Review: English National Ballet - She Said - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 13 - 16 April 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 14 April 2016

English National Ballet - Tamara Rojo & Irek Mukhamedov in 'Broken Wings' by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Performance reviewed: 13 April

This eagerly-awaited evening had a momentous feel. One might expect such frisson with any programme of three world premieres by an international cast of thrusting young choreographers; but the added X factor came courtesy of their genes. Without checking the records, I am confident that the UK has never previously experienced a single mixed bill in which a female artistic director of a ballet company has commissioned new work from three women choreographers. The uniqueness of the occasion may have been a deliberate shift in the traditional gender diversity of such commissions but it was accentuated by the remarkable diversity of creative output that made it to the stage.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s brief account of Frida Kahlo, entitled Broken Wings, was visually spectacular, psychologically intense and satisfyingly Mexican; In M-Dao, Yabin Wang brought a contemplative Chinese beauty to the Medea myth; and the Canadian choreographer, Aszure Barton, shaped and spliced space with many bodies in a fantastical world under a giant’s watchful eye in Fantastic Beings. The significant variety in these three works was a huge plus.

Although born in Belgium, Lopez Ochoa wears her Latina flair like the fragrance of an all-embracing scent and her vibrant account of Kahlo’s surreal and volatile life is fiercely Hispanic, not the least in relying as it does upon Tamara Rojo to bring the power and frailty of Kahlo to life. It’s an inspired choice of subject for this programme, since Kahlo’s predilection for painting the female form – most notably, her own, in a long sequence of uncompromising self-portraits – has long made her a feminist icon. Assisted by the dramaturg, Nancy Meckler – who has worked with Lopez Ochoa on many projects, including her award-winning A Streetcar Named Desire for Scottish BalletBroken Wings focuses on the psychological demons of dreams as well as Kahlo’s very real domestic struggles with her wayward – though devoted – husband, Diego Rivera (nonchalantly portrayed by Irek Mukhamedov wrapped up in a fat suit as a reflection of Rivera’s rotundity).

The set revolves around a cube, which opens up to reveal several scenarios, not least of which was the loneliness of Kahlo’s bedchamber, where the artist was confined for so much of her youth due to childhood polio and the dreadful bus accident that fractured her spine and countless bones, when she was 18. Rojo emits a rollercoaster ride of emotions in a role that encompasses playfulness, joy, injury, jealousy, fright and despair. She gave us power and vulnerability, idealism and sentiment; embodying so many contradictions in a brief half-hour, which taken together, provided a concise metaphor for the life of this remarkable artist. And, to top it all, Rojo realised her adolescent dream of dancing with Mukhamedov. Well, there has to be some perk in being the boss! And, a pairing of two more charismatic dancers it would be hard to find. They both dance with their eyes, purposeful in their expression; and at 56, Mukhamedov remains a mighty fine partner.

In the supporting cast, Begoña Cao glistened as Rivera’s flirtatious girlfriend and the concluding, lonely, pointe solo of the delightful Katya Khaniukova (one of three exotically-plumed birds) atop the cube, just made me wish we could have seen more of her! The music was deliciously relevant to the rich mix of Mexico and psychological drama and the costumes were extraordinary, not the least in the vibrantly-coloured skirts, exciting body paints (courtesy of MAC Cosmetics) and tribal masks of an ensemble of male Fridas. This was imagery that will live long in the memory.

The vibrancy of Broken Wings gave way to a more melancholic feel in M-Dao. It was a transition that worked well. Wang – a superb dancer herself, recently seen in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Genesis on this same stage – provides flowing, lyrical movement in a style that animates the sophisticated and precise delicacy of Chinese calligraphy. Her take on the Medea myth is to focus on the character as a woman, rather than the evil filicide who avenges her husband’s betrayal by murdering their children.

Initially I thought that Laurretta Summerscales might be too young to give credence to the sorceress but I was wrong. In a towering performance of maturity, strength and elegance she whirled through a lengthy solo, breathing elemental vitality into her character, which then develops into a fluid and intricate pas de trois with Fernando Bufalá (as the errant husband, Jason – he of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece) and Madison Keesler as the new object of his affection (unnamed but perhaps the Princess Glauce).

As with the opening work, credit must go to the close integration of ideas – and in the synergy of their implementation – amongst Wang’s artistic team. The Spanish theatre director, Jorge de Juan, filleted a meaty extract from the Medea myth to provide Wang with her narrative imperative and the costumes and fabric set hangings by Kimie Nakano transported Medea to the rivers and mountains of China, these concepts accentuated by Fabiana Piccioli enfolding the action in her soft, contemplative lighting design.

A huge wandering eye greeted the audience’s return for the final instalment, which was a group-based work by Barton entitled Fantastic Beings. Initially, I sensed science fiction rather than the more likely zoological fantasy (Barton began with the score, Anthology of Fantastical Zoology by Mason Bates) although the secondary, furry costumes, which the ensemble wore to close the piece, were certainly more suggestive of jungle animals than Michelle Jank’s opening uniforms, which seemed fit for the crew of Battlestar Gallactica. Colour came through permanently falling golden stars projected onto the backdrop, interrupted by the return of the inquisitive eyeball. The choreographic mainstay was the interaction of the group and its patterns in space, although punctuated by a memorable solo for Ksenia Ovsyanick.

Fantastic Beings is a plotless work that is just about the beings; both the dancers and their alter egos. Structure and movement were developed through an intense collaborative process between choreographer and performers. It ended a journey that had begun with a blast of colour in the concise and clear narrative of a biopic in dance, which then morphed into a variation on an ancient theme, overlaying cultural identities from east to west.

Perhaps my only disappointment of the whole evening was in having so little time to appreciate Grayson Perry’s vivid, naive and witty front cloth with its penile cacti hovering like little green spaceship on a virginal background. This giant doodle represented an art form (the front cloth) that appears to have been lost, or more likely jettisoned to meet budget restrictions. In breaking new ground for this programme, it seemed very appropriate to give She Said its own unforgettable image. My advice is to take your seat at least ten minutes before the show starts to reap the benefit of this wise artistic decision.

With She Said, Rojo set out to break a duck. In 20 years as a professional ballerina, she had never previously appeared in a ballet made by a woman. It is a remarkable fact, now, thankfully, no longer true. Irrespective of the gender of their creators, here are three new ballets that could grace the dancers of any company. There are many more wonderful women choreographers out there, some of whom are still waiting to break their own ducks with that one big chance. I’m impatient for them. Where English National Ballet has led, I hope that others will follow. If She Said means anything, it is to prove that creating quality choreography does not require a penis.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Saturday 16 April

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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