As 2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and cultural events themed around the Great War will take centre stage in London, giving us opportunities to commemorate, remember, and reflect on WWI. English National Ballet’s new bill is in line with this and the initiative behind Lest We Forget – to present specially-commissioned pieces inspired by the Great War – is both a fitting and moving tribute.

No Man's Land © ASH
No Man's Land
© ASH

Tamara Rojo, the company’s artistic director, thought big. She got three leading British choreographers on board, Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, and gave them carte blanche in interpreting the theme of war. The choreographers each have their own language, very different from one another, and this makes for a compelling programme. There is a continuous thread though, as they all choose to focus on the war’s people, the men and women of a generation who, as well as being – active or passive – actors of the war, became its victims.

Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land opens the programme. Fourteen dancers – seven men and seven women – share the stage, and Scarlett timely brings them together and casts them apart, enacting the enduring separation of genders forced into isolation during the war. While the women are left to fend for themselves, working in artillery producing factories –cleverly rendered by Jon Bausor’s design – the men crawl along the bare downstage – No Man’s Land and its haunting trenches – flat against the floor, using arm strength to progress or retreat on the ground. Both genders endure strenuous labour, and the staccato rhythm of the women’s daily workload is as symbolic as their desolate expressions. Scarlett’s portrayal of gender division is powerful. But even more so is his treatment of the men’s homecoming. The young choreographer truly excels at choreographing pas de deux. His lifts are intricate and original, his transition steps fluid, his musicality impeccable. There is room for interpretation and the cast deals with the mix of love, fear and pain carefully. Excerpts from Franz Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques et religieuses is a fitting choice of musical accompaniment, and Liszt’s delicate piano solos both support and sublime Scarlett’s choreography. Alina Cojocaru is moving as the main dancer, left alone on the stage when, upon the men’s return, she must suffer her man’s absence. Her last dance, with a phantom-like Zdenek Konvalina – which we understand went missing in action – sent shivers down my spine. She longs for his touch, immortalises past embraces and abandons herself to the memory of him as a partner gone forever.

Second Breath © ASH
Second Breath
© ASH

Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath is much more abstract. This is in line with the choreographer’s signature style, and allows for a different take on the war. The twenty-strong ensemble relentlessly sinuate in and out of ordered lines, cluttered groups and circumstances in expansive floor-sweeping movements, and gender division is not featured as it was in Scarlett’s piece. More so here, all suffer the same ordeal and evolve together in a never-ending pull towards the abyss, kneeling up only to fall further below the ground. The classical ensemble tackle the challenge of Maliphant’s off balance movement and weight-shifts with courage. Bodies experiment with each other in different ways, leaning against one another, and the support they give each other is powerfully metaphorical of soldiers’ fraternal love. Second Breath is a piece of mood, and a successful portrayal of man’s entrapment in the war.

Akram Khan’s Dust closes the programme. This is the first time the established multi-faceted choreographer collaborates with a classical ballet company. Khan’s movement originates from a very different place in the body than that of the classical dancer, and I was impressed by the  female dancers’ interpretation. The piece stars a suffering, convulsing, lonely man – Khan himself – and the women of English National Ballet who represent Britain’s workforce during the war. There is a cyclical effect in the choreography, and we witness the repetitive patterns behind the war: making artillery, thus providing weapons, wanting to give up, facing the inevitability of one’s destiny, and enduring more of the same all over again. The second half of the piece is a duet for Khan and Rojo, and ENB’s leading lady proves she has the persona, experience and artistry to equal Khan’s raw magnetism. Akram Khan’s contribution to our contemporary arts scene is well inscribed in Britain’s cultural identity, and he has produced exceptional work. Dust is incredibly significant, and shook me to my core.

Dust © ASH
Dust
© ASH

Also in the programme was George Williamson’s 2012 Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s original music. Of course the score is contemporary to WW1, and some of the tale’s inherent symbolism is relevant to the theme of war, but I felt it was an odd choice alongside the rest of the programme. Nonetheless, the ballet is well revisited, and very well performed by the company.

With Lest We Forget, English National Ballet not only pays a memorable tribute to our past, but also sets a steady foot forward towards its future. In embracing contemporary works so wholeheartedly, English National Ballet inscribes modern movement in its repertoire, alongside secure classic and neoclassical pieces, and I hope Lest We Forget is just the beginning of a long term collaboration with the Barbican.