The Unknown Soldier, Alastair Marriott’s new ballet marking the First World War centenary, is timid, well-meaning and dull. The production team, including designer Es Devlin, surround it with all the bells and whistles of modern stagecraft, but the ballet itself is weak.
Marriott uses a real-life couple, Ted Feltham and Florence Billington, who fell in love as teenagers before he was killed in the war. Devlin’s set is a striking frame of sliding panels, supporting Luke Halls’ film projections – though I wonder how clearly the scenery reads from the upper levels of the theatre. On screen, archive footage and more recent interviews dissolve into the colours of the spectrum, beautifully lit by Bruno Poet. Dario Marianelli’s cinematic new score blends in interviews, with snatches of social dance for the couple’s early meeting.
On screen, the elderly Billington remembers her younger self: how handsome the soldiers were, the smitten crush she had on Ted. She’s aware of both the intensity and the naivety of those feelings, but Marriott stages it all as ballet cliche: demure girl meets dashing boy. Even the marvellous Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball can’t make this personal. The battlefield scenes are ploddingly literal, and there’s an ill-judged glimpse of the afterlife, an accidentally homoerotic scene with soldiers performing academic steps in their underwear.
In the past four years, the centenary has prompted some outstanding works, fresh perspectives on the war and how we remember it. After Akram Khan’s mesmerising Dust, the horror and anger of William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load or the lucid humanity of Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion, Marriott’s ballet is limited and sentimental.
It also raises questions about Royal Ballet commissioning, with resources lavished on an underdeveloped idea. Marriott, a dancer with the company, has made six main-stage works, with mixed success: his best was the elegant Sensorium, created in 2009. In that time, the company has commissioned only two women, Twyla Tharp and Crystal Pite, both brought in from outside. Who gets the chances at the Royal Ballet?
The Unknown Soldier is part of a very mixed programme. Wayne McGregor’s Infra was polished but emotionally underpowered, with Akane Takada lacking weight as the woman reaching for connection in a city crowd. George Balanchine’s sparkling Symphony in C closed the evening, with sharp rhythm from Lauren Cuthbertson in the first movement and Marianela Nuñez grand and dreamy in the second.
Until 29 November. Box office 020 7304 4000
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