Thrilling, innovative and original, the programme Lest We Forget marks another exciting advance for English National Ballet under Tamara Rojo’s leadership. Following last autumn’s production of Le Corsaire, she has now showcased the company further with an evening that included three new works, each by a different choreographer.  Marking the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan’s contrasting approaches range from the almost literal and ballet-based (Scarlett) through the largely abstract and contemporary (Maliphant) to the intensely personal and culturally eclectic (Khan).

In Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, women clothed in sombre headscarves and aprons work in a munitions factory, packing the shells that will inflict suffering and loss on their German counterparts. Scarlett has sought to develop a dance vocabulary that captures the period’s suffering, with motifs such as the women’s deep plies in second position en face to the audience, their arms behind them, shoulders open in anguish. There is an echo of La Bayadere as the men zigzag down a ramp from upstage left; are they real, or ghosts, or memories, or from a dream? Although in some ways this work is all about the women, it is the men that dominate the choreography as they manipulate the women in extensive series of lifts.

Maliphant’s Second Breath is a collaborative work with lighting designer Michael Hulls and composer Andy Howton. A mature choreographer, Maliphant understands brilliantly how to use visual repetition and movement in sequences and counterpoint to create fascinating and satisfying images. Dancers stand rooted to the spot, swaying on the stage stippled with light like a field of corn in the wind; or picked out from the darkness as if in a Caravaggio painting, they repeatedly and gracefully climb onto each other’s shoulders before falling, almost floating, forwards or backwards into shadow.

The evening concluded with Akram Khan’s Dust. At first, the lights slowly come up to reveal Khan centre stage, hunched on the floor curled forward in agony, his back to the audience as he flings out his limbs and strikes the ground. This is a work of immensely powerful imagery, such as when the dancers link arms, hands on shoulders to form a living, writhing rope that pushes and pulls Khan, holding him at its centre, or when the dancers clap their hands together seeming to release small clouds of dust. Khan’s intensity is matched by Rojo’s highly focused performance in duet with him and the rhythmic corps of women dancers. At the end, we see, for a moment, a solitary crouching male figure, illuminated upstage left, at the top of the earth wall that forms the background to this work.

The evening also included George Williamson’s Firebird, an interesting work but out of place here. How much better, if that ballet had gone into another mixed-bill, and ENB had commissioned a fourth work, on theme, perhaps from a female choreographer?

Maggie Watson

15 April 2014