I went to see the English National Ballet’s new production, Lest We Forget on Saturday night. It was – – pretty astonishing. And not like anything I’ve seen before.
(Leaving aside The Firebird – because, like pretty much every reviewer, I found it superfluous. Perfectly well done, but unnecessary in an otherwise very powerful mixed bill commemorating the First World War).
You still have two days to beg, borrow or steal a ticket. I recommend doing so (- ok maybe not the stealing).
I loved the way the individual pieces kind of evolved you through the whole: from the more traditional classicism of Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, through the abstract expressions of Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath, to the pounding phsyicality of Akram Khan’s Dust.
And I loved the way the music performed the same journey – from Lizst’s heartbreaking romanticism (Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses), through the repeating chords, refrains and audio clips in Second Breath, and into the combination of choral and thumping beat of Jocelyn Pook’s music for Dust.
You go from this mixture of hope, tinged with sorrow as one soldier fails to return (and no dancer, ever, has managed to make me cry in the theatre but Alina Cojocaru), to a suffocated anger and rebellion – and if No Man’s Land was an Anthem for Doomed Youth then Second Breath is more of a Dulce and Decorum Est – to a stubborn determination to keep going, to get up and retain a connection to humanity: the pain endured and connection held, not severed (as Second Breath felt severed)
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
– Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
– Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen
The first music on this behind the scenes is Andy Cowton’s extraordinary music from Maliphant’s Second Breath – a piece I would love to own in its entirity – and which mixes this tune in a long loop with the repeated refrain from Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night (recorded by the BBC, at the top)
And rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
So often, World War I makes no sense. Even when you’ve studied it and learned about the hows and the whys, and written essays on the allied leadership on the western front, the knowledge doesn’t let you process it. For that you need things that connect with other parts of your senses (even if it doesn’t make sense how that works) – things like poetry, and music, and yes, dance.
Commemoration is weird – and currently, with a government’s whose education policy includes a determination to celebrate Britain’s history in a slightly uncomfortable, glorifying way that is even more uncomfortable around the first world war (hence the furore at the start of the year when Michael Gove started talking about the ‘myths’ taught about the war) – even more weird and problematic than usual. How do you do it, what do you do, why are you doing it? All perfectly good questions with imperfect and complicated answers.
Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Or fill these void veins full again with youth,
And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:
‘My head hangs weighed with snow.’
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
‘My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.’
– The End, Wilfred Owen.
Lest We Forget, I think, breathes a life to the memory that covers a sweep of the emotional ground in a way that, because it is non-narrative (even No Man’s Land isn’t particularly narrative) avoids opinion in deference to feeling that doesn’t ever become self-indulgent. It doesn’t glorify the ‘ancient scars’ – but it places them before you afresh.