The paucity of female choreographers in classical ballet isn’t just a problem but an embarrassment. In 2016, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo pushed back against sheepish but consistently excuse-making programming by putting on a triple bill of female choreographers, She Said, featuring work from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang and Aszure Barton.
2019’s follow-up, She Persisted, has the same necessary intentions at its heart, but unlike She Said, it contains only one new work, Nora by Stina Quagebeur, bringing back Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings and adding Pina Bausch’s electrifying The Rite of Spring to the bill (it’s worth noting that, thanks to Rojo’s tirelessly trailblazing programming, the ENB was only the second ballet company in the world to perform Bausch’s Rite, and this is only the fourth time it has been performed in the UK since 1975).
Broken Wings, which explores the life of Frida Kahlo, is a witty carnival of gorgeous costume, episodic dance, and ebullient choreography. Begoña Cao’s Kahlo is gutsy and resilient, throwing aside conventional softness of limb and lightness of impact for fluttering legs ending in flexed feet, smacking hands and boisterous energy. Her duets with James Streeter’s hilariously stomach-slapping Diego Rivera are dramatically animated.
Part of the joy of Broken Wings is the stunning costuming – the monochrome deer-woman, the rainbow-dipped bird-of-paradise girls, the skeletons – and the rich scenography, which includes gigantic leaves winding down from the ceiling and a spinning black box filled with painted scenes. In truth, there are sections where the polychromatic costumes seem to have come first. The host of male Fridas that follow their queen, beskirted in luscious pastels and crowned with headdresses, spin and lift their skirts to create whirling seas of colour. The impression they give is reminiscent of the spreading bristles of a paintbrush pressed against a canvas, densely symbolic; at other times, the swirling skirts seem to be a purely visual effect, foaming waves of pastel brightness crashing on the edge of the stormy seas of narrative.
Broken Wings is absolutely laden with imagery, which is, at times, rather heavy-handed. Nevertheless, its colour and its strong sense of storytelling rescue it from looking like a highly choreographed high fashion runway, and the sheer sense of delight and drama palpable on stage makes it clear why Rojo has chosen to reprogramme the piece in this triple bill.
Stina Quagebeur joined the English National Ballet as a dancer in 2004, and though she has made other smaller pieces, this is the first time she has been given the opportunity to make a piece on the main Company. The result, Nora, a twenty-minute ballet loosely following the trio at the heart of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, is a work as clean and sophisticated as the Philip Glass score that accompanies it.
Baffling to anyone unfamiliar with the Ibsen text, Nora is nevertheless redolent of the power struggles between a woman and two men – even if audience members unfamiliar with the play won’t really understand why a piece of paper keeps being passed between the three soloists. Quagebeur’s choreography summons the desperate push-and-pull of guilt, trepidation and hope raging in Nora’s (Erina Takahashi) heart, with whiplash twitches and sharply delineated angled lines. Special mention should be made for Henry Dowden’s Krogstad, whose aggressive spins and hyena-like bounding perfectly evoke this dislikeable blackmailer. Pared, clean and somehow both restrained and passionate, Nora promises interesting things from Quagebeur.
The Rite of Spring is a work of genius, performed by incredibly accomplished dancers. Two years ago I reviewed it performed by the same company, and it has lost none of its visceral power. On a dirt floor, female performers in pearl-coloured dresses and male performers, bare-chested and clad in black trousers, pant, thrust and scrabble their way through a bleak ritual of desire and sacrifice, culminating in a terrifyingly compelling solo from the red-dressed victim of the rite. Working with the signature postures of the cringe, the crouch and grab, Bausch’s exquisite primeval tale simmers.
Before the piece begins, the crew at Sadler’s have to wheel on several enormous bins full of soil and push them over, raking it evenly across a black canvas spread specifically for the purpose. They finish their job with a graceful piece of dance that sees them line up stage front and rake backwards, erasing their footsteps. The audience, because they know good choreography when they see it, applaud wildly. It’s a rite that bears some resemblance to the Rite: repeated motions that are focused down towards the floor and bonded with heavy effort create, segment by segment, a single monumental achievement.
She Persisted is, then, a success, because it does what it sets out to do: prove that great dance can be made by female choreographers, on female performers, and that we really ought to be programming more of them. But after the rallying cry of She Said, I wonder whether She Persisted has been radical enough in its choices. As my companion points out, the ballets are on shaky grounds when it comes to the Bechdel Test. Two of the pieces hinge around the heteronormative dynamic, even if The Rite of Spring is a boldly experimental take on it; only Broken Wings goes a step further and considers Frida Kahlo as an artist. Rojo has done much with this programming, but I think it’s possible for us to do more, expand more, ask for more, and go one step further in challenging the conventions of the genre.
She Persisted is on at Sadler’s Wells till 13th April. More info here.