Dance review: The Unknown Soldier

Joy Sable has mixed feelings about the Royal Ballet's triple bill


The First World War has provided plenty of inspiration for choreographers in recent years. The English National Ballet’s moving triple bill, Lest We Forget, was performed back in September and now the Royal Ballet is making its own contribution to mark the end of that great conflict with Alistair Marriott’s new piece, The Unknown Soldier.

Any ballet which takes that war as its subject matter has to stand comparison with Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria, which remains the gold standard in war ballets. Marriott’s work takes inspiration from the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, together with the story of a real person – Florence Billington – whose sweetheart was killed in battle.

Interestingly, Marriott has chosen to use real archive footage of Florence and Harry Patch (who was the last surviving veteran), projected onto a large frontdrop. It makes for a touching piece, but I found myself being moved more by the words of Florence and Harry, than the dances themselves. On the opening night, Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball danced the young lovers with tenderness and passion, and the corps of men bearing rifles looked suitably young and terrified. It is a sad little ballet, but for a depiction of the real horror of the First World War, Gloria, created nearly 40 years ago, is a better bet, and does not resort to words to convey its message.

The second part of the evening’s triple bill is Wayne McGregor’s Infra, a contemporary piece which – literally –stretches the dancers’ bodies to their limits. It is a powerful work but I find Julian Opie’s set of a high screen of illuminated, moving figures, irritating.

George Balanchine’s high-spirited ballet, Symphony in C, set to Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 brought the evening to a dazzling close. Balanchine ballets – with all their precise, speedy footwork  and exaggerated angles – can pose a challenge for dancers not trained in that particular style, but the Royal Ballet dancers pulled it off. Lauren Cuthbertson sparkled in the first movement and Marianela Nunez had full command of the beautiful adagio in the second movement – you could almost hear the audience sigh in delight.

The triple bill of The Unknown Soldier / Infra / Symphony in C is at the Royal Opera House until 29 November.

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