his surroundings with their slimy black exterior. Pita’s stage lies cut open, the divide between each room searing, and at last the Samsa family cannot ignore his transformation. The closing scene reminds us of all that has happened since the blinding whiteness that opened the production, as a single light shines through the window – through which Gregor has fled – and onto the filth that now covers the stage. Pita’s production proves to be a sterling work that uproots the everyday patterns not only of the Samsa family, but of the modern dance scene too, showing us what can be accomplished beyond tutus and pas de deux.

Photo courtesy of the Royal Opera House