Remembering war: Lest We Forget at Sadler’s Wells

A powerful message, a visceral execution, and the burden of history conveyed with rare grace: Lest We Forget is back, in great shape, and ready to blow the audience away. After the show’s debut in 2014, the English National Ballet returns to the London dance scene, this time to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

The historical facts are well-known, but what did it mean for young people to take up arms and fight for their country? What was it like for wives to stay behind, say farewell to their husbands, and wait for them tirelessly, sometimes forever? What was the sound of grenades like? The smell of dust? How did it feel like to see your companions fall dead, one after the other?

The show consists of three routines created by three of the UK’s most acclaimed choreographers – Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. From classical ballet to soulful contemporary dance, the eclectic nature of the show is just as multifaceted as the war itself, which shows just how many approaches one can take to represent a single historical event. Lest We Forget was the first commission of English National Ballet’s director Tamara Rojo, and it has travelled across world before returning to London this autumn.

Staying truthful to its title, Lest We Forget remains engraved in the audience’s memory. What remains after No Man’s Land by Scarlett is the sense of absence – a quintessential feature of the experience of the conflict for women and men of the time. There are empty embraces, pas à deux of longing, and women working in a factory while men march towards the front. Before going their separate ways, the soldiers “put on” their wives as back-packs (and potentially, metaphorically, burdens), to signify that during the war couples were physically apart but by no means emotionally detached. The portrayal of relationships being torn apart is compelling and touching.

Some lifts of the routine almost seem to nod to Contact Improvisation, which helps to bring couples even closer and make them more intimate. Starting on a more tepid note, the piece quickly turns downright tragic, culminating in a stunning final duet with Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Herandez. This is really sublime classical ballet put to the service of history and memory.

Russell Maliphant is also interested in the theme of proximity, in spite of being a much more abstract choreographer. Knowing him from his Maliphantworks at The Print Room Coronet, one can hardly expect a narrative from his routines, which are normally triumphs of light, shapes, energy. In Second Breath, he accepts the challenge to create a more narrative-based and thematic choreography, with striking results.

The first thing that takes one’s breath away is the feeling that the entire company is actually breathing as one single body. There’s rising, falling, waving, rolling, lifting people up only to let them dive down in the air. As they were killed on the battlefield, we see rows and rows of soldiers collapsing on the ground, though effortlessly, soundlessly. The rising in the air and repeatedly falling down reminded me of Dante’s line in Inferno V, “E caddi come corpo morto cade” (“And I fell, as a dead body falls”). Maliphant’s dancers seem to have no limits to what they can do, defying gravity and physics. Inexplicably, we are drawn to admire the tragedy we are presented with, and we are left to wish for more.

In a real crescendo, Dust closes the show with unparalleled poignancy. The routine has been performed several times, including on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2014. I remember being at the festival, and dragging my friends out of our tents at 12.30pm (so early!) to go and see it. Indeed, I had not forgotten it, but seeing it live again reminded me just how extraordinary it is. From a shell-shocked soldier writhing, to the entire cast of dancers creating a pair of sinuous wings, there are heaps of stage presence, wonderful synchronicity, and many goosebumps.

As real works of art do, Dust had much more to say here than when I saw it the first time. I was impressed especially by the group performance of the female cast. Khan’s intention was to focus on women as they crafted weapons for men. In a way, though, this made them turn into the war themselves, which is one of the possible readings of the piece. Swirling like grenades, exploding like bombs, they flesh out the struggle and strength of the conflict. The piece ends once again in a tremendous duet, featuring Tamara Rojo herself.

This is an impeccable performance, coupled with the horrifying brutality of the Great War – a striking oxymoron that is impossible to forget.

Lest We Forget will play at Sadler’s Wells until 29 September.