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The Unknown Soldier review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘slight and sentimental’

Matthew Ball and Yasmine Naghdi in The Unknown Soldier at the Royal Opera House, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
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If only there was a sense of rage in Alastair Marriott’s new one act ballet The Unknown Soldier, which opens the latest triple bill at Covent Garden.

Commemorating the centenary of the end of First World War, it’s a well-intentioned work underpinned by narrative cliché and lavish production values, including Es Devlin’s minimalist grey set (reminiscent of a Shoreditch microbrewery), Bruno Poet’s diverting columns of purple and green light and a horn-infused score by composer Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his Atonement soundtrack.

The dancing – often winsome and dreamy – plays out beneath intermittent bursts of war footage and interviews with veteran Harry Patch and Florence Billington, who recalls the loss of her teenage sweetheart.

The video vernacular and prettified abstractions of dance don’t mesh well, and it’s the former that lends the work its emotional heft, despite the sincerity of Yasmine Naghdi’s performance as young Florence, sparrow-light and inquisitive in a blush chiffon dress.

Attractive as it may be, the closing ensemble of beautiful ghostly ballet boys in beige pants, led by Matthew Ball as the titular youth, seems a rather superficial (if not mawkish) response to the pointless slaughter of millions that presaged the bloodiest century in history.

Meanwhile, there’s both intellectual rigour and clarity of feeling in Wayne McGregor’s Infra, a snaking study of urban anxiety and fraught intimacy. The evening finishes on a fizzing high note with Balanchine’s Symphony in C, a supremely-crafted ballet blanc confection danced with care and chutzpah by the company.

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Alastair Marriott's new First World War ballet is slight and sentimental, but McGregor and Balanchine revivals impress