Many articles seek to explain why there seems to be such a lack of female choreographers in the ballet world. Luke Jennings recently argued “the dynamics of vocational schooling, a lack of encouragement and proper networking“, as well as a number of other reasons. Of course, he is right: women are seriously under-represented at the top of the choreographic trade these days, and the consequence, as the dance writer later expressed in a widely publicised open letter to Akram Khan, is that classical dance audiences are being presented with work created from a male perspective. As a result, we are narrowing the range of our experiences with this art form.
So an evening like She Said – English National Ballet’s all-female-choreographer mixed bill – is something rare, a very special opportunity to see ballet from a female gaze. One thing that immediately strikes us here is the different way in which these choreographers handle the pas de deux, pretzel shapes and all form of awkward lifts being almost entirely absent. It was also interesting to note their treatment of the main female characters: active rather than reactive, and very much in control of their destinies.
The bill opened with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, a distillation of the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (superbly danced by Tamara Rojo). This was a lesson in how to do a narrative work without having to spoon-feed us every single detail. We experience Frida’s accident, but we see no bus. We see her paintings come to life, but no canvas or brush, and the constant physical pain she experienced during her life is represented both as a choreographic motif (the twitching leg) and through the ever-present Calaveras (Lopez Ochoa’s Mexican death symbols looked just as quirky as their folk art counterparts).
The ballet brings to life many of Frida’s paintings via a corps de ballet of subversive “male Fridas”, each representing a different self-portrait. We also see Frida’s love of the natural world (she had many pets, including monkeys and a little deer), as female dancers en pointe show up as exotic plants and animals, as a counterpoint to lighter and darker passages, such as Frida’s miscarriage. My one criticism is that the piece could benefit from tightening. For instance, the duet between Frida and Diego Rivera (the legendary Irek Mukhamedov) to Chavela Vargas’s rendition of La Llorona lagged a bit. However, Broken Wings is still quite an achievement by Lopez Ochoa, a convincing biopic of a woman who was a creative force, and not just another tragic figure, or a clichéd vehicle for a ballerina.
By comparison, Yabin Wang’s treatment of Medea in M-Dao is more conventional. Through lyrical solos, duets and trios, Erina Takahashi, dancing on one single pointe shoe, shows us Medea’s anguish and her fury at Jason’s betrayal. The biggest impact comes during the scene where Medea murders her children, effectively hinted at through cascading silk fabrics that handsomely frame the work.
Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings closes the evening with a showcase of the company’s technical abilities (the trio of Isaac Hernández, César Corrales and Barry Drummond was dazzling indeed). Barton creates interesting patterns, groupings, in an unique mixture of classical and contemporary steps. Dancers move energetically to Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastical Zoology (think Shchedrin or Shostakovich with bells and whistles). Dressed in sleek bodysuits, they are perhaps aliens from a distant planet under the watchful eye of a creepy overlord (a single blinking eye). As the piece gears towards its finale, they all return as hairy creatures, their furry costumes propelling the movement into some very cool shapes and effects. My only comment here is that the very dark lighting – which seems all the rage these days – could have been turned up one notch. Otherwise, Fantastic Beings is a work that fits the company very well. Like a positive note to close the evening, it seemed to be reminding us that we can still take classical ballet to so many different places and spaces.