Ballet is woman: English National Ballet’s She Said

Charlotte Kasner reports from Sadler’s Wells, London
April 13, 2016

The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers – and man is the gardener. (George Balanchine)

Me Tarzan, you Jane. George. Balanchine conveniently overlooked the fact that two women, both colleagues when he danced for Diaghilev, went on to found the beginnings of the modern revival of ballet in Britain. Marie Rambert provided the crucible which produced the best choreographers and dancers, while Lilian Baylis provided the funding and the building – the precursor of the very theatre in which She Said is being performed – that enabled Balanchine’s second colleague, Ninette de Valois, to establish the Vic-Wells Ballet. Of course that little outfit is still going strong in WC2 and the company that Rambert founded is still touring the country from their new base just across the river.

A bit of a shock then to realise that the artistic director of ENB, Tamara Rojo, has not previously danced in a work by a female choreographer in a career spanning two decades. One mustn’t lay all the blame at Balanchine’s door as this attitude has permeated and been perpetuated throughout the dance world and beyond, so it’s good to see an attempt to re-dress the balance. What really matters of course is the integrity and quality of the work and that certainly does not disappoint.

That frontcloth

The first thing that greets the audience at the Wells is Grayson Perry’s much-touted frontcloth. In the tradition of Diaghilev, ENB has commissioned the work from a contemporary artist but, unlike Diaghilev, Perry is not integral to the Company and did not have much information when creating the cloth as the works were still in development. The premise is fair enough: a female thinking of three ideas.

Grayson Perry's frontclothPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Grayson Perry’s frontcloth
Photo Laurent Liotardo

What we see is the top of a woman’s head and lots and lots of phalluses with a couple of odd-breasted creates scattered around, all executed with a dayglo felt-tip effect. It is perfectly possible to get on one’s high horse at the offensive implication that all women are capable of is thinking of phalluses but it really isn’t necessary as what it shows is that it is all that Perry was capable of thinking of. Fortunately the dance works are considerably more nuanced and we don’t have to look at it for too long.

They thought she was a dancer

If there is anyone that epitomises a strong woman, it has to be the fearsome-browed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, born in 1907 three years before the start of the Mexican revolution, an event she would later closely associate herself with. A year before the outbreak of the First World War, at age 6, she contracted polio which left her with a weakened and withered leg. Twelve years after recovering, a 1925 bus accident left her with horrific injuries that plagued her for the rest of her life.

Tamara Rojo as Frida Kahlo in Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez OchoaPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo as Frida Kahlo in Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Even that terrible event has a whiff of the bizarre: the friend who was travelling with her, Alex Gómez Arias, escaped with minor abrasions but found Frida lying impaled by the hand rail of the vehicle with her clothes torn off and her body covered in spilled gold paint. He later wrote “When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.”

The other accident is Diego

While recuperating, Kahlo took up painting using a mirror in her ceiling so that she could work on self-portraits. She was advised by Diego Rivera, a well-known painter 21 years her senior, for advice on becoming a professional artist. They were soon involved in a liaison and married in 1929, although both were to have many affairs. They divorced on the eve of the Second World War but remarried a year later. Kahlo was bisexual and had affairs with men and women, most famously their house-guest Leon Trotsky. Rivera confined himself to women, including Frida’s younger sister.


Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings gives a dramatic, but rather biased account of Kahlo’s life. Six splendid skeletons constantly accompany her in their slow dance of death, donning celebratory sombreros at one point and even manipulating Rivera’s ladder. They are there throughout joy and sorrow, a constant reminder of her suffering.

Kahlo’s correspondence with her doctor (finally revealed in 2007 as she had requested that it not be read until fifty years after Rivera’s death) reveal her miscarriages which are depicted on stage by one of the skeletons pulling on an elasticated red rope which finally snaps out of her hands as she writhes in physical and mental agony. Creatures from her paintings flit in and out, including male and female versions of herself.

Rivera is somewhat one-sidedly represented as a philanderer and splendidly danced by the (much thinner) Irek Mukhamedov. How fortunate we are to have a dancer of such calibre back on the London stage and passing on his expertise to ENB.

Tamara Rojo (centre) as Frida Kahlo in Broken WingsPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Tamara Rojo (centre) as Frida Kahlo in Broken Wings
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Lopez Ochoa gives him a motif of tripping; Kahlo may be lame but it is she who wrong-foots Rivera and he has to reach out at speed to grasp her as she lunges by. His eyes rove and his body follows; she fights back (literally). They are drawn to each other in spite of everything and throughout, Rojo depicts the constant pain, arching backwards and reaching up against the background of Khalo’s brightly-coloured images. Rivera discards his jacket as easily as he does his fidelity and Khalo dons it, hugging it to her until she lures him back.

Much of the work is set against a black cloth which parts a few feet to reveal first a bright orange glow against which Frida’s artistry flowers, then a yellow glow as life begins to overwhelm then a red glow as she is overtaken by the events that eventually lead to her demise. Khalo was taking increasing amounts of morphine and there is a suggestion that her death may have been a deliberate overdose, not least because an autopsy was not performed. A three-sided box opens to reveal a backdrop splashed with red, a wall daubed with revolutionary graffitti and finally a giant butterfly. Kahlo is slowly ‘pinned’ to the centre of its body. The bookfolds close and, as the butterfly folds it wings, she dies. Petrushka-like, an exotic bird rises from the top of the box as the lights fade.

Peter Salem’s score is extraordinary. The wonderful ENB Philharmonic are set challenges with all three works, not least needing to co-ordinate with recordings, and they rise to it magnificently under the ever skilful baton of Gavin Sutherland. Everything was polished and exact. The percussion must be especially commended as they have to play a bicycle wheel and traditional Chinese instruments! Not to be left out, the horns get to pretend that they are Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass but playing a version of The Internationale that appears to have been arranged by John Cage. Fragments come and go, sometimes distorted, as if they were written on scraps of paper which the orchestra have been told to play at random.

What a curtain-raiser! If you don’t know anything about Khalo and Rivera, then Broken Wings is easy to follow. If you do, this necessarily pared-down version of their story still does splendidly.

A woman scorned

M-Dao is another kettle of fish altogether. Philandering Jason abandons Medea and their two offspring for a new, more politically advantageous wife and, as if that weren’t enough, King Creon banishes her from the city so that she cannot (he hopes) cause trouble. Not to be cowed, Medea plots to wreak revenge on Jason and Creon. Meanwhile, King Aegeus offers Medea a home in exchange for her help with his sterility. She then manages to dispatch Jason’s new wife, upon which King Creon commits suicicde in some sort of mistaken solidarity. Medea then pulls off her final trick of dispatching Jasons’ children and leaving him with nothing. A woman scorned indeed.

Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin WangPhoto Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Yabin Wang presents a sympathetic view of Medea and sets it in classical China. Soft, billowing costumes in pastel duck-egg blue create the atmosphere of a dream – or slow-motion nightmare. The distorted reality is portrayed by providing Lauretta Summerscales’ Medea with just one pointe shoe as if she is hobbled by her fate. Jocelyn Pook’s evocative score includes a lovely traditional Armenian song Dle Yaman, a rather mysterious folk ballad that evokes mourning, loss and regret.


The evening ends with Fantastic Beings, Azure Barton’s bouncing ensemble work set to yet another fabulous new score, Mason Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. A slowly blinking eye surveys the audience from the frontcloth to be replaced by a stream of bubbles exploding upwards. The curtain opens to reveal a stage lit in subterranean green with sparkles descending at various rates down the backcloth. Shiny green creatures appear, mixing and parting, merging in groups. Luscious long lines and tiny sautes punctuate the music until they are replaced with creatures swathed in black fringes like so many energised yetis. It is the dance equivalent of having a quick glass of oh-so-dry perry to round off a meal, ending with a shower of descending sparkles.

English National Ballet in Fantastic Beings by Aszure BartonPhoto Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Fantastic Beings by Aszure Barton
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Rojo noticeably gave all the available collaborators a chance to take their justly deserved curtain calls which should happen more often. She Said is a terrific programme with all three pieces deserving a lasting place in the repertoire. It built and built through the evening and shows just how terrific concerted artistic collaboration can be, even in these straightened times.

She Said is at Sadler’s Wells to April 16. For tickets and details visit or call 020 7863 8000.