Review: She Said, English National Ballet ‘Vivid and Passionate’

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I would love to start this review of the English National Ballet’s triple bill of world premieres by focusing solely on the talent and the three pieces, but to do so would misrepresent the importance of these new works. One day, hopefully, I will be able to write a review without focusing on what a breakthrough it is to have so many female choreographers on show, but we are not quite there yet.

For one of the most exciting aspects of She Said is that the three pieces were all choreographed by women. The spark for this came from the ENB’s Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, when she realised that not once in her illustrious career had she performed a ballet created by a woman. She Said is part of Tamara’s intention to change that.

So it seems fitting that Tamara should take the lead role in the first, and most impressive, piece.

Broken Wings tells the story of Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo –from the sparks of her youth, through the trauma of her terrible road accident that left her scarred and susceptible to relapses, and deep into the drama of her passionate and fiery relationship with Diego Rivera.

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It is a gripping ballet that is as unapologetic for the celebration and examination of the female form and experiences as Frida was in her own life. Tamara is not just a supreme ballet dancer but also a talented actress and there is such energy and defiance in her portrayal of a woman who never stopped fighting for either life or love.

The choreography from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa fits this show like a glove. The joyous pas de deux between a young Frida and her lover contrasts smartly with the passionate but spikier, sharper, routines with the philandering Diego. And there is such trauma and suffering in the sequences dedicated to Frida’s accidents and her relapses. But it is the tragic loss captured in Tamara’s performance of Frida’s miscarriages that will endure.

The production design is glorious. The visuals are saturated with references to Frida’s art works, whether it be in the distinctive leaves from Roots, the physical representation of Wounded Deer, or being confined to her bed as in Without Hope. Even Tamara’s wardrobe is taken straight from Frida’s Broken Column. To see such dedication to reflecting Frida’s work as well as her dramatic life is heart-warming.

In fact, the spirit and beating heart of Mexico infuses this piece, from the skeletons, so associated with Day of the Dead, who stalk Frida (a constant reminder of her mortality), to the company dressed as colourful birds. Broken Wings is wonderful – vivid and passionate. But for me, I sensed there was more here, the potential for a full length ballet, perhaps?

Next up in the triple bill is another iconic woman, albeit fictional. And one of the most challenging – Medea.

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Now, Medea is an undeniably tricky subject. In this dark tale of a jilted wife driven to murder her children as revenge, you have to be able to weave in nuance, light and shade, in order to make this work.

M-Dao, as this version is titled, starts off well. Medea’s pas de trois with her husband Jason (him of ‘and the Argonauts’ fame) and his new lover is a tangled web of complex emotions – love and passion blends with hurt and betrayal. But from here on in, it gets a little sticky.

The score from Jocelyn Pook is heavy and overly dramatic. This piece is only twenty minutes in length, which you’d think would at least prevent it from becoming overwrought, but my impression is actually the opposite: if this piece were longer, it would allow more character development, more sympathy to be drummed up for Medea. Here, brevity means we’re straight to the heavy drama – the angst and the torment.

Yabin Wang’s choreography is certainly bold and demanding, though perhaps having her leading lady, Laurretta Summerscales, hobbling with just a single pointe shoe wasn’t entirely effective, but I do believe there is real potential here for something quite special.

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The final number was the piece I had the lowest expectations for; not that I was expecting it to be awful but because the piece was stated as having no obvious narrative. No central character, no plot or storyline. Instead Fantastic Beings is a ballet designed to reflect the personalities and skills of the corps de ballet.

So what a surprise this was. It is simply a very joyous, entertaining piece. With oil-slick bodysuits and a backdrop of shimmering lights, you at times feel as if you’re watching a performance set on the moon. Certainly that’s encouraged by the contortions in the choreography – something quite unworldly.

Sure, Fantastic Beings is perhaps a little over-long at forty-five minutes but this is a high energy piece. It may not have much of a life beyond this Triple Bill, and perhaps given its lack of focus on a specific female character, it might not sit easily alongside the lives of Medea and Frida, but this was a chance for the Artists of the company to shine.

Sadler’s Wells, London to April 16, 2016

Image Credits:

1. Tamara Rojo and Irek Mukhamedov in Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo © Laurent Liotardo
2. Tamara Rojo as Frida in Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo © Laurent Liotardo
3. Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang. Photo ©Laurent Liotardo
4. English National Ballet dancers in Fantastic Beings by Aszure Barton. Photo © Laurent Liotardo

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