Last week the Royal Ballet presented a triple bill, opening with a new one-act work, Alastair Marriott’s The Unknown Soldier, which was followed by Wayne McGregor’s Infra and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C. All three pieces have been praised for the quality of the dancing, but despite its evident sincerity, Marriott’s new work has failed to please. The Telegraph’s Mark Monahan described it as “undistinguished”, and the Independent’s Zoë Anderson found it “weak” and “dull”.
I wasn’t able to attend the opening night but when I went on Monday, The Unknown Soldier struck me as symptomatic of an endemic issue in recent narrative choreography: the failure to understand and adhere to balletic genre. The moment the curtain rises on a ballet, we’re asked a question about the dancers on stage. Are they appearing as themselves? As fictional or historical characters? Abstract bodies in space? Spirits? If we’re not sure of the answer, we can’t make the necessary emotional connection. If the imaginative tone of the ballet changes midway, we’re lost.
The Unknown Soldier opens with projected archive footage of Florence Billington, 100 years old at the time of filming, who in 1914 saw her sweetheart, Ted Feltham, depart for the war in France with his pals. Tragically, neither he nor they were to return. We then cut to a sentimental balletic account of Ted and Florence’s courtship, followed by Ted’s death in battle and his reawakening with his companions in a luminescent afterlife. Matthew Ball and Yasmine Naghdi are as touching as they are technically excellent in the lead roles, but Marriott’s choreography and Dario Marianelli’s score cannot compete with Florence’s sad, sparing words. The work as a whole is too awkward a collision of the literal and the metaphorical for the dancers to make a significant impression.
Ballet cannot bear too much reality. To demand that it address a subject like trench warfare realistically is to come up against the limits of the form. Marriott’s young soldiers are costumed by Jonathan Howells in flimsy, see-through khakis more suited to the prêt-à-porter runway than the western front. They march as delicately as cats through Es Devlin’s vast and incomprehensible set, whose metallic shutters and ascending ceiling are in constant, distracting motion. And they carry real Lee-Enfield rifles. These rifles undo the piece altogether.
In Gloria, his sublime 1980 tribute to the dead of the first world war, Kenneth MacMillan and his designer, Andy Klunder, gave the dancers no weapons and only the most vestigial and impressionistic of uniforms. MacMillan understood that balletic metaphor is undercut by what one might call the thingness of things. Firearms, with their unambiguous thingness, change the dynamic of a piece. If they are to feature, as they do in John Cranko’s Onegin, or MacMillan’s Mayerling, it must be in a literal context rather than, as here, a symbolic one. Marriott’s soldiers are not the trench-footed, lice-tormented men who fought and died in France, but balletic personifications of golden youth.
His ballet divides against itself. On one side is Florence’s profoundly moving testimony, and those Lee-Enfield rifles, which have almost certainly been used to kill people; on the other, the spun-sugar edifice of the choreography, the designs and the music. The two halves can’t be reconciled. You can’t watch Florence quietly describing the death of the man she loved, hear her loss echoing over the years, and then take seriously the spectacle of a telegraph boy (Leo Dixon) bouncing on stage, executing a cheeky flurry of petit allegro steps, and coyly handing Naghdi the fateful telegram. By the same token, the presence of the rifles makes it impossible to take seriously the celestial rebirth of the soldiers. If the rifles are real and unsymbolic, then so is everything else, and the afterlife scene becomes little more than a bunch of men wandering around in form-fitting briefs.
Genre collisions of this sort make ballet hard to take seriously. In Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets, about the Ripper murders, we see a wholly symbolic figure, a devilish personification of slaughter unseen by the other characters, coexisting with Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister of the day. In Daniel de Andrade’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (for Northern Ballet), set in a concentration camp, black-uniformed SS officers dance alongside a mythical, satanic character called the Fury. Narrative ballet is making a welcome comeback, but too much has been forgotten since the days of MacMillan, and there are too few discriminating gatekeepers.