‘He was lying there in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: ‘Shoot me.’” The words of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of the first world war before his death in 2009, are at the centre of Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier. They tell of a war that is brutal and ugly. Yet here is ballet, an art form full of beauty and artifice. Can it speak directly and powerfully enough to do justice to the subject matter?
Marriott has incorporated into the work just a few well-chosen extracts from filmed interviews with Patch, and with Florence Billington, who was a teenager when her fiance Ted Felton left for the front. They perfectly distil the journey from youthful hope to tragedy and remembrance. Matthew Ball plays the young soldier, Billington’s beau, an individual soul among the massed regiment, and sensitively handles the soft curves of Marriott’s cursive choreography. His romance with Billington (Yasmine Naghdi, replacing the previously announced Francesca Hayward who is now away filming Cats), has more than a hint of Romeo and Juliet about it. It’s in Dario Marianelli’s programmatic score, in the couple’s wide-eyed innocence and how their tentative meeting turns to a swooning pas de deux – with Naghdi skipping through air. It’s there, too, in the portent of tragedy to come.
From young couples jazzily crossing the dancefloor to the sucker punch of war’s reality, the tonal shifts prove tricky – or rather, it’s difficult for the dance to land the same impact as the testimony on screen. Naghdi shows us the anxiety of a woman waiting for bad news, skittering and lurching (always gorgeously) on her pointes, but can she make us feel it? The Unknown Soldier is thoughtfully constructed, gracefully danced and classily designed (by Es Devlin), but when fallen soldiers appear as heavenly Adonises in trunks, it could be that it’s just too beautiful to get to grips with the blunt, catastrophic truth.
Another beautiful downer, in the best possible way, is Wayne McGregor’s Infra. It’s the perfect coming together of collaborators. The bittersweet ache of Max Richter’s music gives depth to Julian Opie’s LED figures walking above the stage while McGregor provides the churning undercurrent to those ordinary lives beneath. Infra was made a decade ago, and it’s now being danced by a new generation who look incredibly at home in McGregor’s movement. Whether the classical precision of its radical extensions or the kind of wriggling dislocation that suggests a parasite burrowing itself out of the skin, it no longer seems so jarringly extreme. The young dancers wear it comfortably: Mayara Magri moves with insouciance but still means every step; William Bracewell easily flips his body between looseness and tautness. This cast are a pleasure to watch and they bring a new accent to what is a modern classic.
Finally, George Balanchine’s Symphony in C aims to send everybody home on a high, its bright and zinging neoclassicism going at an exhilarating pace. So much so that in the first movement there’s a struggle to keep up: only Vadim Muntagirov really brings the zing. In the final movement, Naghdi is perfectly cast, bang on the music, full of glinting brilliance. In between, Marianela Núñez makes light work of a difficult adagio, adding trademark musicality to Bizet’s score. We may be too aware of the effort, but still it’s the kind of escapism you need after confronting the human condition and the horrors of war.