Tamara Rojo’s appointment as artistic director for the English National Ballet has proven to be a thrilling move as triumphantly shown with Lest We Forget - a collection of bold new commissions to mark the centenary of the First World War. Rojo has taken brave steps with this production - it is the first English National Ballet season ever at the more contemporary Barbican rather than the usual classical home that is The Coliseum. It is also the first time that contemporary dance choreographers Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant have collaborated with a ballet company.
First on stage is Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land depicting women working in a munitions factory while uniform-clad men who could be their husbands, lovers or brothers gravely march to the war front. The rows of women with yellowed hands and gathering dust while they repetitively work shows a melancholic loneliness despite all working together in the same space. Scarlett clearly demonstrates how the roles of both genders created a form of long-distance connection - the ammunition made by the women being sent to the men like a reluctantly horrific love letter.
George Williamson’s Firebird provided a striking contrast to the rest of the programme and the only dance there not specially commissioned. First performed in 2012 with a powerful Stravinsky score, Firebird is a striking ballet retelling the classic Russian fairy tale of the highly coveted mythical creature pursued out of greed, power and vanity. Ksenia Ovsyanick combines the majestic with increasing vulnerability as the title role while Junor Souza athletically excelled as the proud and arrogant military captain.
The remainder of the programme belonged to the giants of the contemporary world. Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath had all dancers in khaki jackets minus any military insignia. Numbers of figures are lifted overhead before weightlessly and suddenly dropping into waiting arms while haunting Imperial War Museum recordings of soldiers of various nationalities play out. The flowing style of Maliphant, with dancers imitating each other’s movements in rapid succession, gives more effect to the sense of countless people being pushed to the same dreadful fate.
Akram Khan’s Dust provides a fittingly moving finale. Echoing No Man’s Land at the start, Dust explores the separation of men and women as death and anguish loom. Dust opens with dancers in a line, joining waving arms which flow together like a single being. In the middle is the contorting figure of James Streeter - every back and arm muscle spectacularly moving as if each has a mind of its own and expressing anguish. Dust ends with a sensitive duet between Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair who swerve around each other and elaborately balance together while maintaining a feeling of sadness and distance.