In commissioning “She Said,” a triple bill featuring three new ballets by female choreographers, English National Ballet’s artistic director and lead principal dancer Tamara Rojo has challenged the status quo of contemporary ballet in two major ways. The first is a rebuke of its notoriously, dispiritingly male-dominated upper ranks (consider this: in her 20 years as a professional dancer Rojo, one of today’s most famous and decorated ballerinas, has never performed in a ballet choreographed by a woman). “We need those female voices on stage, those emotions,” Rojo notes in the programme. “We need all ways of expressing feeling.” Her words echo those of the creative feminists world-round who contend that no art form can truly represent our rich, complex world if it shuts out half of the voices in it.
The second is a subtler, though no less important, petition to acknowledge the potential for female choreographers to not simply of match the standards set by men but improve upon them. The first two works in “She Said” take steps to humanise famous female figures, while the third eschews any notion of gender altogether; the result of all three is that they release the women in them from the male gaze that so often permeates ballet. I’ve written before about the way narrative ballet in particular fixates on the denial of female agency, painting the suffering of women as fascinating rather than ugly. Here, in presenting works crafted by women, Rojo implicitly encourages us to consider the pieces at hand from a feminist point of view, even if they themselves are not outwardly political.
The best of the bunch is Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Broken Wings,” a richly imagined and dreamily executed tribute to Frida Kahlo. The ballet, which stars Rojo as the famous painter, shares the same narrative eloquence that made Ochoa’s 2012 adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” an engrossing watch, and a fair dose of that production’s stirring physicality too, from the sensual unfolding of Kahlo’s romance with Diego Rivera to the jarring depiction of the multiple miscarriages she suffered during their tumultuous marriage.
The piece’s chief strength, however, is its surreal blurring of fantasy and reality. Nowhere does it come more alive than in a sequence depicting Kahlo’s bedridden years following the tragic 1925 bus crash that saw her abdomen pierced, spine broken and leg amputated: here, Día de los Muertos-style skeletons nip at our immobilised protagonist’s heels while an all-male band of technicolour Kahlo doppelgangers dance around her, their vivid floral garlands a nod to the natural imagery that later came to infuse her famous self-portraits. The scene ends with Kahlo slapping away Death’s hand, the perfect embodiment of Kahlo’s hunger for life and famous proclamation that “tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” The emotional range needed to convey this depth of character is vast, as is the technical prowess to contend with Ochoa’s sweeping choreography, but Rojo handles it easily and with great finesse.
Other highlights include the imaginative set design, which uses a giant retractable cube to give us a bird’s eye view of Kahlo in bed; Irek Mukhamedov’s corpulent, philandering Rivera, spiced with just the right amount of comedy; and the corps’ menagerie of exotic birds and sprightly deer, who sport some brilliant choreography of their own. The work has real potential to become an ENB rep piece and perhaps even a full-evening production.
Stormy grey hues replaced the vibrant rainbow of “Broken Wings” in Yabin Wang’s “M-Dao,” a portrait of Euripedes’ Medea that seeks to contextualise the Greek anti-heroine’s infamous act of revenge—the murder of her two sons following her husband’s adultery—and render her a more dimensional figure than ‘wronged woman.’ An expressive choreography emerges early on and peaks in a fiery duet between Medea (Laurretta Summerscales) and her husband Jason (Fernando Bufalá) just prior to his betrayal with Glauce (Madison Keesler), a scene full of sensual eye contact and backs arched in desire. The acting chops and technique that won Summerscales ENB’s 2015 People’s Choice Award were on full display here, and went a long way in carving out a multifaceted character.
The piece has some lovely scenic effects, including sheets that drop dramatically from the ceiling, and its use of the corps as a Greek chorus of sorts is a nice touch, particularly during Medea’s rage, when they appear as demons egging her on. That said, it’s let down by its on-the-nose imagery, which is incessantly more ‘tell’ than ‘show,’ not least the projections of flames during Medea’s fury and the choreography that sees Glauce literally come between Medea and Jason.
Aszure Barton’s “Fantastic Beings,” by contrast, is adept in its subtlety, painting a vivid portrait of a magical beastie-filled landscape with abstractly animalistic choreography. The 20 dancers are chameleons who shapeshift from one untold creature to the next, by turns slithering, creeping, fluttering, flying. Mason Bates’ wily orchestral work Anthology of Fantastic Zoology aids them brilliantly, fluidly transporting the mise en scene from rainforests to savannahs to hundred-acre woods with its atmospheric jangles. One scene even takes us to the bottom of the sea, a small group of dancers wriggling like a school of fish as a waving section of the score plays out.
The piece is not without its drawbacks, namely that it feels overlong—were it up to me, I’d shave off 15 minutes and add that to “Broken Wings.” Still, it’s is a great vehicle for ENB, particularly its faster phrases, which see the dancers happily oblige the demands of sharp, intricate syncopations. And I’d be remiss not to praise its dynamic coda, a whirl of flying leaps and unison allegro that ends with a burst of confetti—a triumphant end to an inspiring evening.