On the back of a splendid run of La Bayadère earlier this month, The Royal Ballet now dives straight into a mixed bill of contrasting works which showcases the great versatility of its dancers.

Fumi Kaneko, in George Balanchine's Symphony in C
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

The Unknown Soldier, a new commission choreographed by Alastair Marriott (on an original score by Dario Marianelli with conceptual designs by Es Devlin) marks the centenary of World War 1’s armistice and opens the evening.

It’s not the first ballet London audiences have seen that pays tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Great War but it’s the first one that centres its action entirely on one biographical account – that of Ted Feltham, a British Soldier enrolled to fight with the allied troops in Flanders, and his fiancée, Florence Billington, whose recorded voice, played during the piece, serves as the genesis for Marriott’s creation.

The action depicts Billington’s treasured memories of moments with Feltham, who died only months before the end of the war, never returning home to marry and tragically changing the course of her life forever. Marriott’s softly fluid and circular choreographic language serves their burgeoning love tenderly, with melting and stirring pas de deux that touchingly recall the joy and thrust of youthful love. Promises of a shared life together weave through the lovers’ steps in a choreographic construct that’s at times evocative of MacMillan’s adored balcony pas de deux (Romeo and Juliet). I’m grateful for Marriott’s decision to cast the younger soloists of The Royal Ballet in this piece, which was excellently performed by Anna Rose O’Sullivan and William Bracewell.

The Unknown Soldier
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

As Billington, O’Sullivan was measured yet moving, and at her best in those climatic moments of abandon when her heart bursts, first of joy in Bracewell’s supportive arms, then in agony, all over the stage, in her final cry of despair upon learning of her lover’s death. Bracewell, who joined The Royal Ballet from Birmingham Royal Ballet last year, is a stunning and accomplished dancer.

Marriott took risks with The Unknown Soldier: it’s not a given that the intermittent use of alternative medias (here audio and film records) throughout a dance work will always pay off. The result isn’t seamless, but in many ways it shouldn’t be, as it tells the story of a life (one among so many women) that was so abruptly and tragically disrupted. There’s scenes of joy onstage (when the men come home from the war on leave as well as in the Feltham–Billington duets), that make for a fitting tribute to an entire generation whose youth, joy and future were ripped apart. A second voice comes in near the end of the piece, that of Feltham’s comrade Harry Patch, who held the dying soldier in his arms. This account facilitates Marriott’s last tableau, a vision-like scene of young men – fallen soldiers – moving through an otherworldly place. They’re close enough that you’re can feel their presence, but distanced enough to be unreachable. You don’t belong in the same realm as them, a symbolic see-through screen enclosing them on the stage. Dressed down to boxer shorts in a 21st-century fashion, all muscly limbs and perfectly chiselled torso, they looked, incongruously, so 2018. But then, aren’t lives and hearts still ripped apart a hundred years on? 

© ROH | Helen Maybanks

Wayne McGregor’s now contemporary classic Infra follows. With it monochrome palette and introverted exploration of relationships and solitude amidst the group interrupted by outbursts of subjected limbs, it builds on the reflective mood of Marriott's last scene. There’s also continuity of conceptual enterprise, with collaborative designs at the heart of the artistic offering (original score by Max Richter, designs by Julian Opie). The last pas, all quiet limbs and caressing moves is superbly danced. The new generation of dancers to tackle the work here have fully integrated McGregor’s dissonant choreography. Beatriz Stix Brunel is compelling in the role of the lonely girl.

The evening closes with George Balanchine’s sparkling Symphony in C (George Bizet). It’s a wonderful terpsichorean ode to thematic unity, a celebration of classical ballet and a jewel in the master’s virtuosic repertoire – at times it’s as if the pulses of the score unfurled out from underneath the dancers toes, the beat boomeranged into the pit and back from the friction of the dancers’ connection to the floor. 

Symphony in C
© ROH | Helen Maybanks

I wasn’t too sure how I felt about indulging in such a joyous celebration of dance and music so soon after the poignant opening piece, dedicated, in the choreographer’s own words, “to all the Unknown Soldiers and their loves ones, past and present”. And, truth be told, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Nonetheless, it was superbly danced by some of The Royal Ballet’s finest dancers, with a stand out performance of the Andante by Sarah Lamb, partenered by Reece Clarke.