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Flight Pattern, part of a triple bill of the Royal Ballet’s Mixed Programme, is choreographer Crystal Pite’s first work for the London company.Tristram Kenton

Crystal Pite's seriousness as an artist, and her fearless tackling of subject matter that might be thought beyond the rubric of dance, is clearly resonating with the times. The B.C.-born choreographer has had her name all over Europe lately, with her first commission for the Paris Opera Ballet premiering last October and her second Olivier award nomination announced earlier this month. This time, the honour comes for her acclaimed Betroffenheit, which explores grief, PTSD and addiction, and returns to Sadler's Wells for a second sold-out run in April. On Thursday night, her first work for the Royal Ballet made its world premiere at Covent Garden, London.

Flight Pattern (part of a triple bill that includes David Dawson's The Human Seasons and Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain) is about the Syrian refugee crisis. I can't state that simply enough because dance so typically works via metaphor and abstraction and the power of this piece is that it refuses to do that on a definitive level. Pite takes 36 dancers, dresses them in layers and shabby overcoats and casts them under falling light in a restricted space on stage. They move in a huge bedraggled cluster, exhausted and despairing, and while the cramped logistics mean they can't actually cover much ground, we get the sense they've crossed miles, countries, years. (Pite is a master at distilling the sensation of passing time .)

There's nothing to unpack in this opening sequence; we recognize the overwhelming and unambiguous image of refugees en masse and are forced to confront it with an immediacy that feels almost Brechtian. Yet, it's not provocation or guilt that Pite's after. Instead, there seems to be a kind of admission or negotiation taking place: To make art about an ongoing humanitarian crisis of such scale, we need to do our best, collectively, to look it in the eye. That's Pite's starting point, and what emerges is a 30-minute, starkly dramatic and visually breathtaking work of art set to the emotionally slaying Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Gorecki. Flight Pattern is rich in pathos, but it refuses, with a sort of noble stubbornness, to devolve into abstraction.

Instead, Pite uses strong, legible symbols. For long stretches of the piece, she makes use of the simplest choreography: a head rocking from side to side in disbelief; a curved and pulsing back. (Only one time did the suffering became so literal that I wondered if it had gone too far. A female dancer cradles a bundle in her arms; the bundle unravels and the illusion of a sleeping baby turns into the illusion of that baby's death.) But Pite's ensemble work is masterfully layered, creating striking images of collective bodies moving at different levels and in counterpoint directions. At one point, the migrants find respite for the night and take off their multiple layers. The barriers onstage split apart as if an opening border and rays of amber sunlight hit the dancers' bare arms. Woven together in a series of lines, the dancers seem airborne, like birds soaring toward a more hospitable climate. The moment is transcendent, as though humanity itself is ascending to better things.

There are sequences in which soloists, duos and small groups break from the mass. These comprise the most densely choreographed parts of Flight Pattern, and they're full of Pite's trademark off-kilter spins and suspensions of weight. It's a challenging leap in style for a classical ballet company, but the dancers throw themselves into the movement with appetite and abandon. In a final solo, soloist Marcelino Sambé gives himself over to imploding lunges and expanding jumps with powerful recklessness. Pite is a choreographer who trades in the flow of tiny details and while the Royal Ballet dancers may not have the same slinky elasticity we get from her Vancouver-based company, they sure match their ardour and commitment. And in a work such as Flight Pattern, which relies so fundamentally on numbers and space, these details are hardly the most important element.

It's interesting to see Flight Pattern in the context of two pieces of clean, neoclassical ballet – Dawson's The Human Seasons and Wheeldon's After The Rain in the sense that their juxtaposition unavoidably frames the question of choreographic motivation. Both of these works are non-narrative and set to melodic contemporary classical music. Dawson's work is an extravaganza of momentum, style and athleticism, with shifting configurations of pas de deux and small ensembles that manifest and disappear with thrilling speed. The women are dressed in elegant, high-necked, bodysuits; the men are topless in white tights. Dawson softens his geometric formations with a couple of stylized flourishes: a wrist twists at the top of a port de bras and the women let their backs arch. There are complex lifts and striking images; it's uniformly beautiful but never cracks the veneer of its slick surface, leaving an ultimately decorative effect.

Caveat lector: My take on Wheeldon's After the Rain, a prized piece of repertoire at the Royal Ballet, might not be popular. The final pas de deux is much-beloved, staged by numerous companies and admired by audiences around the world. Set to a moving stretch of Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel, a piece of music that effortlessly evokes tenderness and loss, it's the kind of duet that seems naturally poised to depict romantic love.

And yet, its component parts have always felt incongruous to me and the overarching idea incoherent. The choreography bounces from total abstraction to two people embracing and behaving as if they're real human beings. It's never clear whether the couple are communicating with each other or merely striking haphazard poses. Wheeldon actually works against the shimmering flow of Part's melody, keeping his dancers trapped in stiffly held positions, often accented by odd details that feel tacked on.

The Royal Ballet's Mixed Programme continues at the Royal Opera House until March 24 (

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