War Ballets Now
Over the last four years the arts have played an inestimable role in the commemoration of the First World War Centenary, notably the poppy installations and tour, and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast on national television on Armistice Day. New ballets have been created by British choreographers for British companies dealing specifically with aspects of the Great War. This month sees the premiere of a new work by Alastair Marriott, The Unknown Soldier, for the Royal Ballet, while in September English National Ballet repeated its 2014 programme Lest We Forget comprising No Man’s Land by Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath, and Akram Khan’s Dust.
But as we revaluate this War and its significance a century on, how can choreographers in an art form known for its conservative traditions and codes engage with the topic to make it meaningful and relatable to contemporary audiences?
We have chosen two of the ballets from ENB’s Lest We Forget for our discussion, No Man’s Land and Dust, because they approach this task in very different ways. In many regards No Man’s Land is quite traditional, with costumes clearly representing the era, and its choreography based on classical ballet vocabulary and technique, with emotion-laden pas de deux incorporating sweeping runs, lifts and catches, embraces and swoon, supported pirouettes and promenades. However, there are less traditional choreographic features, which in conjunction with an ingenious set create a work that starts to question the role of experience of men and women in the War and the spaces they occupied.
Even on its own the set, designed by Jon Bauser, ingeniously represents the title of the work No Man’s Land: “Disputed ground between the front lines or trenches of two opposing armies” (“no man’s land def. 1.1”). Only in this case the dispute seems to be where exactly the men and women belong and where the War is being fought. A shattered opening in a partially destroyed munitions factory upstage leads to and from the battlefields. Ramps and steps connect the opening to the empty downstage area which serves as a fluid location where life both at home and life at war are depicted.
When the women are working in the factory, fatigued and lethargic in their repetitive, mechanical movements, they are in fact preparing explosives to destroy enemy soldiers while their own beloved soldiers are in their line of vision; and they are poisoning themselves in the process. This appalling irony is encapsulated in the incisive words of Luke Jennings, who describes the women as “separated from their loved ones even as they themselves fed the production line of slaughter”. Both the men and the women walk wearily along the ramps, and the women sit in stillness waiting on the steps. For news. For the inevitable. For dreaded confirmation of the worst. In this way movement and design create a synergy that emphasises the everyday anxiety and repetitive monotony of war life as well as its extreme emotions.
Central to No Man’s Land are three duets that express these extreme emotions. The first and third represent parting: parting for the battlefield and parting for the grave. The middle duet, however, is more distinct in character. Here a soldier returns from war to a difficult homecoming, but clearly doesn’t feel that he belongs at home any more; for us this was the most poignant of the duets. As is still traditional in ballet, the women are the emotional heart of the work, but the men also make emotional bonds with their fellow fighters, with the result that their home relationships are also unsettled, disrupted, under dispute – it’s not clear where their hearts belong – and the bonds they made on active service, the losses they endured are disrupting the lives they knew and longed to return to.
Of all the war themed dance works we have seen created within this centenary period, in our opinion Akram Khan’s Dust offers the most modern representation of the conflict with his radical portrayal of the female role in particular, providing an alternative to the male-centric narrative traditionally told. Throughout the piece, the female dancers demonstrate physical strength through firm, decisive movements, alongside a sense of independence reinforced through the absence of men within the large female-only section of the piece. Here the female dancers deliver sharp, percussive, grounded movements which complement, even embolden the strong accents of the accompanying drum beat. The repetition of their movement, along with their regimented unity and “piston-pumping arms” (Mackrell), provide the feeling that they are working with machinery, without the need for props; in fact, they almost seem to become machines themselves. Not only does this demonstrate, as articulated by Zoë Anderson, the notion of “growing independence” (65) for women during this time, but also shifts the female WWI role away from being confined to grief, to being active contributors to the war effort. This is further enhanced through the use of the famous WWI song, “We’re here, because we’re here” within the closing duet. These words, usually associated with male soldiers in the trenches, accompanying a duet performed by both a male and a female dancer, points towards the idea that women should be included within this use of the word “we’re” and that their contribution to the war effort should be equally valued.
Raised in South London as the son of Bangladeshi parents, Khan’s cultural identity is complex. As a result, immigrant identity is often central to his work (Patterson). Our knowledge of this fact invites a reading of Dust in relation to the ethnic pluralisation of British national identity; an identity which both World Wars have played a large part in constructing. For instance, when the piece was first performed in 2014, Khan offered an alternative to the overriding image of the white western male solider dominant within British collective remembrance by performing the lead male role himself. Similarly, Japanese ballerina Erina Takahashi performed the lead female role when the piece was performed on the Pyramid Stage of Glastonbury Festival in 2014, again presenting an alternative to the dominant image of the war as a solely westernised conflict.
When considering the ever increasing awareness of mental health in recent years, Khan’s focus on what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder, again demonstrates how Dust offers a 21st Century understanding of the conflict. The male soloist’s sharp, erratic twitching motions, which appear to be beyond his control, arguably make for uncomfortable viewing, yet poignantly bring the horrors of this conflict to life. We find this even more visceral than Wilfred Owen’s Mental Cases (1918), which graphically describes soldiers suffering from shell shock.
War Ballets Then
One of the war ballets from the past we are sure you will be very familiar with. Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria, inspired by Testament of Youth and an overt memorialisation of World War I, has been staged by the Royal Ballet repeatedly since its premiere in 1980, and has been staged across the globe. Last year for the first time Northern Ballet took the work into its repertoire.
Antony Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets, created for Royal Swedish Ballet in 1963, will be less familiar to the British ballet public, although it was performed by London Festival Ballet (later ENB) from 1973 to 1990. The visual impact of Echoing of Trumpets and No Man’s Land is similar, in that again the stage is dominated by an evocative set, this time representing a destroyed village, with stone ruins, archways, and again with ramps, and a view through a barbed wire fence into a bleak barren distance. Judith Chazin-Bennahum describes it as “harsh, jagged, multi-level” and notes that one of the women oversees the surroundings from a higher level (432). This is also a “no man’s land” in the sense that the village is bereft of its male inhabitants – only the women remain.
The work has a connection to a particular incident from World War II – the destruction of a Czechoslovakian village and brutalisation of its female inhabitants by Hitler’s forces in 1942. While there seems to be some contention as to whether or not the women are raped by the soldiers (Kisselgoff; Perlmutter 272), there is no doubt that the women are depicted as human beings of enormous strength, courage and willpower, capable of intense rage that leads them to commit acts of violence, and intense grief that equips them with preternatural physical strength. After the soldiers viciously hang a villager who has returned to see his beloved, the women wreak their revenge by strangling one of their tormentors with their scarves. The bereaved woman hauls the corpse around the stage in her searing anger and despair. Footage of the ballet shows the women to be forceful in their movements, conspiratorial, bold, united and unhesitant in their decision making (Antony Tudor; “Antony Tudor’s Echoing of the Trumpets”). So the women are victims, but not completely devoid of power over their situation. And they don’t align with typical representations of women in ballet whose power lies in their ethereality, seductiveness or desire and ability to wreak havoc and cause evil.
Yet, while the women’s dancing in Echoing of Trumpets is emotionally resonant at the deepest level, the movement is also stark, and in this way the work is reminiscent of Tudor’s 1937 Dark Elegies, which also deals with devastating loss and grief. Jennifer Homans describes the choreography as without “hysteria or emoting” and highlights the simplicity of the closing scene: “a few desolate gestures, such as a woman cradling a friend’s head in her hands” (481). Tudor’s extraordinary gift for expressing the very depth of emotion by such economy of means can perhaps be seen to a lesser degree in the stillness of Scarlett’s women sitting on the steps of No Man’s Land.
Before 2014 and the creation of the Lest We Forget ballets, notably Dust, Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria was indubitably the most prominent British war ballet. MacMillan had deeply personal reasons for wanting to create a war ballet, particularly one evoking the First World War, as his father was gassed at the Battle of the Somme, but the catalyst was the 1979 BBC TV dramatisation of Testament of Youth. As in the case of Dust, the music score is highly significant – Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, after which the ballet is named, is in essence a celebratory piece of music written for the Catholic Mass, and as such there is a painful irony about its use in juxtaposition to the visual impact of the ballet. As the curtain rises and the dancers emerge from the back of the stage walking up over Andy Klunder’s sparse slanting construct, reminiscent of both trench and grave, images of World War I start to flood the stage: the men’s Brodie helmets, the sombre hues of their tattered costumes and the scenery, dark with the reds and browns of the bloody trenches; and later on the pointing finger of Lord Kitchener’s iconic recruitment poster.
In this work there is a distinct differentiation between the movement dynamics choreographed for the men and women: in accordance with traditional ballet values, the men use stronger weight, and are far more grounded than the women, whose light-weight movements and wraith-like appearance resemble the ethereality of Romantic ballet’s sylphs and wilis from La Sylphide (F. Taglioni, 1832) and Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841) respectively. Elizabeth Robinson draws a vivid picture of the gendered movement and costume working in conjunction with one another: “The men appear to be part of the earth, with rust coloured unitards and grounded movement, whilst the women offer an ethereal contrast: white, shining unitards beneath a gauzy, flowing, chiffon skirt, with vertical, high level choreography” (24). The women appear as phantoms, haunting visions of a young life of hopes and dreams lost forever, perhaps, and consequently physically absent from both battlefield and the war effort. This does not however fully represent the reality of the female experience in WWI: Brittain herself, for example, was a military nurse throughout the War, as well as losing both her brother and her fiancé. Robinson recognises this and offers an interpretation of the women’s choreography as symbolic of psychological and emotional trauma:
The often calmer and higher movement vocabulary arguably aligns their movement with the psychological trauma of war, as a representation of another, less visceral, but still traumatic war experience. Their height and verticality suggests a distance away from the frontline of fighting, so closely aligned with the ground, but their calm movement vocabulary betrays a lethargy that suggests another type of battle-weary sorrow. (33)
We find it interesting that the representation of women in these ballets varies so markedly from one work to the next. Women’s contribution to the war effort has been highlighted in documentaries and news bulletins during these centenary years, and as such it is completely appropriate that their physical and emotional strength, their courage and endurance has been recognised in the two Lest We Forget ballets, as well as in Echoing of Trumpets. But it is Dust that also foregrounds other hidden and forgotten aspects of the War – the extreme trauma, the invaluable contribution made by people of diverse backgrounds – and in so doing demonstrates how ballet, conservative and tradition-bound though it can be, is an art form for our times.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… English National Ballet has been touring MacMillan’s Manon this autumn, and there will be performances in the new year at the London Coliseum. However, Mia Stensgaard’s designs are markedly different from the originals by Nicholas Georgiadis. Therefore we will be thinking about how this affects the interpretation of the ballet in “Manon Designs Now and Then”.
© British Ballet Now and Then
Anderson, Zoë. “Lest We Forget”. Dancing Times, vol. 106, no. 1262, 2005, pp. 65.
Antony Tudor. Directed by Viola Aberlè and Gerd Andersson. Dance Horizons Video, 1992.
“Antony Tudor’s Echoing of the Trumpets”. YouTube, uploaded 11 Mar. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWCcbv7UtOo. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. “Echoing of Trumpets”. International Dictionary of Ballet, vol. 1, St. James Press, 1993.
Jennings, Luke. “La Fille mal gardée; Lest We Forget – review”. The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/apr/06/fille-mal-gardee-mikhailovsky-lest-we-forget-enb-review. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
Kisselgoff, Anna. “Reviews/Dance; Tragedies that Follow the Trumpets of War”. The New York Times, 6 May 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/26/arts/reviews-dance-tragedies-that-follow-the-trumpets-of-war.html. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
Mackrell, Judith. “English National Ballet: Lest We Forget review – Compelling quartet on war”, The Guardian, 3 Apr. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/apr/03/enb-lest-we-forget-review. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.
“No man’s land”.English Oxford Living Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/no_man’s_land. Accessed 26 Oct 2018.
Perlmutter, Donna. Shadowplay: the life of Antony Tudor. Viking, 1991.
Robinson, Elizabeth. Dancing Remebrance: examining the intersection of Romantic ideas and First World War memoralisation in Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria (1980). Royal Academy of Dance, 2018. Unpublished dissertation.