2014 was a year of widespread commemoration to mark the centenary of the First World War. This memorial extended to the stage with the English National Ballet’s triptych of pieces under the phrase synonymous with remembrance, Lest We Forget, which made a return this autumn for a nationwide tour. Whilst intending to diffuse public preconceptions on ballet with its innovative style, the collaborative work simultaneously challenges the way we reflect on the Great War, one century on.
Liam Scarlett’s opener to the evening, ‘No Man’s Land’ played on the significance behind his chosen title. There was a surprising absence of khaki and helmets as the ornate velvet curtains rose to reveal a row of women, not tutu- and tiara-clad, but in soot-stained aprons and bonnets. Bent double with hacking coughs, the women sent dust clouds flying as they worked in a munitions factory assembly line with hands yellowed by gunpowder.
Once the ‘Canary girls’ in the factories had bade the men farewell as they set off for the trenches, Scarlett was not afraid of maintaining a simplicity in his choreography. The stillness of slouched soldiers waiting at the Front was more powerful than any possible interpretation of a glorious military push towards enemy lines.
The sombre and reflective piano composition by Liszt mournfully accompanied the pas de deux between a woman and her soldier returned from the Front. It impressed on me how minute changes in eye contact and body language can collapse or transform the mood of the performance; the soldier’s dropped gaze—hunched soldiers and limp movements effectively depicted the psychological impact of the war beyond physical injury.
Russell Maliphant incorporated recorded sound with the live orchestral accompaniment in ‘Second Breath’ to announce the transition into a more contemporary interpretation of the War after the interval. A series of numbers were read out in English, German and in French, which increased as the dancers’ movements gradually became more frenetic, to culminate in millions, denoting the conflict’s astronomical worldwide death toll.
The pitch black, empty set was stark, focusing all attention on the movement onstage. In a particularly poignant moment incorporating Michael Hulls’ stunningly simple lighting design, the bottom half of the space was plunged in darkness, lighting the emptiness above the heads of dancers. Intricate aerial work saw some dancers lifted into the light, before falling helplessly into darkness… and death. This symbolic and physical representation of going ‘over the top’ was deeply moving and engaging, without the need for an elaborate set.
To conclude the trio was ‘Dust’, the most dynamic and least ‘balletic’ piece of the evening. The dancers were strong and warrior-like, in contrast to the stillness of ‘No Man’s Land’, moving powerfully as one in some extremely impressive ensemble sequences. The electronic percussion in the soundtrack reverberated around the space like artillery fire, and choreographer Akram Khan pushed the art form to its breaking point as the dancers writhed and twitched in pain. The devastating effects of war felt uncomfortably familiar in this more transcendent interpretation of the century-old war.
As depressing and inaccessible as a ballet about the Great War may sound, Lest We Forget was highly compelling, and it captivated the audience until the curtain fell. The horror of the subject was approached in three very separate and interesting ways. The outstanding quality of the dancers’ performances effectively communicated the various memories of War to its modern audience—unforgettable.
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