Wayne Eagling looks back to World War I with a new ballet for New English Ballet Theatre

Opening on September 18 at the Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury, New English Ballet Theatre’s ambitious autumn season includes Wayne Eagling’s new ballet, Remembrance. Charlotte Kasner looks ahead.

Memory is a fickle, unreliable creature. Our brain constructs memories that are but facsimiles of events and, by the time that they become ritualised, they take on their own reality that may be far removed from the original happening.

Although we are now a century away from the approaching anniversary of the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars”, there are few who do not have an image of that conflict through its poetry and the ever-present red field poppy.

Among the many commemorations in the weeks leading up to November 11, New English Ballet Theatre are presenting Wayne Eagling’s Remembrance, set to Händel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day with The English Concert orchestra, soloists and chorus. That’s quite a difficult piece of music to make a narrative ballet to, says Eagling but, “It has moments that are inspiring and beautiful and whenever you use really good music that inspires you to greater things in your choreography.”

Wayne Eagling
Wayne Eagling

Eagling reveals that the original idea for the ballet came from Greg Billingsley, while Eagling was director of English National Ballet, where they created a pas de deux based on the idea of lovers being separated during the First World War.

Remembrance is very particular to dance as Eagling takes as a central motif the relationship between Marie Rambert and Ashley Dukes. As a couple, they would become pillars of the London arts scene, Rambert providing the foundations of the English ballet revival in the early 1930s while Dukes garnered renown as a playwright and manager.

However, and in another sense, they were a couple like so many others: separated by a devastating war. Indeed, in the ballet, Marie Rambert is representing all women whose men went to the front, Eagling explains. “So, although she’s Marie, it could be anyone. I wondered what it must have been like for those separated, the lack of communication, the dread of opening the door and being handed a telegram to say your loved one wasn’t coming home. We’re using Marie and her story as a place setting and a time setting because she was in London at that time and her husband went to war, although, of course, he didn’t die.”

Rambert and Dukes met in the penultimate year of the conflict and married eight months before the armistice, although of course they had no such benefit of certainty. Remember that many believed that the war that brought an end to the long, hot summer of 1914 would be over by Christmas. No-one thought that it might drag on for years of deadly stalemate until there were no more left to fight. Eagling’s ballet specifically recalls the personal anguish created by their sudden separation when Dukes was called back to the horrors of the battlefield.

“I would have thought Marie Rambert would like the idea. It’s important to say it’s not a biography, it’s about a feeling and she represents a time and place and a name that was there, but I can’t pretend to know what she felt, I’m just hoping to be able to show what, the feelings would be of every woman and the community at the time.”

Alessia Lugoboni in Remembrance by Wayne EaglingPhoto Hugo Glendinning
Alessia Lugoboni in Remembrance by Wayne Eagling
Photo Hugo Glendinning

A section of Remembrance has been presented as a promotion, but the bulk is currently in creation. In rehearsal, the pas de deux between Rambert and Dukes cuts across the usual clichés, and indeed, across the metre, with bold gestures and detailed footwork that nods to the baroque whilst depicting the crashing end of the belle epoch. Eagling is presenting an exciting challenge to his young dancers, not only in the choreography but in getting to grips with the intensity, intimacy and immensity of the subject.

Eagling hopes audiences will engage with the story and “enter into a tiny slice of history.” He would like the ballet to make people think what sacrifices others have made that allow us to live how we do now. “I’m not sure if our generation would be able to do what that generation did. Just the fact of being in a trench and someone blowing a whistle and you get up and run towards machine guns. I don’t think my generation really understands the kind of bravery that took. I’m hoping they will get some nostalgic feeling of thanks.”

Remembrance, to be performed alongside Jenna Lee’s The Four Seasons, set to Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s much-loved classic, promises to be a haunting and reverent commemoration of that monumental conflict of a century ago.

New English Ballet Theatre’s Remembrance | The Four seasons programme premieres on Tuesday September 18 at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury.

For more details of those performances and subsequent tour dates at Thameside Theatre, Grays; Peacock Theatre, London; and Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, visit www.nebt.co.uk/performances-events