Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo
Choreography: Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, Liam Scarlett
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Lest We Forget is a ‘poignant reflection’ on World War I, featuring three works expressing the experiences of those who fought the war, and those who stayed behind. The programme notes talk of the difficulty of connecting emotionally with events deeply rooted in our heritage but now passing slowly and steadily into history. Significantly for the English National Ballet, this commission to mark last year’s centenary of World War I marks the first opportunity for still-new Artistic Director Tamara Rojo to commission new work by new choreographers for the company she has been steadily reinventing since her appointment.
No Man’s Land by the Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett explores the lingering connections between the men who went to war and the women who remained behind, their lives transformed by the need to work and not only replace the now-absent men but to make the vast amounts of munitions and uniforms required by the war. Strikingly staged with a monumental set design by Jon Bausor and evocative lighting by Paul Keoghan, this piece is the most ‘classical ballet’ of the three. Starting with the departure of the men and moving on to life in the factories and the trenches and the aftermath, it contains some moments of great visual beauty.
The work is, however, perhaps overly-saturated with a sense of sadness and loss that may be entirely appropriate but is hard to connect with emotionally beyond that. The big issue may Scarlett’s choice of music, excerpts from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Liszt, orchestrated and conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Lovely as it is, one wonders if something 20th Century with darker undertones would not have made the narrative and imagery more impactful. After all, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes had debuted The Rite of Spring in Paris with Stravinsky’s startling new music and movement in 1913.
Fortunately, Scarlett’s rather literal, sentimental work is moderated by the next two pieces. Second Breath by Russell Maliphant takes a more abstract approach with a score by Andy Cowton that combines electronics with archive recordings from the Imperial War Museum and Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which is not war poetry but is entirely appropriate contextually. Maliphant dispenses entirely with sets and working with lighting designer Michael Hulls, and costumes by Stevie Stewart creates a stark and powerful physical and narrative landscape with movement and light. Waves of bodies fall to the floor, a trench of darkness becomes a churning chaos of activity as bodies are raised to the light and fall back into darkness. Finally, an effortlessly complex and fluid duet by Tamarin Stott and Joshua McSherry-Gray focuses the action on the individual before the terrible mass tragedy returns. This is a glorious piece of dance, powerful and emotive, terrible and questioning.
Finally, the now award-winning Dust by Akram Khan. This addresses some of the themes of Scarlett’s work but with a contemporary abstracted approach. And it’s wonderful. Opening with a stark solo by the impressive Fabien Reimair, a wall of bodies emerges from the darkness and conjoins with him in waves of connected motion. The men and women separate, the men drift off and ascend a monumental trench, never to return. The women, bodies compressed and hunched, their usual ramrod-straight ballet posture reconfigured by Khan’s movement language, repeat and recycle a relentless sequence of motion and gesture that simultaneously evokes the movement of industry and the labouring of grief. Finally, a breathtakingly beautiful duet by Erina Takahashi and Fernando Bufalá that communicates both hope and hopelessness.
All this is drenched in gorgeous lighting and haze by Fabiana Piccioli and cleverly soundtracked by Jocelyn Pook, again mixing music and text. This is Akram Khan at his very best and brings great optimism for his reworking of Giselle for the company in 2016.
Lest We Forget is a powerful and important trilogy as we trudge steadily through the four-year centenary of World War I. Tamara Rojo’s bold commissioning for this traditional company has flowered beautifully and darkly.
Reviewed on 24 November 2015 | Image: ASH