She Persisted
Katja Khaniukova as Frida with English National Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's “Broken Wings.” Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

Taking Flight

English National Ballet's “She Persisted”

Performance
English National Ballet's “She Persisted”
Place
Sadler's Wells, London, UK, April 4, 2019
Words
Sara Veale

Wings have long held a special significance in ballet. In “Swan Lake,” Odette’s feathery port de bras become a devastating symbol of her captivity; in “La Sylphide” the titular sylph loses her wings, and her life, in an ill-fated embrace. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Broken Wings” is one of the latest ballets to harness this freighted imagery, albeit more loosely. Created in 2016 for English National Ballet and reprised as part of ENB’s new “She Persisted” bill, the production is a vibrant tribute to the painter Frida Kahlo, capturing the existential heartbreak she suffered when a bus crash at the age of 18 decimated her health, and along with it her dream of becoming a doctor. Over the course of Ochoa’s half-hour piece, Frida finds new ways into identity, femininity, love and art, eventually recovering the wings she thought had been clipped forever.

The set design is striking, a tropical dreamscape of dangling vines, sunset hues and men gussied up as technicolour Kahlo lookalikes (a powerful inversion of typical ballet archetypes). Ochoa matches this with a surreal topography of dance that tangles reality and make-believe: one moment Frida’s cavorting with her childhood sweetheart; the next she’s sidestepping a pack of skeletons, a piquant danse macabre that resurfaces throughout the ballet. Mirrors reflect her fantasies and terrors, including the coterie of creatures she conjures during her bedridden spells: hothouse blooms, spiky insects, a shy, tantalising fawn.

The ballet’s central role was created on ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo, but soloist Katja Khaniukova makes it her own in this staging, bringing a discerning wistfulness that reveals itself in fluttering fingertips and quivering shakes of the leg. She soars in her climactic pas de deux with Irek Mukhamedov, cast as the callous, corpulent Diego Rivera, swishing her skirt with breezy sensuality. Later, when the grief of Diego’s infidelities and Frida’s infertility are laid bare, she duets with one of the grim reapers, abandoning herself to anguished backwards arches. The constant spectre of mortality both imprisons Frida and liberates her, giving her a no-holds-barred freedom to explore her art.

The ballet’s brightest moments dance at the margins of this tension, interrogating the various power dynamics it incites. More muted are the ensemble performances; the male doppelgangers in particular are slack in their timing and a little careless with the tight, clear-cut lines of the choreography.

She Persisted
Crystal Costa with artists of English National Ballet in Stina Quagebeur’s “Nora.” Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

“Nora,” a brand-new ballet from ENB first artist Stina Quagebeur, suffers no such laxity; all eight dancers are on pointe, delivering springing sautés and tight, glancing turns. Like the other works in “She Persisted,” Quagebeur’s zeros in on feminist concerns, this time the turmoil of a stifled housewife, Nora. Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth-century play A Doll’s House, the ballet illuminates her disillusionment with marriage and quest for self-realisation, a struggle that ultimately prompts her to leave her family.

The opening scene thrusts us straight into our heroines mind of uncertainty with a suggestive, whispery voiceover: “I have to do it.” Crystal Costa illuminates Nora’s distress with fleet, jolting gestures, while a silver-suited chorus plays tug-of-war with her emotions, first pulling her into the domestic fray and later pushing her to escape. There’s an upright linearity to the choreography and a gripping fluidity to its silhouettes, the dancers reaching, wrenching, coiling. Costa excels at these molten shapes, the ensemble lifting and cradling her sinuous frame.

The ballet’s plot isn’t always accessible—Junor Souza’s creditor arrives and disappears with little impact—but Nora’s arc is articulated intelligently, particularly the tumult with her husband (Jeffrey Cirio), who goes from ignoring her strife to undermining it with a righteous, frustrated dance of defiance. His last-ditch attempt to keep Nora from leaving is emotively rendered—by this time, her anger has dissolved into resignation, and her departure is all the more distressing for it.

She Persisted
English National Ballet in Pina Bausch’s “Le Sacre du printemps.” Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring” rounds off the bill with a gut-punch of atavistic misogyny. The ENB ensemble nails the brute force of this 1975 masterpiece, which pits a flock of trembling maidens against a pack of panting men, their power imbalance as foul as the dirt they dance on. Francesca Velicu emerges as the Chosen One, doomed to dance herself to death, while Precious Adams manages to make it out alive, though not without some lascivious partnerwork forced upon her. The piece matches shuddering bursts of combat with eddies of balletic spins, all woven into the wriggling strings of Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde score.

A huffing, chugging dance circle is a highlight, as is a tense passage where the women freeze like gazelles as the men sniff out their fear. The sprints aren’t always as urgent as the setting calls for, but the performance is fierce, unrelenting, the dancers primed for battle and ready to brawl.

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