Caveat: I occasionally include a non-political post on my blog, and I am then castigated by those whose only interest is politics. If that’s your position — please look away now!
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to Markova House, the headquarters (for the moment) of the English National Ballet (ENB), alongside the Royal Albert Hall, to see their preview of their Winter 2015/16 programme. Their preview included a pas de deux from “Lest We Forget”, a triple-header which was Artistic Director Tamara Rojo’s first commission for the ENB, in commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. The music of the excerpt was by Liszt (I didn’t recognise it and had to ask – it’s from Harmonies Poétique et Religieuse), and both the music and the dancing were wonderful
So I was glad to get a ticket for the performance at Sadlers Wells on Friday Sept 11th — and even more glad in the cafeteria an hour before the show when I found myself standing next to Tamara Rojo in the cafeteria line! And before you ask — yes, I did manage to resist the temptation to introduce myself and ask for a photo-op! But before I comment further I should make an admission — I far prefer the great 19th century ballets, and indeed some of the 20th Century narrative ballets like Manon and Mayerling, to the contemporary work favoured by today’s avant garde, so I approached the whole work with a degree of trepidation, despite my enjoyment of the excerpt at the preview.
I’d booked early so I had a great seat in the front row of the First Circle. The three pieces in the show each have different choreographers, and different composers. Perhaps the one I liked least was the middle piece, “Second Breath”, choreographed by Russell Maliphant with “Music” by Andy Cowton. I can concede that there was a certain amount of movement, and a great deal of noise, in the piece, but I’m afraid there was little I could identify as music and dancing. The sound-track was largely recorded, and included a lot of banging, plus a reading of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that Good Night”, together with what sounded like the contents of speech bubbles from a Second World War comic.
I well know that vocal music can be a marvellous accompaniment to ballet — the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Carmina Burana” springs to mind. But poetry and the spoken word lose all sense of the rhythm of the dance, and seem self-referential and pretentious. The best thing to say about Second Breath is that it was blessedly short.
The third piece, “Dust”, was remarkable. The composer Jocelyn Pook had attempted something that sounded like music, while modern choreographer Akram Khan had created some stunningly original shapes and movements (see picture above). The piece also included a pas de deux with Tamara Rojo which was wonderful.
But for me, the first piece, No Man’s Land, was best of all. . Liszt’s music was beyond comparison with the modernist music of Cowton and Pook, and would have stood as a concert piece even without the dancing. Then both the choreography (by Liam Scarlett – a man to watch) and the set captured the whole terror and squalor of war, the smell of the cordite, and the agony of loss and loneliness that bedevilled both those who went to war and those they left behind. Utterly poignant.
The ENB is touring with the piece in coming weeks, and it’s well worth seeing, whether as a mark of respect for the memory of those days, or to see the direction of modern dance, or to seize the opportunity of seeing Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru on stage. But perhaps their transcendent artistry deserves better and more consistent material.