Barbican Theatre, London, UK; April 2, 2014

Jessica Wilson

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in 'Dust'.  Photo © ASH

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in ‘Dust’.
Photo © ASH

The world premiere of English National Ballet’s programme commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, “Lest We Forget”, was an evening in which the company momentarily severed its ties with classical ballet, and embraced a new, modern language, although still remaining true to its ideals.

In what was marketed as a “landmark event in British ballet,” “Lest We Forget” was something of a first for the company. It was fulfilling to hear exclamations of awe and rapture as the audience left the theatre. The programme was a bold and adventurous, and one that truly epitomised Artistic Director Tamara Rojo’s courage as a pioneering leader who believes now works and retaining audiences are not mutually exclusive.

“Lest We Forget” appeals to both contemporary dance and ballet devotees. Although both have worked with individual ballet dancers before (both most notably with Sylvie Guillem), it’s the first time that Akram Khan (in “Dust”) and Russell Maliphant (in “Second Breath”) have collaborated with a classical ballet company to create work that fuses classical ballet traditions with modern dance. George Williamson’s “Firebird” and Liam Scarlett’s “No Man’s Land” completed the programme.

Scarlett’s “No Man’s Land” depicts the relationship between men who go off to war and the women they leave behind, and the loss and longing that is experienced simultaneously.

Alina Cojocaru and Zdenek Konvalina  in 'No Man's Land'. Photo © ASH

Alina Cojocaru and Zdenek Konvalina in ‘No Man’s Land’.
Photo © ASH

In yellow gloves the women held the powerful image of the poisonous powder the women used to produce ammunition, the only contact they would have with the front line – and somewhat ironic considering the ammunition’s destructive power. The ballet provides a dip into the social historical context of the Great War, showing as it does a detailed factory stage set and moments when we see shocking green gas.

The women’s long, thin dresses accentuated the lines of their legs, while the dramatic quality of the music, paired with a number of stunning  pas de deux, established an effective and emotive quality. Scarlett’s use of male duets evoked a clear sense of men who worked together and against each other in a bid for survival. In the more traditional male-female duets, Max Westwell and Fernanda Oliveira executed perfect lift after perfect lift; Erina Takahashi and James Forbat depicted a loving tenderness; while the nuances of Rojo and guest artist Esteban Berlanga depicted a ghost dancer and coming to terms with loss. In all it was an apt tribute to the men and women of the War.

Scarlett’s ballet was followed by Associate Artist Williamson’s “Firebird”, the music for which was composed just before the outbreak of World War I, and that makes reference to the themes of conflict and resolution that ran through the programme. Ksenia Ovsyanick truly embodied the Firebird, her strength and passion, and whose power is highly coveted. She was absolutely secure in her work. She was always precise, yet made it look all so effortless. Her partnership with Junor Souza (a budding Principal surely), was riveting and technically brilliant. This is a pairing that I hope is continued and grows stronger. He is a treat to watch, consistent in his attack and technique. I loved the easy way and unfussy way he rescued a slip from Ovsyanick, which as a result went virtually unnoticed. Nancy Osbaldeston’s Celebrity was buoyant and cheeky, as is all her work.

Anton Lukovkin in Russell Maliphant's 'Second Breath'. Photo © ASH

Anton Lukovkin in Russell Maliphant’s ‘Second Breath’.
Photo © ASH

Maliphant’s “Second Breath” depicts the sacrifice of men and the futility of their deaths. It’s haunting and evocative. The dancers (the cast of 20 is the largest Maliphant has ever used) led the audience through their poignant struggle and their facing of the emptiness of death in a calm and quiet piece. To the fore were the flowing Alina Cojocaru and Junor Souza, each emulating a great sense of purpose as they portrayed such a sorrowful subject.“Second Breath” has many memorable moments, not least the opening of lines of soldiers accompanied by a voiceover from the Imperial War Museum that repeated names, birth places and numbers. It certainly highlighted the senselessness of war. There is plenty of imagery of soldiers falling and tumbling to their deaths in slow-motion, the dancers climbing on each other’s shoulders. The horror of war is emphasised as they then fall into an abyss. Another memorable scene sees six couples advance slowly to the front of the stage in a series of tumbling lifts, moving with intention and being thrown back in a reflection of the devastation of being defeated.

The lack of a traditional balletic quality in “Second Breath” was refreshing. That it was so well presented is a great achievement for the company.

Closing the evening, Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan came together un the latter’s “Dust”, which returns to the theme of the empowerment of women in war as they become the main workforce at home, and the fact that they would make weapons for war, which would in turn kill others’ fathers, husbands, and sons.

Khan’s choreography is barren yet precise in its simplicity, the dancers whipping across the stage and hammering their message across the fourth wall. The stunning image of Khan’s body struggling on the floor and the percussive sounds as he writhed, somehow amplified by the semi-darkness, lives on. This subsequently transformed into a beautiful, rippling image as the other dancers were joined hand to elbow, with Khan the instigator of the movement from the centre. Rojo, Jenna Lee and Amber Hunt were particularly impressive as they drew the audience to their strength and intention of movement. The highlight, though. was a startling duet in which both Rojo and Khan conveyed a sense of loss and death. The dance has a cyclical nature, becoming a metaphor for willing someone to live whilst another died.

“Lest We Forget” is a huge success. It fulfilled one of Rojo’s goals of enabling theatregoers to see the choreographers of today, and how the company can embrace new and modern dance languages without threatening the classical base of their work, or indeed how they are perceived by ENB’s traditional audience. The choreographers certainly showed the expressive potential of modern choreography.

The dancers were always honest in presenting the work. There was a sense of unanimity of movement, harmony and accord, throughout. Their strength and technique was on par with the deep feelings behind the works. “Lest We Forget” was an evening that will not be forgotten.