sat 20/07/2024

Lest We Forget, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Lest We Forget, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells

Lest We Forget, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells

Akram Khan's piece stands out in second airing of war-themed contemporary bill

If you need a hand: Akram Khan's 'Dust' suggests the power of community© ASH

When English National Ballet premiered Lest We Forget in April last year, to enthusiastic reviews, they were ahead of the pack with First World War commemoration, and the ambitious modern programme was the first sign of Tamara Rojo's determination to make the company's repertoire more contemporary.

But in the intervening 18 months there have been war-themed ballet programmes aplenty, and we have all got used to the sense of dynamism that swirls around ENB under Rojo's leadership. Stripped of these mitigating factors, last night's revival at Sadler's Wells was a chance for the three pieces (the unlovely Williamson Firebird has been mercifully dropped) to stand or fall on their own merits.

Don't let the silently screaming women of the opening fool you: Liam Scarlett's No Man's Land is a pretty little piece of Edwardian sentimentality. It focuses on the women left behind but if that explains the dreamy indistinctness of the men playing soldiers (I take them to be mostly in the women's heads), why are the women in equally soft focus? From languidly packing shells in a beautifully-lit workbench sequence – which this time round featured rather less dramatic volumes of dust – to engaging in rather histrionic pas de deux with their longed-for Tommies, these women don't seem like the gritty endurers whose work won them the vote, but like the fevered imaginings of pre-war débutantes seeing themselves in blue silk dresses and passionate clinches with departing soldiers (pictured below right).

Tamara Rojo and Esteban Berlanga in Liam Scarlett's No Man's LandGavin Sutherlands's orchestration of Liszt's Harmonies poétiques et religieuses very much reinforces this reading, rendering Romantic melody with rumty-tum instrumentation that trumpets God Save the King and we'll all be home by Christmas. It's cleverly done, but adds to the overblown mood: the piano-only final segment sounds better, though in dance terms, even with the delightful Alina Cojocaru, it's approaching one pas de deux too many in a piece that could comfortably lose ten minutes off its running time. It's still gorgeous to look at – designer Jon Bausor's multi-level set is atmospheric, and Scarlett supplies much attractive choreography – but I just feel that, even if all art will likely fall short of capturing the true horror of a generation-changing conflict, this piece is still too anodyne for its subject matter.

On second viewing, Second Breath is a rare dud from regular collaborators Russell Maliphant, Michael Hulls (lighting) and Andy Cowton (music). In a stage as dark and watery as an underwater kelp forest at night, dancers sway, climb and fall in sonnambulant slow motion; even the veteran speaking of "continual bombardment all the time" sounds distant and dreamy. A pulsing bass heartbeat introduces a welcome change of tempo for the second-half duet between Alina Cojocaru and Junor Souza, but even these two otherwise charismatic dancers can't make it come alive for me.

Dancers of English National Ballet in Akram Khan's 'Dust'After all that, give thanks and raise the roof for Akram Khan's heart-stoppingly wonderful Dust, which is every bit as good as on its first outing. The opening segment, with a contorted male body (Fabian Reimair) given mesmerising tentacular "arms" by the rest of the company, suggests both the brokenness of individuals and the strength of communities. In the second segment, Khan's picture of women munitions workers puts Scarlett's in the shade: these grey-clad women are tough and unsentimental, dancing with clenched fists, bulging arm- and shoulder-muscles, aggressive whirls and loud stamps on the floor.

In the final segment, James Streeter does a fine job of taking Khan's part in a pas de deux with Tamara Rojo which jettisons gendered cliché and swooping lifts for a long hard look at the difficulty of reestablishing a relationship after a traumatic separation. Rojo and Streeter wrestle, they dance the same steps, they close their bodies together but only in uncomfortable, contorted poses, they experiment with tenderness and are sometimes still blindsided with pain. It's inspired choreography, and perfectly complemented by Jocelyn Pook's quietly percussive score, Sander Loonen's red earth bank, and Fabiana Piccioli's murky lighting.

Dust is a standout piece that, like Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria, which it resembles, deserves a shelf-life way beyond topical centenary celebrations. The others may not be so lucky.

  • Lest We Forget is at Sadler's Wells until 12 September and then on tour in Milton Keynes and Manchester

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