There are few evenings of dance that leave me still unable to think of anything else the morning after, but now 12 hours since viewing Tamara Rojo’s most ambitious commission as artistic director to date, I am still marvelling and processing the emotional impact Lest We Forget had on me.
This brave programme, which includes three new works from young choreographers Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and world-famous contemporary choreographer Akram Khan, focuses on the gritty intensity of the Great War, with two of the works homing in on the role of women during this time.
Pleasingly, for a ballet purist who feels a lot more comfortable around tutus and tiaras, the evening opened with Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a piece inspired by the separation endured between men and women and that has its roots firmly in the classical vocabulary. The piece begins with the women preparing for the departure of their loved ones. There is a powerful image of the women standing behind the men with their arms folded up in front of the men’s chests representing the straps of their backpacks as they prepare to trudge off to war. What follows is a series of visually beautiful pas de deux, climaxing in the moment where one of the women finds no-one returning for her and she shares one last duet with her partner. My first ever live viewing of lead principal Alina Cojocaru (on this occasion partnered by Zdenek Konvalina) was truly mesmeric with its acrobatic lifts and her fairy-like touch making for a heart-breakingly beautiful denouement.
Although widely criticised for its inclusion in the programme was George Williamson’s Firebird. I’d argue the piece provides some colourful light relief after being so emotionally spent during the last piece. It’s still a mythical treat for the eyes with its colourful costuming and the title role is played superbly by Ksenia Ovsyanick showcasing her athleticism and flexibility.
Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath left me a little cold; it is by far the most stark and simplistic of the pieces, set against a totally bare set. The piece doesn’t take any narrative shape and the subtleties were lost on me. It includes another pas de deux featuring Alina Cojocaru; however, nothing as powerful as that seen in No Man’s Land.
The evening concludes with impact in the much-anticipated new work from Akram Khan, Dust. It is another piece that focuses on the role of women, this time portraying them as a powerful workforce with repetitive pumping movements to the pulsating rhythm of the beat. The men leave them, clambering over into no man’s land to experience life in the trenches. The final duet features Rojo herself in another repetitive series of stomping movements that peters out into floating waltz steps as she is finally left twirling by herself, as if under a trance.
Lest We Forget is a highly original night in the English National Ballet’s history and might just be remembered as the time when this company, used to touring the classics such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, really re-invented itself.
Lest We Forget is playing at the Barbican Centre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, see the English National Ballet’s website. Photo by ASH.