On a bleak, blustery Tuesday, I ventured out to the Royal Opera House where I nestled down to watch a gift-wrapped triple bill of delightfulness, personality and evocative ballet finessed with a satin ribbon of pure skill and flawlessness. The lights gradually softened and a lull cushioned the audience bracing us for the unravelling of the mother of all gifts: The Unknown Soldier, Infra and Symphony In C.
Choreographed by Alastair Marriott, The Unknown Soldier is a microcosm of World War I where a love story marries tragedy in a chilling narrative of authenticity, charm and remembrance. Using the powerful medium of film the performance commenced with Florence Billington’s account of falling in love with a young man who was sent out to Flanders but promised her they would get engaged on his return as her portrait filled the stage and her words emotively hung in the air. Like many of the young boys under fire in the trenches Florence’s love did not return. With the cause of his death unresolved, Marriott turned to the account of one of the war’s great survivors, Harry Patch, who was deeply traumatised by his time in Flanders and thus unable to express his account for more than 80 years.
An ode to British history, Florence and Harry, the performance teems with a rich oxymoronic character. Florence’s graceful, old-fashioned nature juxtaposes the modernity of technology and film, her hope and giddy excitement for the future, as a young girl, stands as a backdrop to the sadness of her past while her sensitive female gaze gave a niche perspective and contrast to the grotesque brutality and horror of war. Anna Rose O’Sullivan and William Bracewell dance with effortless virtuosity living Florence’s tale as if it is their own and owning the stage like a black and white film coming to life. A fragment of history so fractured was momentarily given structure by the expertise of the dancers’ steps beautifully filling the unanswered, empty and heartbreaking gaps of the universally grieved unknown soldiers, honouring them, and giving Florence and Harry’s personalised accounts even more depth and meaning as their omniscient presences dwell above.
Speaking to the charming William Bracewell I wanted to look behind the scenes and workings of the sensation that captured the harsh, ugly reality of war in such a dignified, fluid and graceful way.
“It was quite a tricky thing to research because our lives are so different now. It was difficult to understand what that must have been like. What I feel like it’s done, to the cast, is that we’ve gone away and we’ve learnt more about what had happened and what situations these men were put in. When you relate that back to the lives we currently lead, it’s absolutely terrifying so it’s just a real honour to be part of something that commemorates that and keeps it within our memories. What got me, when I first performed it, was the relationship I had with Anna Rose. It was that sense of responsibility that you have to serve your country but you were leaving someone behind who you were absolutely in love with and it was that … I can’t imagine what that must’ve felt like. It’s heartbreaking. I spoke to some of my family because I had a great uncle who actually died and I didn’t realise he had been part of the fighting so I found out about him. There has been so much coverage in the news. It’s been nice to hear the personal stories, that’s what I find interesting.”
“To prepare… in a physical way we will rehearse for quite a while. The creation process, you know, it’s really good to get a good chunk of time set aside for that. It was pretty tricky having the solo at either end. General stamina work was needed in a very boring technical way. You want to have a feel for towards the ending of the piece, so when you are really tired, you want to have trained hard enough so that you have enough energy in reserve to perform steps how you want them to be. It’s more towards the end that the emotional layering of the story comes into play. You’ve been thinking about it from the very beginning but when you start to rehearse it more, using the ideas that you’ve thought of from the get go, implementing them into rehearsal and talking to your partner about them… so you’re both on the same page about what you’re putting across to the audience. For me it was to get the relationships right, within the piece, and building enough of a character for who you are performing… so you know what he’s had for breakfast, you know how he’s feeling at every single moment, generally things will fall into place, that’s how I generally go about working on characters.”
An account of stolen youths ally with true accuracy as the young cast danced with rifles, some bearing the engravings of soldiers who had used them, as Scott Finch from the Royal Opera House Armoury Department gave a master class to the male dancers. “He taught us how to properly carry a gun. He taught us how to crawl, as there’s a real skill in how you would crawl, and carry a gun. He also spoke about the formation that the men would be set up in. So there was a rescue scene and he was talking about where bodies would be positioned and where their sidelines would be going in order to protect the person who was injured and get them out of the line of fire. It was tough! We were a bit bruised after that!”
“I am amazed at people’s skills at collaboration and how important they are. In general dance is silent. It’s those conversations that happen around that before you get to the performance and I really really love seeing how people work together. For example, I would go to the back of the orchestra and listen to the conversations that Alastair was having with Es, the designer, and I found their dynamic really intriguing; and the collaborations we have as dancers and the conversations that surround everything we do. That is what amazes me with anything we do at the opera house: it’s how well people come together. It took a lot of trust from everyone and it must have been a bit daunting to take that jump and put film and dance together. I think they’ve done it beautifully.”
Transgressing into another plane of existence and engaging in an abstract dialogue is Infra. An abstract dialogue that lies closer to home than one may initially think, focusing on the human body, our interactions and what lies below the surface of our multiple selves. Wayne McGregor’s choreographic language is subjective contemporary art and that is what makes it so seducing and authoritative. LED figures walk across the screen perhaps symbolising an omnipotence above and beyond as the dancers portray the epitome of humanistic emotions in a surreal, hypnotising, alien yet painfully recognisable and personal piece of art. “I had some good friends watch and they said that at the beginning they really focused on the projection but then afterwards it kind of became a part of their mesmerising field of vision. There is this constant above and subterranean activities that are going on underneath that were kind of … another part of it” stated William. “It’s such an intense environment and piece that it’s the interpersonal connections on stage we have really tried to focus on. So your sight is never out towards the audience or anywhere but your partner or who you are dancing with.”
I cannot help but break into the biggest smile as I hear William’s pure joy and exhilaration over Wayne McGregor’s oeuvre. “Wayne’s rehearsals…I think you would struggle to go any longer than an hour because there’s so much information that gets relayed to you. I mean it is amazing. It’s pretty strange…there’s not many rehearsals where you feel like you have more energy than when you went in. I think what it is… is that he’s managed to stimulate, not just your physical self, but also your mental ability to implement what he’s talking about so you just feel so switched on afterwards. He just makes rehearsals really exciting. His use of language and intention is just really excellent. He knows what he likes and he’s very clear about communicating what he wants from a specific movement. He uses clear language and interesting language in doing that. He just makes really interesting decisions and I think a lot of the time that’s what creative processes are. They are just a number of choices you make. He just makes really good choices.” Letting William know that I can’t relate to that he chuckles “neither can I really!” I know he’s lying…
“The other thing I love about Wayne is that when you watch his pieces you don’t usually come away seeing a narrative story. You can but it’s not really obvious. The intentions that go behind those movements… I haven’t performed a single McGregor ballet yet and not had a massively emotional impetus behind every single movement so I think that’s why they become so powerful. So if you’re performing a step and it has to be a certain way, which I think it can be in more abstract classical ballet, I think when you add an element of emotion behind the movement it gives it this extra bit of power. Friends and family come and watch other pieces and for some people I haven’t explained anything and they’ve watched the show and not fully understood what’s going on. They’ve loved it but they didn’t quite get it. Afterwards I explain the intentions behind it and they’ve been like ‘oh my god I completely get it now!’ When I’ve explained it beforehand, they’ve come away and been like ‘oh that’s so clear I get it!”
“I think what Wayne does… it’s not necessarily vocalised and I think that’s what he does really well. I think he understands individual dancers and the way they move and I think he really enjoys drawing from people’s instincts in movement. I think that’s why he can be particular about people he works with and casting for different roles because I think he really enjoys drawing from individual energies and interestingly its not vocalised so he will give a very open intention so for example he will say: ‘I want a shift and then a tilt in that direction’ and for a ballet dancer that could mean ANYTHING. It’s not French! We only speak French! I think he likes how 4 or 5 different people could do that same direction.”
My experience with Infra is that it handles the nonlinear nature of emotions, fragmentation and injustices of the world that McGregor translates into a linear conversation of ballet. I often felt like the outsider and the observer sadistically watching the lives and pain of others. Fascinated by the grotesque side of emotions and the malleability of the canvas-stricken human body, I didn’t get it. But I also liked that I didn’t get it.
Eventually followed by George Balanchine’s classical, glittering Symphony in C, where I relished in the sound of fluttering dancer’s en pointe tapping against the floor, the deliciously varied triple bill of ballet drew to a close. Blissfully content and overwhelmed with curiosity I asked William to describe the final moments just before the curtains open before a performance. “It completely depends on the production. With the second piece of the ballet, Infra, the stage is completely clear so what I like to do is try out a few sections of the duet I’m about to do. Especially if you haven’t had much time with your partner and have been getting ready warming up. So you get a feel for each other’s energy and what I’ve learnt over the years is that you have to go for what you’re feeling. You’re not 100% perfect injury free and feeling amazing every show so it’s sometimes that…if it’s been a tough day and you’re starting a bit slower… if you just go with that then you will find your grove. Which is interesting as it means that shows can be quite different. With The Unknown Soldier there is the large piece of scenery that drops down so we have to be on stage behind that so there isn’t really room to move. It’s a weird one. So you have to go on stage and stand in the middle. You have a very big panel behind your head that’s nearly touching the back of your head and the stage manager will say ‘we are closing the slats’ and that’s about 30 seconds before the curtain goes up on you. They are all kind of closed so you are sealed into this small closed space. But I quite enjoy those moments of solitude beforehand as I like to feel prepared and that I have done enough rehearsal, I always make sure that’s the case. It’s quite nice to have that little moment. I can hear the video in front of me…it’s quite a nice little cathartic moment before it starts. Have two little deep breaths before you enjoy. It does always feel like a special moment. Performances are always a treat. Yeah I mean, it’s always the feeling before that I’ve started to enjoy. I have a little bit of time where I get a little bit nervous before shows and started to enjoy it less but once I got rid of that and learned that if I wasn’t enjoying it then there wasn’t much point in doing it!”
An absorbing and memorable gift of an evening but the words of Harry Patch engulfed me: “if any man tells you he went into the front line and he wasn’t scared- he’s a liar.” The poignant performance of The Unknown Soldier seemed worlds apart from the bejeweled decadence of Symphony In C leaving a bittersweet taste but accentuating the pure talent, diversity and versatility of The Royal Ballet.
Photographer Niklas Haze