The evening opened with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land set to excerpts from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Made for seven couples exploring the loss and separation of the war, Scarlett considered the role of women in the conflict as munitions factory workers creating the very kinds of weapons of death that would kill their own loved ones. Jon Bausor’s dark, atmospheric set conveyed both a grubby warehouse and the trenches, and it was used to great effect as the men made their way down the ramp and onto the stage to come to war, where I was reminded of the famous Shades scene from La Bayadère. The climax of the piece belonged to Alina Cojocaru and Issac Hernández with their pas de deux set to sublime piano performed by Julia Richter. This was where Scarlett’s choreography became most alive and expressive for me. Cojocaru was (as usual) exquisite in her yearning for a ghost lover who never came back and Hernández a charismatic yet shadowy figure we must assume has already passed beyond this world. 

Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath conjured communal and mechanistic images of warfare, gunshots and joyless waiting for the conflict to be over. The lighting design, by Michael Hulls, was characteristically atmospheric, bringing to life that gloomy twilight we all imagine when we speak of the trenches. The programme note revealed this was the largest cast Maliphant had ever worked with at the time of creation - twenty dancers - but he used all those bodies skillfully. The way he accumulated dancers on stage and across the progress of the music made me think of the endless waves of soldiers ‘going over the top’ and I enjoyed the ungendered way the men and women of the company mixed to convey the desperation of all peoples involved in the conflict, everywhere.

The bill ended with Akram Khan’s Dust, which was the highlight of the evening. I loved the soundscape of compelling percussion mixed with a recording of a song from the trenches, recorded in 1916 by a man on his way to Normandy who was shortly to die there. Khan is equally at home with the power and striking tableaux of the large ensemble as he is with two bodies. The unusual pas de deux where Tamara Rojo and James Streeter explored a kind of insect-like dynamism and fluttering twitching movement, and the waltzing of the women and the strong hand shapes gave this work a unique visual language that kept me enthralled to the end. I particularly liked a clever piece of physical theatre where the dancers made collective shapes that could have been broken train tracks, a DNA helix, or the wings of a huge angel.

Although there were movement echos in all three works of climbing from trenches, gunfire and separation, all of them had an abstraction that allowed for an audience member to maintain their own reflection on the centenary. Common to all three pieces was a sideways look at the war, refracting its various themes and tragedies through a detached lens of a solemn sense of loss rather than any kind of narrative. I wouldn’t necessarily have known the theme of this programme from having watched without any prior information, and I can’t decide how I feel about that. On the one hand these works are engaging with the themes of modernism and abstraction that the first world war partly helped bring about; how was there to be narrative and story in any kind of art any more when the world had suffered such a breach in its logic and sense? On the other, perhaps more obvious and on-the-nose artworks about past tragedies are called for in our times to make good on the warning implicit in this triple bill.