An evening of female strength and artistry: She Persisted by English National Ballet

Sadler’s Wells, London
April 4, 2019

Alexandra Gray

The phrase ‘nevertheless, she persisted’ began life as an attempted put down, but has been well and truly re-appropriated by the feminist movement to underline the current mood of defiance among women who refuse to be silenced any longer. This defiance can be felt in English National Ballet’s latest triple bill which takes its name from the phrase and follows on from 2016’s She Said, as a showcase for female choreographers.

There were several women wearing feminist slogan T-shirts in the audience, and artistic director Tamara Rojo was unmissable in a blazing red gown. Rojo’s impetus for commissioning She Said was the realisation that in all her years as a dancer she had never performed in a work created by a woman. At English National Ballet, she is working for more inclusivity, and in the last six years, 28 works by female choreographers have been commissioned across the company.

Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings Photo Laurent Liotardo
Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Opening the evening, Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa is based on the life and art of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Katja Khaniukova portrayed the artist with beautiful clarity as a woman whose body was at the mercy of fate and medical interventions. She can only look on helplessly as her leg, crushed in an accident, shivers and jerks. In a nod to both Mexican culture and Kahlo’s own brushes with death, a mob of malevolent skeletons stalk her. They wriggle and leer at her, at one point wrapping her in a trail of blood from her own miscarriage.

Despite all her suffering of course, Kahlo’s art was vivacious, and this is reflected in scenography by Dieuweke van Reij which is full of luscious colour and imagery. After Kahlo’s agonising miscarriage, huge leaves on branches descend from above and shimmering bird-like creatures bourrée across the stage. It is a beautiful realisation of Kahlo’s fertile life as an artist.

An ensemble of male and female dancers swish in coloured skirts, stamping their heels. Each is a Frida, and when Irek Mukahmedov (relishing the part of lothario Diego Rivera) approaches tenderly, they part their skirts to release the unadorned woman beneath. Alison McWhinney as Rivera’s mistress was beautifully seductive, all glittering footwork and flashing eyes.

Crystal Costa and Junor Souza in Stina Quagebeur's NoraPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Crystal Costa and Junor Souza in Stina Quagebeur’s Nora
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Kahlo’s triumph of art over life is the star of the piece though. When Khaniukova floats her arms upward, the ensemble’s arms all breathe with her, as if to show that her paintings were her body, her freedom, and her voice.

More sombre and psychological in tone is Stina Quagebeur’s Nora. Taking its title from the central character of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the ballet explores Nora rather than seeking to retell the whole story.

Nora is an emotive and theatrical portrayal of a woman beset by constraints and dilemmas which still resonate in 2019. In the opening scene, Crystal Costa’s oily port de bras and fussy hands seem a performance of femininity: Nora playing the good little wife for husband Torvald. Her psychological struggle (in the play, Nora has forged a signature to secretly borrow money for her husband, who treats her like a foolish child) is artfully represented by a quintet of ‘voices’ who flurry around her, heads jerking, at times their hands covering Nora’s mouth.

While Nora is pushed and pulled by her voices, Jeffrey Cirio as Torvald is an excellent contrast, his arabesques lines clear and deliberate as he underlines each pedantic point to his wife. Junor Souza as Krogstad (who knows Nora’s secret) was a commanding presence, writing through the air with his arms, and dominating the space around Nora while she stirred the floor anxiously with her foot.

Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printempsPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Philip Glass’ Tirol Concerto adds even more drama, emotion and gravitas. Nora’s famous final walk out from her marital home is quick and decisive, leaving her husband a forlorn figure alone, his world breaking apart. The curtain-call for Nora was a feminist statement in itself, as Stina Quagebeur called her all-female creative team onto the stage to take a bow in a vision of colour and confidence.

Rounding off the bill was Le Sacre du printemps. Pina Bausch’s epic and frankly terrifying physicalisation of Stravinsky’s riot-inciting music tells the story of a pagan society who choose a girl to be sacrificed to fertility gods each springtime.

Rolf Borzik’s iconic design sees the stage covered in soil, the men topless, the women in flimsy white dresses. By the end of the piece, in which dancers hurl themselves through cyclical phrases full of violence and sensuality, soil is clinging to their sweat-soaked bodies. As the girl chosen to be sacrificed, Francesca Velicu brought a heart-breaking vulnerability to the role and danced Bausch’s punishing choreography with all the emotional abandon it requires.

At the end of Sacre, the chosen girl falls down dead. On this evening in the theatre, however, female strength and artistry were very much alive and kicking.