Review: Gravity and Levity - Rites of War - Stratford Circus

Performance: 1 - 3 May 2014
Reviewed by Lara Hayward - Tuesday 6 May 2014

Gravity & Levity 'Rites of War' Photo: Mark Morreau

Gravity & Levity’s Rites of War is a melting pot of ideas, skills and artistic disciplines. Choreographed by Darshan Singh Bhuller with aerial artist and dancer Lindsey Butcher, it follows the lives of two soldiers: Private George Ellison who was shot an hour before the First World War finished at 11am on 11 November 1918 and another fighter, John Smith, who at the age of 15 is so affected by 9/11 that he ends up joining the forces and fighting in Afghanistan.
Their stories are told using dance, aerial artistry, creative use of a bleak and battered climbing wall, video footage and the commentary of BBC Afghanistan correspondent David Loyn.

Rites of War opens with a modern evocation of war. Four fatigues-clad dancers move deliberately, robotically straining against the raging soundtrack of Drowning Pools Let the bodies hit the floor . Is this a nod to the futility of war – that efforts plough on regardless even though combat seems senseless? The small Stratford Circus theatre space adds to the claustrophobic feeling that we are in an increasingly intense documentary, the surround-sound onslaught of noise adding to the visual assault on the senses.

But it is the subtle, simple phrases (those that relate to WW1) that move me the most. Watching a fragile Nicholas Minns perform barely-there ballet exercises in longjohns before being dressed in his civvies and a coil of barbwire (a nod to the front line and Amnesty International’s logo perhaps) by a faceless onlooker, is exceptionally poignant. Minn’s recital of Patrick MacGill’s poem Matey is equally touching and I hope that he won’t mind me raising that, refreshingly, he is in a different age bracket to most dance performers. Rites is notable for using a broader age range of artists – its effect here to underline the message of generations at war and how responses to combat change over the years. Soldiers remain wedded to the forces but wearyingly so, in contrast to the energetic enthusiasm of new recruits.

Quite often, there is too much going on. Music, commentary and choreography battle each other and thus cause an otherwise emotive angel/soldier duet to get loss in the mire. When the visual elements do come together, the work shows Butcher and Singh Bhuller’s ideas at their best. Their artistic interpretation of the men ‘going over the top’ was creatively multilayered, a flickering screen confining restless soldiers to the trenches while performers ascend the wall, SAS style, in the modern-day safety of their harnesses.

One story runs forwards and the other backwards – underscoring that the human race is still at the point where it left off, over a century after WW1 finished. Resolution comes when the inevitable red poppies are projected over the stage. The imagery is peaceful, but having been acutely reminded by Gravity and Levity of the longlasting effects of war on all those involved, it is of limited relief.

Gravity and Levity are touring Rites of War. Details & venues:

Lara Hayward is a freelance dance, sport and travel writer. Read more from her at

Photo: Mark Morreau

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