Manon Designs Now & Then

Manon Designs Now

If you have seen the beautiful promotional video for English National Ballet’s Manon, with Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández, you cannot fail to have been struck by the location and designs: the building through which the dancers move, with their longing glances and soft sensuous caresses, is furnished with plush deep red drapes and sparkling chandeliers; and yet, at the same time, it shows signs of disrepair in the crumbling walls and ragged upholstery.

This video, lasting only 32 seconds, encapsulates some of the driving themes of the three-act ballet by Kenneth MacMillan, choreographed in 1974.  Based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost entitled Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the ballet is frequently described as a tale of Manon’s struggle between love and riches, for example on the current ENB promotional flier: “The young and naïve Manon is torn between two lives: privilege and opulence with the wealthy Monsieur GM, or innocent love with the penniless student Des Grieux”.  Equally it could be interpreted as a battle for survival versus a desire for love.

manon-by-jason-bell-crop-square
English National Ballet, Manon. Dancers: Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernández © Jason Bell. Art Direction and Design Charlotte Wilkinson Studio.

Autumn 2018 saw a rare UK tour of the ballet, by ENB, and this month the Company brought it to the London Coliseum. But not with the original designs by Nicholas Georgiadis. Instead ENB uses the designs by Mia Stensgaard, which she created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2003, almost three decades after Manon’s premiere.  Although the choreographer’s widow Deborah MacMillan describes the production as “a very worthy alternative to Nicholas Georgiadis’s version performed by The Royal Ballet”, Stensgaard’s designs give the ballet a very different visual impact, and some aspects have come up against criticism.  However, being more familiar with the Georgiadis designs, and having now seen ENB’s production in both Milton Keynes and in London, we were struck by a number of design features that to us seemed to bring new life to the ballet.  Here are our thoughts …

The lighting

alina-cojocaru-and-fabian-reimair-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and Fabian Reimair in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Stengaard’s sets and costumes are complemented by Mikki Kunytu’s evocative lighting.  Two moments in particular were literally and metaphorically illuminated by the lighting: the fight in Act II and the opening of Act III. As the swords clash and Monsieur GM’s rage flares up, shadows of the combatants loom over their brawl, making the tension palpable, creating a sense of foreboding, and highlighting the centrality of this scene for the narrative.

As the curtains rise on Act III a feeling of stifling heat seems to emanate from the stage and engulf the auditorium air.  In the narrative Manon is transported to New Orleans as a convict; in the theatre the audience is transported with Manon, as bright haze and shadows conjure up the heat and with it the sense of discomfort and alienation Manon feels in her new unknown environment.

The make-up

james-streeter-alina-cojocaru-jane-haworth-and-jeffrey-cirio-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo
James Streeter, Alina Cojocaru, Jane Haworth and Jeffrey Cirio in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Before tanned skin came into fashion in the early part of the 20thcentury, pale skin was prized.  The faces of 18thcentury portraits are pale, even white, the paleness accentuated by pink cheeks of various shades.  This look was fashionable amongst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie for men and children as well as for women.  It denoted a particular status, or at least aspiration to that status, as tanned skin was associated with outdoors manual labour of the lower classes that exposed them to the sun.

In this production artificial pale skin is prominent amongst The Clients perusing the prostitutes, but two pivotal characters stand out for us in particular: Monsieur GM and the Gaoler. As performed by Fabian Reimar and James Streeter respectively, even at a distance from the stage their white faces seemed mask-like; and in the production photographs by Laurent Liotardo, where the roles are reversed, equally so.  In performance their denaturalised/synthetic features remind us of the Diplomats from Kurt Jooss’ 1933 The Green Table, whose masks strip them of their humanity as they debate the fate of the land.  The 18thcentury trend for prominent dark eyebrows, particularly for men, is a conspicuous addition to the Gaoler’s make-up, starkly framing his features and hiding any emotion or compassion that might live beneath the surface, if indeed there is any.

Monsieur GM and the Gaoler (who are frequently performed by the same dancers on different nights) are both characters who benefit from the lot of the prostitutes and more particularly play a decided role in the events that lead to the doom of Manon and Des Grieux. Again, The Green Table springs to mind: the Profiteer, the figure who gains from the loss of others in war, has a painted white face that makes him more visibly impervious to the suffering of those around him.  In contrast to the depersonalised faces of Monsieur GM and the Gaoler, the faces of Manon and Des Grieux look natural and real, underlining their social status, as well as their humanity and vulnerability.

The dresses

english-national-ballet-in-manon-c-laurent-liotardo-2
English National Ballet in Manon © Laurent Liotardo

Brightly coloured frou-frou dresses with their frills, flounces and ruffles fill the stage in Act II.  Vibrant pinks, reds, yellows, greens and blues vie for attention with lustrous whites.  The girls are adorned with cute hats and fascinators.  A sense of light and fun pervades.  And into this hive of colour and light walks Manon in her shimmering white cloak and gown bringing a focal point to the drama that radiates over the stage.

This atmosphere of frivolity and youthfulness never returns to Manon.  So, in our opinion, the costumes in this scene in all their decorativeness and blasts of colour serve a crucial purpose in highlighting the mood of this scene, which seems so distant from the dark drama of the ensuing scenes.

Manon Designs Then

Ballet productions are regularly redesigned to give them a fresh “look”, or when a work is taken into the repertoire of a different company.  Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella has acquired fresh sets and costumes several times over the years, while Birmingham Royal Ballet and La Scala Milan all have their own designs for MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (1965).

The nineteenth century classics are sometimes retained in the same production for decades, as in the case of Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake, replaced by Liam Scarlett’s production last year only after thirty-one years.  And a new production comes with a new design concept, which can suggest new meanings to the viewer.

The Royal Ballet has kept Nicholas Georgiadis’ original sets and costumes for Manon, perhaps because choreographer and designer were frequent collaborators, working together over a substantial period of MacMillan’s choreographic career.  In addition to Manon, notable collaborations were The Burrow (1958), The Invitation (1960) Romeo and Juliet, and Mayerling (1978).

Like Romeo and JulietManon is a work performed by companies across the globe, including Australian Ballet, The Mariinsky and Paris Opera Ballet.  Mia Stensgaard is not the first to have created new designs for the ballet, but Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes for the Australian and Mariinsky Companies strike us as closer to Georgiadis’ original concept than Stensgaard’s version of Manon’s world.  So let’s have a look at why that might be …

The rags

In the tradition of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, such an influence on the development of British ballet, MacMillan believed that design was absolutely integral to the identity and meaning of a choreographic work (Woodcock, 19).  One of the aspects of Manon’s story that he felt passionate about and wanted to convey in no uncertain terms was the poverty that was a driving force in her life and the decisions that she makes.  Therefore, crucial to Georgiadis’ décor is a cyclorama of rags cascading down the full height of the stage space.  Characters emerge on to the stage through these rags from their carriages, representing the poverty that divides the population of Manon: the Beggars and the Gentlemen; Des Grieux and Monsieur G.M.; the Gaoler and the deported Prostitutes.  Manon herself is a liminal character, who in the course of the ballet inhabits different worlds according to the decisions she makes.  But the rags are a recurring reminder of how fragile the border is between survival and destitution.

The richness

Critics have highlighted how rich the original designs are compared to Stensgaard’s more recent offerings, which in comparison can look quite sparse.  The word “sumptuous” has been used to describe both the costumes (Clarke 31) and the sets (Mead).  There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, the first being Georgiadis’ style. Consider the splendour of the ballroom scenes in both Romeo and Juliet and Mayerling for example.  You will probably be less familiar with his designs for Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker (1968), which have been described by critic and historian Jack Anderson as “far too grand”, “autumnal” and “somber” (168).

Manon was created for the UK’s premiere ballet venue – the Royal Opera House in London – and as full-evening narrative ballet of high drama, a certain degree of ostentation would be expected.  But also, in terms of the subject matter, Manon is a sombre tale, so that a heaviness of tone and hue – the burnt orange, dark brown and olive greens worn by Lescaut’s Mistress, for example – seems appropriate.  And the richness of the costumes makes for a thought-provoking contrast with the rags of the cyclorama.

The dress

Despite the fact that we love Stensgaard’s designs for Act II, and Manon’s light luminous dress is both in keeping with the colour palette and marks her out as the jewel in the crown onstage, we miss Georgiadis’ glorious gown for Manon.  Here she is at her most ravishing.  As she whirls seductively through her solo with Des Grieux and Monsieur GM circling around the rest of cast freezes.  The solo crystallises Manon’s predicament and the choices available to her. And the dress with its ornate black lace embellished with silver detail complements her tantalising but perturbing dance.

Georgiadis’ sets undoubtedly emphasise the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, in accordance with the choreographer’s wishes.  In Stensgaard’s designs this theme is perhaps not so prominent.  However, characterisation, drama and atmosphere, all vital to MacMillan’s oeuvreare writ large in her costumes and sets.  In our opinion, we are really fortunate to have both of these productions in the British ballet repertoire.   With two such distinct design concepts, the choreography is enriched, opening further opportunity for insight and interpretation from performers and audiences alike.

 

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then… March sees the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s new ballet Victoria commissioned by Northern Ballet to commemorate the bicentenary of the monarch’s birth.  So we will be discussing bio-ballets with some thoughts on this new work and Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling based on the life of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Clarke, Mary. “Manonin Copenhagen”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93, no. 1113, 2003, pp. 31-33.

MacMillan, Deborah. “Manon”. Manon, English National Ballet, Oct.-Nov. 2018.

Mead, David. “Jurgita Dronina Spellbinding in English National Ballet’s Manon”, SeeingDance, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.seeingdance.com/enb-manon-26102018/. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Woodcock, Sarah C. “MacMillan and Design”, The Dancing Times, vol. 93 no. 1108, 2002, pp. 19-25.

 

The Nutcracker Now & Then

The Nutcracker Now

It strikes us that despite its ever-growing popularity, The Nutcracker presents something of a conundrum.  As last year, all the major ballet companies in the UK are performing runs of The Nutcracker, which stretch from the end of November into the new year. Of the three Tchaikovsky ballets Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890), and The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892), with their magnificent scores, the Christmas ballet is the work with the least dramatic coherence and the most varied choreography from production to production.  The result of this is that the identity of the work relies predominantly on the musical score, made famous by the suite of numbers performed in the concert hall, used for Disney’s 1940 Fantasia and numerous television adverts, and perhaps on a few key figures and events, such as Drosselmeyer, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the battle between the Toy Soldiers and Mice, and the growing Christmas Tree.

One problem for lovers of narrative ballet is that we are accustomed to works that offer the ballerina a central role combining complexity and variety in choreography, and development and contrast in characterisation.  Just think of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841), Swan Lake, Onegin (Cranko, 1965), and Manon (MacMillan, 1974), to name but a few examples. In fact, the original production of The Nutcracker was criticised for including “only one classical pastor the ballerina, and this near the end of the second act” (Wiley 199).  Yes, it’s a long time to wait, if you have booked a ticket specifically to see a beloved ballerina dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy …

In the eyes of some audience members this situation is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that the main character, Clara, is a child, and Act I is populated by children.  Dick Godfrey highlighted this issue in his review of Scottish Ballet’s performance last year, a revival of Peter Darrell’s 1973 production after over forty years: “Darrell’s bold – and in many ways admirable – decision to cast children in the roles of the children instead of the more commonly found young professionals limits the amount of dance he offers”.  The Royal Ballet production addresses this dilemma by casting a young-looking company member as Clara.  This can be seen in recordings on DVD, for example with Miyako Yoshida as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Alina Cojocaru as Clara in 2001, and Lauren Cuthbertson and Francesca Hayward in the same roles in 2016.  And in truth the opportunity to see a budding star of the calibre of Cojocaru or Hayward can imbue the performance with a wonderful sense of excitement.

In English National Ballet’s current production staged by Wayne Eagling in 2010 the child Clara dreams of growing up and falling in love, and consequently dances the grand pas de deus that concludes the ballet.  In this case we can gain an enormous amount of pleasure from seeing a ballerina capable of expressing both Clara’s teenage youthfulness and the grandeur required of the grand pas de deux.  Describing Tamara Rojo’s performance at the end of Act I Graham Watts writes: “it is astonishing how Rojo peels away the years to become an excited, wide-eyed teenager on stage”.  In contrast, by the end of Act II, “her experience shows in the way that she deploys contrast, from the soft-backed swoop of her promenades with Berlanga in their opening duet to the steely verticality of her triple fouettés in the coda” (Jennings).

At the start of December we saw Northern Ballet perform their production in Woking.  One of the delightful features of the performance was the fact that the children were notably of different heights, creating a vivid sense of a family gathering in the first act.  The production is similar to the Royal Ballet’s in that Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy are danced by two different performers, but the two acts are securely connected not only through the figure of Clara, but through the resemblance between the characters of her life in Act I and her dream in Act II, for example between her elder sister and the Sugar Plum Fairy, both performed by the same dancer. However, this in no way makes the libretto complex, and David Nixon, Artistic Director and creator of this production, is keen to emphasise his desire “not to change the story drastically or to bring a psychological overtone.  I wanted it to be festive and joyous … It is based on a dark story, but … I kept my version simple and childlike” (qtd. in Monahan 12).

The Nutcracker Then

If you think of The Nutcracker more as family entertainment than as high art, you might think it odd to question the practice of including child dancers as principal characters in the ballet, and you might be puzzled or even perplexed by the decision to bring greater depth to the work with a “psychological overtone”.  Yet there have been two British productions that have notably aimed to give the ballet more gravitas, both in part by aligning the narrative more closely to E.T.A Hoffmann’s 1816 Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the story that inspired the ballet’s original libretto.  These were Rudolf Nureyev’s version, performed by the Royal Ballet from 1968 into the early 1980s, and the version created by Peter Schaufuss for London Festival Ballet in 1986, which remained in the repertoire until 1992.

Nureyev is known for his eagerness to expand male roles, having choreographed additional solos for the male protagonist in The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, for example, and changing the end of Swan Lake to highlight the fate of Siegfried in preference for either Odette or the love between Odette and Siegfried.  Therefore, Nureyev’s decision to combine the role of Clara’s Godfather Herr Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince could simply be considered as a way of creating a role equal in substance to that of the ballerina. But the fact that Drosselmeyer, with his eccentric mannerisms, is so very different from the Nutcracker Prince offers an arguably greater challenge to the male protagonist than to the ballerina, who portrays Clara maturing into a young woman. For the dancer it affords the opportunity to bring out different facets of the old magician and his relationship with his Goddaughter; for the audience it adds an interesting dramatic layering and the rare chance to see male dancer in a dual role   Apart from Nureyev himself, notable exponents of the role were Anthony Dowell and David Wall, both of whom we discussed in our Male Dancers Now & Then post.  On the other hand, historian and critic Jack Anderson has criticised Nureyev’s production quite bluntly for its sombre atmosphere, its Freudian overtones and its pervasive “images of cruelty” (149).

With its Gingerbread Men and Lemonade Sea, Peter Schaufuss’ 1986 production was not pervaded by the same dark atmosphere, but through both including added detail from Hoffmann’s story and introducing Tchaikovsky and his family into the libretto, the narrative became quite complicated and perhaps even burdened with additional elements.  This included a toy theatre where the Tale of the Nut “Krakatuk” was played out, the illness of Tanya, (the character usually known as Clara, and in this version also Tchaikovsky’s niece), and a prologue with Tchaikovsky working on the Nutcracker score, learning of the death of his beloved sister Sasha, and reminiscing about a past Christmas spent at her family home.  The premise for the production was Schaufuss’ idea that “Tchaikovsky may have seen himself as the central figure, Drosselmeyer” (Clarke 400), and indeed one of the joys of these performances was watching Christopher Bruce as the Tchaikovsky/Drosselmeyer figure.  The programme notes included a Tchaikovsky family tree to clarify the various familial relationships.  We could argue that, as with Nureyev’s version, this approach helped to bring more substance to the ballet, giving it more gravitas as an art work, and perhaps making it seem more historically and artistically significant.

 

Share your thoughts!

In a brilliant review of the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker this year Observer critic Luke Jennings noted that the only thing lacking in the “dreamlike perfection” of the production is the sense of melancholy so integral to Tchaikovsky’s score.  Similarly, film critic Ryan Gilbey criticises Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for “failing to acknowledge the darker side of Christmas”.

So how do you prefer your Nutcracker? How important is the ballerina role to you? Are you interested in producers incorporating the “darker side of Christmas”? Is dramatic cogency important to you? Are you keen to see a romantic plot? Are you more in favour of a Nutcracker with lots of children and a simple clear storyline?

We’d love to know what you think!

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Jack. The Nutcracker Ballet. Bison Books, 1979.

Clarke, Mary. “The Nutcracker Season”. Dancing Times, vol. 77, no. 917, pp. 400-01.

Gilbey, Ryan. “No wonder Disney’s Nutcracker is a flop – festive films thrive on despair”. The Guardian, 8 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/dec/08/nutcracker-christmas-films-need-darkness-as-well-light. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Godfrey, Dick. “Scottish Ballet’s revival of Peter Darrell’s Nutcracker restores the famous sparkle”. ChronicleLive, 2 Feb. 2018, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-news/scottish-ballets-revival-peter-darrells-14232709. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Jennings Luke. “The Nutcracker – review”. The Guardian, 23 Dec. 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/23/nutcracker-english-national-tamara-rojo. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

—. “The Nutcracker review – in every sense a delight”. The Guardian, 9 Dec. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/dec/09/the-nutcracker-royal-ballet-review-nunez-muntagirov-osullivan-sambe. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Monahan, Mark. “An Awfully Big Adventure”. The Nutcracker, Winter 2018, New Victoria Theatre, pp. 12-13.

The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Alina Cojocaru, Miyako Yoshida and Royal Ballet. 2001, Opus Arte, 2001.

The Nutcracker. Choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov, performance by Francesca Hayward, Lauren Cuthbertson, and Royal Ballet. 2016, Opus Arte, 2017.

Watts, Graham. “Review: English National Ballet – The Nutcracker- London Coliseum”. londondance.com, 15 Dec. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-the-nutcracker-2014/.. Accessed 20 Dec. 2018.

Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky’s Ballets. Clarendon Press, 1985.

War Ballets Now & Then

 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

References

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.