Bellicose ballet at the Barbican

Tamara Rojo in Lest We Forget at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Tamara Rojo in Lest We Forget at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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This week saw the launch of a landmark British ballet. Lest We Forget (Barbican, April 2-12) is an evening of four dance pieces inspired by the centenary of the First World War. While there are many cultural works in the offering across 2014, ballet is a wonderful way to mark the 100 years since 1914, accessible as it is through reach of emotion, translation of empathy, analysis of subject matter and narrative

It’s exciting to think that this could be a highlight of future British ballet history. Who knows, maybe it will be seen in 100 years time by the fresh eyes of a new audience. Frederick Ashton wasn’t to know Ondine (1958) would still be showing at the Royal Opera House 50 years later, or that Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon (1974) would still be such a hit for so long after the opening night with Antoinette Sibley.

Lest We Forget is an intelligently programmed evening by English National Ballet artistic director, Tamara Rojo, with four modern British choreographers - Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan – creating new works. Then there’s The Firebird, originally choreographed in 1910, here re-worked by ENB Associal Artist George Williamson and pertaining to the destruction of humanity by man’s own hand.

Each commission is different in tone and concept – Scarlett’s (No Man’s Land) is about the relationship between the men going out to war and the women they leave behind; Maliphant’s (Second Breath) depicts the sacrifice of soldiers on the battlefield and Khan’s (Dust) is more concerned with the shifting role that women played while the men were at the front line.

There are powerful images of loneliness, loss and longing, heroism, grief and an overwhelming sense of numbers lost – men and women traverse the stage, crowds of dancers perform in unison amidst dust, in dull, muted costume for the most part, moving laboriously slowly or with intense anguish and focus.

It’s the first time that the ENB has performed at the Barbican, a cultural institution associated with modernity. It is also the first time that two of the choreographers, Khan and Maliphant, have worked with a classical ballet company. There’s a real sense of progression in the air.

Rojo said of her inspiration behind the evening: “I need the public to see the choreographers of today, and how this company can embrace this new modern language, without threatening what you know of them. At the Barbican audiences are very much accustomed to go outside their comfort zone, and I hope we will all be challenged. This subject is so serious that all of these choreographers are treading very reflectively with it. You will see from each of them a different path.”

A path that hopefully will lead to Lest We Forget becoming a signature evening quartet of works, to share these remarkable pieces – each fitting tributes of great historical significance – with audiences for many years to come.

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