Liam Scarlett's No Man's Land (Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Zdenek Konvalina) Photo: ASH

Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land
(Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Zdenek Konvalina)
Photo: ASH

Sadler’s Wells, London
September 8, 2015

Charlotte Kasner

Anniversaries are in many ways arbitrary occasions. One year, five years, fifty years…there is no intrinsic significance that makes those milestones any more significant than say, two, four or sixty years. Some things are so vast, that distance is required before they can begin to be understood. A century is just far enough away to be memorable to only a few, even in these days of ever increasing numbers of centenarians, and still close enough to be tangible. People from a hundred years ago are just like us but also so very different.

The Great War is no exception. Even as scenes of war and devastation in the Middle East are streamed across the media hourly, the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” a hundred years ago, continues to evince a visceral reaction. Many more millions have died because of wars since, but the millions of the Great War dead echo down the decades. Their voices, recorded in poetry and prose, on wax, in novels and in music continue to call to us in the vain hope we will remember and learn.

In this spirit, ENB commissioned three works to commemorate the beginning of the Great War. The evening opened with by far the best of the three, Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. Astonishingly for one so young, he manages to evoke a real sense of period and avoids the pitfalls into which both the other works tumble. He reminds us that this was not just a man’s war: his women mourn the departure of their husbands, brothers and lovers, but also contribute to the making of the weapons that destroy other women’s husbands, brothers and lovers.

Jon Bausor’s set is very clever in that it is both a factory and suggestive of a church, with its opaque window at the back and bench-cum-altar where the shells are filled with deadly yellow phosphorus; as toxic to the women who filled them as the soldiers, civilians and animals who were on the receiving end. Paul Keogan’s lighting is equally evocative and suggests the equally deadly mustard gas that killed, blinded and maimed so many.

The use of Liszt was effective (and a surprise) and avoided the clichés of more familiar works. Gavin Sutherland’s orchestrations were subtle and luscious and he sensible allowed the more familiar solo piano to close the piece.

In contrast, Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath is slight and tedious. Like Dust that follows it, it could be about anything, but unlike Dust, it has nothing to say. Andy Cowton’s score is more suited to a club than a commemoration of an early twentieth-century war. If that were all, it could easily be dismissed but many will find offensive the fact that recordings of soldiers who fought in the trenches are sampled and looped repetitively like so much rap, often drowned by the noise of the score, and treated with disrespect.

Akram Khan’s Dust is just as unable to evoke anything other than the present, although it is in itself a dramatic and visually interesting work. A large and significant proportion of the Great War was fought in the Middle East where dust was probably uppermost in many lives as the major form of environmental hazard. But surely, it is mud, or mud and rain, that most encapsulates the conflict, so why was this chosen?

Choreographically, Dust owes much to the great Igor Moiseyev, his motif of linked arms creating a wave being used at some length. It is not clear whether we are listening to Indian drums or military drums but the insistent, percussive rhythm is at least dramatic. This would stand alone as a work worth keeping in the repertoire but it is Scarlett who must take the honours of the evening for producing a work that is truly worthy of its subject.