In 1914, my father enlisted in the army, aged 17, and served throughout the war in France. I once asked him: “What was it like?” He replied: “It was hell!” And would speak no more. Watching English National Ballet’s fatuous commemoration of that conflict on Wednesday in the Barbican rat-maze brought his words to mind. Three new choreographies were offered – inspired, we are asked to believe, by the suffering in Flanders’ fields and by that of women who worked and grieved in Blighty – together with the revival of an inane company version of Stravinsky’s Firebird, whose relevance defeats even ENB’s eager casuistry.
The creations are owed to Liam Scarlett (No Man’s Land, set to orchestrations of Liszt piano works, with one served un-cooked); to Russell Maliphant (whose Second Breath has a spectral fascination until a duet involving Alina Cojocaru asserts the dubious reign of the ballerina); and to Akram Khan, whose Dust is a mauvais quart d’heure as he grovels and a corps de ballet registers alarm, until Tamara Rojo arrives to join him in an interminable exercise in danced predictabilities.
Rojo also manifests herself, inexplicably, in the closing section of No Man’s Land. This is an intriguing piece, not so much for its exploration of grief – women munitions workers remembering their menfolk in Flanders, intermittently involved with a Bayadère-style ramp – as for the fact that everywhere Scarlett’s dance intelligence shines through the movement. (I found myself muttering, “He’s a real choreographer!”) And then he surrenders to the bright possibilities of the event. The closing section of what had promised to be a study in anxious separation denies itself and proposes a luscious duet for Rojo and Esteban Berlanga, with Liszt at his most yearningly Lisztian, in the overblown Soviet manner used by Kasyan Goleizovsky in 1960s Moscow. Useful as gala-fodder. Vulgarly inapt as a comment on war.
Just so, in Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath, group lamentations make way for a brow-furrowed duet starring Alina Cojocaru. The ballerina as cake-icing. The entire evening smacks of compromise. War for Beginners – in these damned days for Syria. Unspeakable suffering as souvenir. And oh! the delighted cries from the public.