Here’s a possible justification for the disappointingly soft focus of Alastair Marriott’s take on the carnage of the Great War, The Unknown Soldier. From the archives, he chose a woman, Florence Billington, recorded at the age of 102 by the BBC, recalling her youthful romance in 1914 with Ted Feltham. She was 16, he maybe 18. They were going to get engaged when he came back from the war – probably by Christmas. He never returned.
Their story, so typical of the time, was real. But retold over the years, its painful specificity has faded, like the photographs of the young couple. In Florence’s memory, Ted remained forever true and handsome, a hero like his fallen comrades. Like her, Marriott exalts him as the unknown warrior, representing the thousands of dead. At the end of the ballet, Ted (Matthew Ball) is deified with other beautiful young men in some Elysian afterlife, bathed in golden light and wearing nothing but flesh-coloured speedos.
It’s a disconcerting conclusion, especially since Peter Jackson transformed wartime footage in the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, bringing back to life British troopers who were a rotten-toothed crew of all ages and sizes. The ballet’s mix of grainy monochrome newsreel projections (realised by Luke Halls) and lovely dancers in semi-period costumes (designed by Jonathan Howells) sentimentalises a narrative that Marriott intended to hit home.
Matthew Ball dances his role with great sincerity but can’t help resembling a balletic leading man. His opening solo is one of those ‘What do I want from life?’ ponderings by Siegfried in Swan Lake or the Prince in The Sleeping Beauty. Though Marriott’s choreography has more contemporary tumblings, it reveals little about Ted the man. Then when he meets Florence (Yasmine Naghdi) at a dance hall, he becomes Romeo struck by a coup de foudre. Their long duet as they fall in love is a close relation of Kenneth MacMillan’s balcony pas de deux.
If Ted is generic, so is Flo. She is Juliet or Giselle, a love-struck girl replaying in distress the steps of her duet with her now-departed lover. Naghdi is appealingly vulnerable, feet fluttering in confused emotions after she is left alone. It’s hard, though, to connect her anguished delicacy as a dancer with the projected image of the real Florence or the old woman’s voice recounting her memories.
Marriott tells Florence’s story by using extracts of her BBC interview and that of another very old survivor, Harry Patch. Shaken, Patch recounted his indelible shock at a comrade dying in his arms. Ball becomes the dead man, shot in the back. The news is broken to Florence by a telegram boy (Leo Dixon), who seems unfeasibly bouncy: he must know the dread his arrival presages. Cue the inevitable silent scream, as Florence refuses to be comforted by her girlfriends. (In fact, the unknown soldier’s fate was not recorded: the body selected for burial in Westminster Abbey was one of three unidentified corpses deliberately chosen at random.)
Because we know so little about the lovers, and even less about the corps of pretty girls and optimistic boy-soldiers, the carnage of the battlefields and the after-effects remains unreal. Akram Khan has been far more evocative in his work for English National Ballet, Dust, and Xenos as a solo for himself. He wasn’t, though, using the poetic vocabulary of classical ballet, as Marriott does. Adept though Marriott is at combining academic steps and Bolshoi-style leaps with earthier modern moves, his choreography is overwhelmed by Es Devlin’s large-scale installation of a set.
The stage is overhung by a panel for projections, either by coloured stripes that resemble a Bridget Riley painting or by documentary footage of WWI and the ceremonial burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920. Further effects occupy the space below, briefly suggesting a domestic setting: a palais de danse, a row of trees or pillars. Bruno Poet’s lighting becomes expressionistic at times, further confusing the tone of the ballet. Dario Marinelli’s commissioned score is effectively film-like, with a trumpet motif for doomed Ted that has echoes of The Last Post. The music swells for the heavenly finale, reassuring us that life continues after death as long as the dead, who never grow old, are remembered. Other tributes to the fallen in this anniversary year have been so much more powerful.
If The Unknown Soldier is dispiritingly low-key, Wayne McGregor’s Infra remains assertively bold, ten years after its creation for the Royal Ballet. It takes place in another installation, this time with Julian Opie’s digitised commuters marching across the top half of the stage. Though they appear anonymous, the figures are based on actual people. Below them, dancers stripped down to their underwear connect with each other in duets. If you don’t recognise the new cast, they too are anonymous, their honed physiques very unlike those of the commuters above.
In a programme note, McGregor describes their interactions as ‘human intimacies, prosaic, imperfect and fragile.’ One pair resemble insects mating, with the female deposited on the floor while the male masturbates on her upraised foot before abandoning her. Another pair tussle on equal terms until she is carried off upside down. A third pair flash their limbs like the blades of a Swiss army knife, far from fragile. When six couples line up in squares of light, they reprise their signature pas de deux choreography, their private relationships in contrast with the public personae overhead.
The athletic contortions are impressive but hardly revealing, until Akane Takada is isolated in distress. Mayara Magri offers her sympathy and companionship – evidently not enough, for Takada sobs and breaks down in yet another silent howl as hordes of extras in everyday clothes hurry past, ignoring her. That should be the end, but there’s a final out-of-time pas de deux to Max Richter’s soaring music for strings. Naghdi and Calvin Richardson are less brutal with each other than the previous pairings. Since the commuters have vanished, this is presumably an apotheosis for two unknown lovers, still in each other’s arms as the curtain descends.
Balanchine’s Symphony in C comes as a blessing as the last work in the triple bill. It is ballet heaven, free of emotional pretentions and uncluttered by set designers’ aspirations. The female corps in dazzing white tutus (designs by Anthony Dowell) are in good shape after the demands of being bayadères earlier in the season. Dancers who had appeared in vests and pants in Infra had transformed themselves into neo-classical ballerinas for Symphony in C – Naghdi, Takada and Mayara Magri.
In the first movement, Lauren Cuthbertson had just returned from an unscheduled visit to St Petersburg, where she replaced an injured principal dancer in the Mariinsky Ballet’s production of Ashton’s Sylvia. Two days later, she sparkled exuberantly in Balanchine’s, Allegro Vivo, with impeccable Vadim Muntagirov as her cavalier. Marianela Nunez was the mesmerising ballerina in the Adagio second movement, with Ryoichi Hirano as her awe-struck partner. Nunez never interrupted the musical fluency of her movements even when holding a balance, until she eventually succumbed, wound round Hirano’s body to swoon across his knees. Breathtaking.
Takada hasn’t speedy enough feet for the Allegro Vivace and Alexander Campbell can’t erase memories of Tetsuya Kumakawa in the role (or as the Bronze Idol in La Bayadère). Naghdi and Valentino Zucchetti fared better in the last movement, joined by all the other principals and a high-kicking phalanx of soloists and corps members. Balanchine was an expert at choreographing finales as applause machines, the entire cast achieving lift-off at the same time.