This four-part dance show in remembrance of the First World War is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent moments (notably in the first sequence, ‘No Man’s Land’, choreographed by Luke Scarlett, where the women wrap their arms round the men’s shoulders in mimicry of the straps of kit-bags, and where the yellow hands of the women workers flash around the ghosts of their men-folk following battle in the trenches; and in the last sequence, ‘Dust’, choreographed by Akram Khan, which uses snatches of the recording of Cpl Edward Dwyer from 1916 singing to the tune of Auld Lang Syne to accompany a powerful duet between soldier and nurse, poignant even more so when you realise Dwyer was only twenty years old when he died in combat shortly after making the recording), and some mis-steps – Russell Maliphant’s ‘Second Breath’ uses a distortion of Richard Burton’s reading of the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ which simply jars and distracts from the formation of bodies within the routine; George Williamson’s ‘The Firebird’ is beautiful and engaging, but does not belong here, within this theatre of war.
Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet, dances a major role in ‘No Man’s Land’, and she has the style and authority of the great classical tradition to work with – making her character very touching and memorable. Scarlett’s choreography is by turns gentle and aggressive, and his male duets work well to depict the scale of the conflict. In ‘The Firebird’, the dancing is centred by the damaged bird and the men who conspire to remove her finery. ‘Second Breath’ is an ensemble piece, well punctuated by recordings from the audio archives, snatches of which set the scene – “constant bombardment”, for example. ‘Dust’, however, is a stunning and powerful piece of work which stands well on its own, and has the most to say in tribute to those who lost their lives in the Great War; it also states a truth that women in munitions were building material that would kill other women’s husbands, fathers, sons, and the disconnect between this role and the one genetically expected of women, to care and nurture other people.