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ENB's "Lest We Forget"

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I saw the matinee Sunday afternoon, April 6 and would urge anybody in shouting distance of London to see the program before it closes next Saturday, April 12. As has been reported in reviews, this consists of four new ballets in honor of the centenary of World War I. I can't imagine a program like this being presented in the U.S., where most people know almost nothing about that war. That's a shame, because the ballets are magnificent and it would be wonderful to see an American company stage at least one of them.

My favorite was "No Man's Land" by Liam Scarlett to Liszt piano music, orchestrated for this piece by Gavin Sutherland. It ended with a stunning pas de deux for Tamara Rojo (now company director) and Esteban Berlanga, but several earlier pas de deux for other couples were also impressive. I don't recall seeing Scarlett's choreography before, but I'd like to see more of it now! The partnering featured extraordinarily complicated lifts that were original, creative, stunning, but never once felt gimmicky or merely novelty-for-its-own-sake, one of my pet peeves in so much contemporary classical choreography.

Alas, the piece wouldn't translate to the U.S. without some serious dramatic modifications. The men go off to war while the women work at a munitions plant, then welcome their battered men home. Those distinctive WWI hats, the munitions, the hint of trenches would make no sense outside of countries that don't remember let alone understand the significance of "The Great War." I'd be happy to be proven wrong!

The Scarlett used women on pointe, while "Second Breath" (Russell Maliphant) and "Dust" (Akram Khan) had all the dancers in bare feet. Both used the dancers in groups to create amazing human sculptures in patterns, waves, and visual designs that evoked war, tragedy, death in the trenches, etc. Scores by Andy Cowton and Jocelyn Pook, respectively, wove in all sorts of War-specific sounds -- audio recordings from the Imperial War Museum Archive, narration recorded in 1916, poetry by Dylan Thomas, etc.

All three ballets had eerie lighting, fog, sets evoking the notorious trenches, etc.With the intense presentation in so many dimensions, this native-born American (and history buff) was emotionallty exhausted from it all; I would imagine it was much more intense for those who grew up understanding and respecting this part of their history.

The three hour program (with two intervals) also included George Williamson's recent take on "Firebird." The program notes tried to rationalize including it in this program, even though the music was written years before the War - essentially, foolish men go off and do stupid, foolish things -- but it was too much of a stretch. Still, it was nice to see a cleaned-up, more minimalist version after the Ratmansky version for ABT of a few years ago. The other three would have made for a very full program without this oddity stuck in the middle.

I was struck at how many more younger people (20-40) were in this audience, compared with American audiences. The house seemed full to me, although I have no idea if they push tickets through student rush, subsidized tickets for seniors, etc. I also thought the orchestra placement in that theater is bizarre -- totally under the stage, almost invisible. The huge speakers at either side of the stage sounded so raspy that at first I thought they were using recorded music.

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BBC-Arts has posted one of the three new works from this program: "Second Breathe" by Richard Maliphant. It was taped at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester. Unfortunately, the sound quality is awful -- in the theater, you could clearly hear excerpts from radio transmissions, letters, and speeches. The lighting in the Barbican theater was also nowhere near this dim -- you could see the dancers!


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