English National Ballet marks the centenary of the start of the First World War with Lest We Forget, four works inspired by the period. Except that’s not strictly true. One is a revival of George Williamson’s Firebird, itself an adaption of the Fokine/Stravinsky ballet – but, according to the choreographer, he has changed 90 per cent of it, which does beg the question: why not make something new?
Nancy Osbaldeston is a seductive presence, flirtatious and greedy as she plays with the Firebird’s feathers. In contrast, the Peacock (Zdenek Konvalina) only gets to stare at the mirror to portray vanity. Junor Souza is also not given enough to work with to fill the drama of Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dance”.
As the Firebird, Ksenia Ovsyanick is very watchable – gorgeous lines and sturdy technique, with brief nods to the bird-like movements of the Fokine original – but she doesn’t have the opportunity to show what she’s made of.
The selling point of Lest We Forget, however – and a huge coup by artistic director Tamara Rojo – is the promise of new work by Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, neither of whom have worked with a classical company before.
There is no mistaking that Second Breath is by Maliphant. He’s a choreographer as preoccupied with stillness as he is with movement – and at times it feels alien to watch these classically trained bodies simply sway. But it’s rewarding if you stick with it: their softly sculpted arms under the eerie lighting (by long-time collaborator Michael Hulls) convey a kind of sombreness that pointe work cannot do.
Second Breath is full of these snapshots that look straight from the history books, such as the repeated lifts and falls that honour the fallen. Central to it all is a pas de deux between Alina Cojocaru and Souza – their tantalisingly slow lifts almost too painful to watch, as if lovers who no longer fit together. Cojocaru feels under-utilised in this, but Second Breath is mesmerising nonetheless.
The evening closes with Khan’s Dust. It has a terrifying opening: Khan’s contorted body suggests both emotional and physical pain. Slowly, a line of people emerges from the darkness, menacing in their presence, and watch on as he struggles. Everything is set in front of a trench into which the men disappear, never to return.
There are some powerful moments, such as the ripple of dancers engulfing Khan, or the dust from their hands that implies battle, explosives and spirits. Set to heavy drums, the women hammer, wipe away their sweat – their staccato movements indicating hard labour. And it’s pleasing to see the dancers attacking this fresh vocabulary with gusto.
Khan’s pas de deux with Rojo is an awkward, prolonged embrace: she is wrapped around him, reluctant to let go, but is left to waltz alone at the end as he disappears. Accompanied by Jocelyn Pook’s score that combines wartime soundbites and folk melodies, Dust is full of melancholic beauty.
The dancers are on more familiar ground in Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, this being the most classical of the new works. Much credit must go to the stunning set design by Jon Bausor – set on various levels with hanging lights, with a big industrial window that contains a hole as if opened up by an explosion, through which the men emerge.
The men are hunched over and weighed down. The women, trapped in their situations, make silent screams, their desperation never far from the surface. Linking the action are three pas de deux. Fernanda Oliveira and Max Westall are full of abandon and risky throws. Erina Takahashi, vulnerable and sorrowful, is delicately partnered by James Forbat in a story of doomed love, all slow développés and exaggerated penchés.
But the standout pairing is that of Rojo and Esteban Berlanga. Shocked and alone, you can literally see Rojo come to life as Berlanga plants a kiss on her neck – except he is a mere memory of someone lost. There are glimpses of Romeo & Juliet’s balcony pas de deux here, but Scarlett’s clever choreography means Berlanga is never an equal partner, his role a projection of Rojo’s character – a dream, a wish. It’s genuinely heartbreaking, and made all the more so since the three duets could be the same lovers.
ENB has here created a moving tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and also shows Rojo’s ambition to make interesting, accessible work and willingness to push her dancers into new territories. Celebrations are in order at Markova House.