Commissioned for English National Ballet in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, Lest We Forget is both a reflection and an emotional journey into the lives and dreams of the millions of people who were dragged into the conflict. Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan courageously explore the unbearable uncertainty about the future of these men and women. Each has a particular take on the permanent fear of an attack, the emptiness that followed the departure of the loved ones and the new roles taken up by spouses, daughters and sisters at home, as men left to the trenches.

No Man’s Land (Scarlett), the most classical piece in the programme, turns the stage into a dusty factory with broken windows. Upstage, women wipe the sweat from their faces, sigh and briefly rely on the benches. We feel their tiredness from endless working days while men slowly head to war.

Russel Maliphant's <i>Second Breath</i> © ASH
Russel Maliphant's Second Breath
© ASH
The image of the war was made not only of battles, but also of expectation, routine work and marching. These moments are marked by three technically and artistically demanding duets performed by Crystal Costa (in a moving and strong debut in the role), Max Westwell, Erina Takahashi, Fabian Reimair, Alina Cojocaru (a dancer of rare sensibility) and James Forbat. While this ballet does not highlight the male characters, the evident connection between the partners makes the last pas–de-deux an enjoyable classical moment.

Twenty static dancers start swaying and eventually falling in the poignant opening of Second Breath, Maliphant’s abstract interpretation of World War I. The idea of abandon is present throughout the piece: dressed in military-inspired sleeveless vests, army lines successively succumb to the enemy. Characters are lifted by their peers in desperate attempts to reach out for air, but fall further away or simply sink back into the group, in one of the most moving moments of the piece. Spiralling movements and a tender melancholy pervade Cojocaru and Junor Souza’s emotive duet, precisely and fluidly performed to recordings taken from the Imperial War Museum Archive. What makes Second Breath memorable is the variety of feelings — sadness, exhaustion, hesitation, courage, abandon and the mutual support of these men and women towards each other.

Akram Khan's <i>Dust</i> © ASH
Akram Khan's Dust
© ASH
Like a tortured prisoner in dark solitary confinement, Fabian Reimair performs Khan's Dust's visceral solo — marked by contortions, spasms and other expressions of deep pain — as a line of dancers slowly makes its way upstage. In an absolutely moving moment (in every sense of the word), the prisoner joins the human chain formed by the dancers and, by doing so, seems to develop wings and fly away from oppression. There is not a single breath nor gesture deprived of meaning and emotion. We see people sowing the land and working in industry, followed by a soul-stirring duet by Tamara Rojo and James Streeter. They rely on each other in order not to crumble, and together try to move forward. We witness a supernatural creature formed by Rojo’s body and Streeter’s legs walking downstage in a memorable moment.

Lest We Forget provides us with a rare combination of technical dancing and intense interpretation, and its value should not be not limited to the dance world, as we experience in our hearts the abandon and pain brought about by the war, and hold the hope that a similar tragedy will not happen ever again.

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