The star turns of Alastair Marriott’s new work The Unknown Soldier are Es Devlin’s set and Bruno Poet’s lighting design, and if this had been an installation at Tate Modern, I would have been thrilled by the iridescent colours and the use of shadow. As a multi-media ballet at the Royal Opera House, it is less effective: at times the partially lowered curtain bathed in shimmering streams of rainbow light, or the large screen that descended from above, obscured the back of the stage; even from row C of the Amphitheatre sightlines seemed perilous. Marriott aspires to tell his story from a primarily female perspective, drawing on the recorded words of Florence Billington, who is shown in archive footage projected on the front curtain, and danced by Yasmine Naghdi. The other two named roles are for men; Matthew Ball as Ted Feltham (the soldier), and Leo Dixon as the Telegraph Boy, dressed in a kinky shiny uniform with see-through effect.

All three dancers gave polished performances, particularly Ball in his elegant opening adagio enchaînement, full of pirouettes and arabesques, but there seemed little for Naghdi to get her teeth into. The male-centric narrative presents an essentially passive female protagonist, whose choices centre on finding a partner, and the ballet is mostly about the men. After the battle, we see them, in a manner reminiscent of Matthew Bourne’s work, embodied beyond the grave as a scantily clad ghostly male corps de ballet. In this, the ballet (I suspect unintentionally) captures the way that the catastrophe for a generation of men has overshadowed, and continues to overshadow, the disastrous consequences for a generation of women in a society economically skewed against the single female, who with no hope of marriage were to eke out existences on low pay, living in bedsits or tolerated as maiden aunts in spare rooms. By failing to tell it from the woman’s point of view Marriott inadvertently reveals how badly that story needs to be told.

Wayne McGregor’s Infra raises questions about how we communicate, and the programme notes hint at interesting links between language and the physical and the emotional. Above the stage, two–dimensional digital figures moved across a screen passing each other indifferently, while on stage the dancers enacted a series of encounters, to Max Richter’s musical soundscape of Morse code, string instruments and a glorious piano solo wonderfully played by Paul Stobart.

The final ballet was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C and what a joy it was! Lauren Cuthbertson and Vadim Muntagirov danced magnificently in the First Movement, followed by Marianela Nuñez and Ryoichi Hirano, who gave strong individual performances although they did not seem completely at ease as a pair. Akane Takada and Alexander Campbell were delightful in the Allegro Vivace, and Yasmine Naghdi and Valentino Zucchetti acquitted themselves well in the Fourth Movement, although she must have been tired (this was her third appearance of the evening). Balanchine’s work was a brilliant conclusion to the programme, and reminder that, ultimately, ballet is all about the dancing.

Maggie Watson

25th November 2018