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She Persisted

by on 6 April 2019

Glints of Brilliance

She Persisted

by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Stina Quagebeur and Pina Bausch
music by Peter Salem, Philip Glass and Igor Stravinsky

English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, until 13th April

Review by Isobel Rogers

Is it possible to create a ballet about female empowerment?

She Persisted is the triumphant output of three prominent female choreographers in this exciting triple bill,  performed by English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells. The concept was the brainwave of Artistic Director Tamara Rojo, after realising that her twenty-year dance career had never required her to perform a piece created by a woman.

ENB’s striking posters on the Underground had certainly piqued my interest. And by the look of the audience, mostly well-dressed career women, I was not alone. The stories in She Persisted are a conventional array of romantic entanglements, female oppression and pain. Frankly, I had expectations of a broader feminist agenda. Women here take the reins but remain disappointedly wedded to traditional themes and modes of presentation.

We open with Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. It is vibrant, colourful and boldly Latin American, with music to match. It centres upon the tragic life of painter Frida Kahlo, famed for her strange but arresting self-portraits. Kahlo herself said, ‘I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’ In turn Ochoa strives to relate this duality, intertwining the real and the imagined. Kahlo’s story and strife are fascinating. They have preoccupied me since the curtain came down.

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Recently promoted to the role, Katja Khaniukova is enchanting as the young artist, her opening movements keen and uplifting. A rainbow of petticoated figures (both female and male) spring forth, swishing lace-tipped skirts and flaunting elaborate headdresses.

Before long, however, Kahlo is shaking, collapsing in a silent scream, marooned in a box. She is haunted by a group of cheeky skeletons, representing her encounters with death. They are a fabulous device: playful and mischievous as they scuttle across the space, poking their heads out at opportune moments. They are choreographed and danced with good-humoured aplomb.

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Not as vibrantly, we see Kahlo’s injuries to her foot and spine, demonstrated with a sequence of gestured lameness, a distressing juxtaposition to the fluency of ballet. Her striped costume references her corrective corset. We never see her paint, though her self-expression continuously unfolds in the brushstrokes of elegant dance.

Kahlo tenderly duets with older lover Diego Rivera (the excellent Irek Mukhamedov). He pulls her into his clutches, then pushes her away with adulterous betrayal. The fighting and fierceness between them feel underplayed; I was surprised to learn that the couple married, divorced and remarried.

The depiction of Kahlo’s repeated miscarriages is memorable: a thick crimson ribbon is pulled out from her open legs as Khaniukova writhes beneath. Red paint is already splattered on the wall behind her.

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The most enjoyable scene is set in a forest of huge green leaves suspended from the ceiling. Bright creatures dance through including a prancing fawn (evoking Kahlo’s famous Wounded Deer, a seminal work on suffering). At the denouement, Kahlo is herself incarnated as a giant, multi-coloured butterfly, symbolically liberated from her physical and marital sorrows.

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Whilst Broken Wings feels fresh, I’m left craving more contemporary content and a stronger sense of Kahlo’s own internal darkness. I want the experimental essence of Frida channelled into a more daring vision and sharper storytelling.

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Nora by Stina Quagebeur leaves me unmoved. It’s a restrained take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the plot of which is unfamiliar to me, but which centres upon a woman who walks out on her husband and children.

There is no choreographic statement – no remarkable repeated devices to help characterise the ballet or the figures within it: essential watermarks achieved by male competitors such as Wheeldon and Scarlett.  Crystal Costa, in the central role, crafts smooth sections not en pointe. There is an interesting interlude between two men warring over a desk. It irks me that the plot requires a background description in the programme to be understood. (Maybe Quagebeur is assuming her audience will know the story…always a dangerous mistake. Weighty classics aren’t cultural reference points for a 2019 generation of ballet-goers.)

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The movement itself is too generic: performed with dedication but ultimately a little flat in its impact. Who is Nora? What do her husband and family mean to her? ENB has missed an opportunity here to present a more abstract and alive exploration of women’s domestic oppression as wives and mothers. I don’t know this woman, even at the end, and so cannot care about her fate.

Le Sacre du printemps is a well-chosen revival for ENB. Pina Bausch’s blistering creation is an undisputed triumph. It is raw, urgent and wholly unfiltered in its emotional charge. The dancers’ love for this work communicates clearly. Set to Stravinsky’s dramatic score, the ensemble bounces steadily at the knee, a transfixed and terrified pack. They clasp their arms together and fling themselves into piles of dark peat, staining their slip dresses and bare chests.

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The result is utterly mesmeric; a fundamental exploration of what it means to be alive. The authority of Bausch’s agenda, delivered with such verve and commitment, seems to highlight the choreographic downfalls of the previous two pieces.

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Francesca Velicu is the principle female, the always-uncredited ‘chosen one’. She is slight of frame and vulnerable. Her youth seems to amplify the pain that tears through her. This modern work suits the lithe physicality of ENB as a company: they take on this fervent battle of the sexes with conviction. With stunningly precise movements (suited to staunch classical technique), they build complex canons of contraction and release. In perfect tribal circles they animate, barefoot and enraptured, as if caught in a violent nightmare. Elbows strike sweaty rib cages in a cacophony of sounded breath.

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The applause is bountiful and heartfelt. A spectacular achievement that outshines the rest of the line-up with its visceral power. Bausch’s harsh, uncompromising spirit is alive in every nuance of this performance. It is unadulterated. The women that bravely follow in her footsteps can achieve the same feats, if only they throw out their keenness to please. Great choreography is only made that way.

A beautiful conceit by Rojo, brilliance glints through the sometimes-heavy structures of classical ballet across this triple bill. Yet, a fledgling female audience needs to be shown more ways in which women ‘persist’. Thematically, we must see them succeed sometimes too.

Isobel Rogers
April 2019

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

 

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