English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget is ambitious and astounding.
English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget is a poignant reflection on World War One. It is dimly lit, intensely affecting and profoundly powerful. As a theatrical experience, it is majorly melancholic since haunting hopelessness, deep despair and the painful reality of lost lives permeate all three of the pieces in the programme. Nonetheless, the atmospheric compositions and admirable quality of dance readily raised my spirits when I watched this week’s London revival of the production at Sadler’s Wells.
When it premiered at the Barbican in 2014 as part of the First World War centenary commemorations, Lest We Forget marked a defining moment for English National Ballet. No longer was the company simply synonymous with the classics and tradition. Just as dedicated dancer and driven artistic director Tamara Rojo promised it would, English National Ballet was vehemently taking strides to secure its future and reach new audiences by demonstrating how ambitious collaborations can push the boundaries of ballet, dance and art.
English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget was conceived by combining the contemporary technique of three exceptionally sought-after British choreographers with the technical prowess and keen appetite for learning that English National Ballet’s classically-trained dancers possess. Dance-makers Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan introduced the company to new ways of moving, thinking and communicating – resulting in a triple bill of stirring works that astounded audiences, critics and even the cast members themselves.
Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land contains a movement vocabulary that remains rooted in the balletic lines and classical corporeal language that the company’s dancers are familiar with. Seven couples depict the heart-rending separation of men and women, the performance saturating the stage with the sorrow of relationships torn apart by the unprecedented horror of the Great War. While the boys enlist and go off to fight, their mothers, wives, lovers and sisters sustain the war efforts at home by labouring in the munitions factory.
The female dancers are en pointe and costumed in steely blue silk dresses. They splay their hands and wrap their arms around their male partners. When the women stand behind the reluctant, trudging, men and cling on tightly, the movement of the female dancers’ arms is used to depict a yearning to keep loved ones close. The actions of their arms also symbolise the rucksacks the young men shrugged on when they left to defend their country. Other simple gestures – such as when the women tenderly touch the faces of the men as they leave, committing their features to memory – convey the dread and distress that both those who fought in the war and those who stayed behind must have felt.
The three main pas de deux passages within Scarlett’s choreography are full of impressive lifts and devastating emotion. The dancers hold one other up; reach out to each other longingly; passionately embrace as if they will never let go and become utterly bereft when left alone. Cast in shadows and set to sombre music, No Man’s Land poetically expresses the entwined destinies of the men and women on their respective frontlines.
In stark contrast to Scarlett’s exquisite, gendered, choreography is Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath. This abstract piece makes no distinction between men and women and does not have an obvious narrative. Instead, it capitalises on the eerie impact a large ensemble can have. When the curtain opens, the twenty bodies onstage begin to sway and unfold as one, under a cover of semi-darkness. Their movement creates a barren landscape, tinged with all of the emotions combat triggers: fear, rivalry, grief, loyalty and co-operation.
Maliphant’s offering is almost an athletic, slow motion elegy to all of the lives lost during the war. Individual dancers are unhurriedly held aloft, rising and falling above the crowds onstage before eventually plunging from this elevated height to their untimely deaths. Elements of tai chi and acrobatic qualities from capoeira are incorporated, creating an undulating stream of flowing movement. The result is a rippling, hypnotic segment of dance, which builds in intensity.
Second Breath is set to a sinister score, which features upbeat, pulsing rhythms as well as audio recordings of veterans speaking. The dialogue recites the rising wartime death toll, serving to remind us of the futility of war. As the subtle waves of movement develop, the dancers appear to be trapped in a relentless cycle of waste and devastation.
A contorting male body thrashing around on the floor demands our attention as Akram Khan’s Dust opens, accompanied by a pounding soundtrack and spotlight illumination. Of the three contemporary choreographers who have contributed to English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget, Khan is the only one with no ballet background whatsoever. He comes from the classical Indian Kathak tradition and has stretched English National Ballet’s dancers well out of their comfort zone in order to realise his unique and evocative approach to movement within their bodies.
Dust allowed English National Ballet’s dancers to reach an entirely new audience when they were invited to present the piece at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival (the first time a ballet company had ever performed on the Pyramid Stage). The piece portrays dispirited human beings buoyed up by the strength of communities. Hands literally join together to create a rope or chain, effectively sweeping individuals up and away from the depths of the dangerous unknown; the trenches.
The women depicted in Dust are much grittier and bolder than the women in Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. These ladies are aware of the innocence they have lost and mindful of their own part in furthering the devastation and destruction of the war. Warrior-like, their movements are powerful, strong and focused. The pas de deux (expertly and expressively executed by James Streeter and Tamara Rojo in the cast I saw) explores the difficulty of re-establishing a relationship after the shock, suffering and separation of war. There is a sense of uncomfortable closeness and a general awkwardness as the couple try to overcome the enduring personal agonies of war (and, perhaps, of life). They wrestle – physically with each other and emotionally with themselves – in a fierce bid to reassert their roles, aggressively attempting to fit together in pure harmony. Pain, desperation and tenderness are the emotions embodied in Dust, affording the piece a relevance well beyond the theme of war. Khan’s composition is anguish, transformation and suffering in the flesh.
*Photography by ASH.
English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget continues its revival at Sadler’s Wells until Saturday 12 September 2015.
Update 21 October 2015: Read my review of English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.