Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem came and went earlier this season. Neither Frederick Ashton’s luminous Dante Sonata nor Kurt Jooss’ pacifist masterpiece, The Green Table, has emerged from mothballs. Instead of looking backwards to memorialize World War I, English National Ballet has boldly commissioned three new works that bring their gifted choreographers to the company for the first time.

The themed programme entitled ‘Lest We Forget‘ opens powerfully with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a haunting dreamscape that threads weary soldiers among the women who remain behind manufacturing munitions and hope. Smoky battlefield and shattered factory overlap; the couples embrace in tender duets, and the partners echo those embraces even when they’re left alone. Their sustained dignity lends physical form to courage and sorrow.

No Man’s Land threads weary soldiers among the women left behind

In Second Breath Russell Maliphant strips away shoes, recognizeable place and defining drama, abstracting a desperate sense of sacrifice from the dancers’ trusting encounters. Imprisoned by half-shadows, the kneeling men collapse sideways and clamber slowly up human pyramids, only to topple helplessly into their comrades’ arms. Bound together as displaced persons, the men and women finally separate, reaching for one another over an increasing distance.

Akram Khan, whose contemporary dance portion of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony beamed his talent to the world, provided the pivot for his muscular Dust. First portraying a lone victim, crawling from his fate and then linked to the crowd surrounding him by the chain of their rippling arms, he became a memory, fused passionately with the woman he must eventually abandon. Beween those passages, the barefoot women took possession of the stage like tribal warriors empowered by necessity, twisting, falling and stamping with whiplash intensity.

 Dust has a whiplash intensity

No one can predict which of these works will survive in the repertory, though I’d bet on No Man’s Land, and possibly Dust, even without Khan’s own riveting presence. But they are immediately significant as the proof that Tamara Rojo, the new artistic director, will put her company’s money where her mouth is. Having promised to reinvent ENB’s character and reposition the troupe on Britain’s cultural map, she is bravely keeping her word.

Follow these choreographers in their new projects

“Lest We Forget” remains at the Barbican through 12 April. The company moves on to Derek Deane’s Romeo and Juliet, Royal Albert Hall, 11-22 June, www.ballet.org.uk

Akram Khan returns iTMOi to Sadler’s Wells, 10-14 June, www.sadlerswells.com and appears at the Edinburgh Festival, 19-21 August. www.eif.co.uk/gnosis

Russell Maliphant presents “Still Current,” an evening of new work and earlier pieces, at Sadler’s Wells, 5-7 June

The Royal Ballet revives Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets, 14-26 May, www.roh.org.uk. New York City Ballet adds his choreography to its repertory for the first time, 1 and 3 May, www.nycb.org, and his first creation for San Francisco Ballet features in that company’s summer season in Paris, 10-26 July. www.lesetesdeladanse.com

** Photography by ASH

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