She Persisted Mixed Bill at ENB

Crystal Costa with Artists of English National Ballet in Stina Quagebeur's Nora

It is wonderful to see that Tamara Rojo and ENB continue to be so committed to investing in female dance-making talent. She Persisted is the company’s second all-female choreographer bill and it premiered last month. It featured a revival of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, Pina Bausch’s masterpiece Le Sacre du Printemps, and Nora, a piece made by ENB’s own Stina Quagebeur and her first full work (having previously created solos and duets for the company).

Pina’s Rite is always a compelling work to add to any mixed bill. The theatrical setting, with layers of soil on stage and dancers in nude beige slips and loose black trousers, maximises the raw, visceral elements and gets the dancers (and audiences) entranced by the choreography. We see the dirt clinging to their bodies, and hear their heavy breathing when Stravinsky’s score hits its quieter passages. I brought along a friend who had never seen it before, and she texted me the next day to say that she had woken up at dawn and could not stop thinking about Rite, such was the impression it had left on her. Not surprising, since it’s a piece with plenty of images that linger on once show is over. On opening night, Francesca Velicu reprised her award-winning performance as the Chosen One, bringing vulnerability and horror while she danced to her death.

Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printemps.

Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

It was also great to revisit Broken Wings, with its colourful visuals and narrative clarity in telling us about Frida Kahlo’s life. Unfortunately, Tamara Rojo couldn’t reprise the role of Frida due to injury, but Katja Khaniukova was a wonderful substitute, bringing a nuanced performance: sassy on her exchanges with Irek Mukhamedov’s Diego Rivera, while infusing the character with pathos. I also appreciated the theatrical effectiveness of the quartet of calaveras, who surround and taunt Frida throughout her life. I had previously commented on how well structured the work is, also noting some of its clever leitmotifs here. As a whole, this revival made me look forward to catching the expanded version of this ballet, Frida, which is set to premiere at Dutch National Ballet in February 2020. Definitely a date for your ballet calendars.

Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings

Katja Khaniukova and Irek Mukhamedov in Broken Wings. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

In the middle, was Stina Quagebeur’s Nora, which I was able to see both at the premiere and at a second viewing. My feeling is that I have come to admire it whilst not entirely loving it. I was not familiar with Stina’s previous work, having missed her duet Vera. Beyond checking the internet, I was also unfamiliar with Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, since I had never seen it staged. Considering this is Stina’s first full work, she has set herself the more difficult task of tackling a story (rather than making an abstract work), which is something she addresses in the programme notes: “I felt I wanted to show [Nora's] emotional journey from beginning to end. I have given myself the hardest task by choosing this, but I felt dance could show her feelings”. The work is an abstraction of the plot, with Nora (Crystal Costa), her husband Torvald (Jeffrey Cirio) and his menacing employee Krogstad (Junor Souza) the only characters on stage. There are also five “voices” which represent Nora’s thoughts. The set is minimal (which fits well for a Scandinavian play) and the piece it set on Phillip Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

Crystal-Costa-and-Junor-Souza-in-Stina-Quagebeurs-Nora-C-Laurent-Liotardo

English National Ballet in Stina Quagebeur’s Nora. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Nora’s emotional arc was effectively portrayed, and in particular, Costa’s performance made Nora real to me. She is such a musical dancer and Quagebeur gave her plenty of steps to communicate the initial devotion to her husband, her subsequent turmoil and her final resolve. Jeffrey Cirio was also very expressive as Torvald, and his solos were arresting, quite virtuosic and on service of the character. The problematic passage here was the depiction of Krogstad’s blackmail and Nora’s deception, which seemed the weakest link: there were some exchanges of papers, but audiences had no additional context to work with. On the whole, I think Quagebeur succeeded in telling the story, but I also wonder if a different score would have worked better. The Tirol Concerto is relentless and, true to Glass’s style, often repetitive, so the story is constantly in “turmoil”.

In terms of the choreography, I was impressed with the five voices (Angela Woods, Adela Ramirez, Henry Dowden, James Forbat and Francisco Bosch). The way in which these dancers interplayed with Nora was very dynamic and well arranged, but I am not sure about how this idea worked as a whole. More than once, this chorus was relegated to the side as spectators outside of the action. Also, besides the first scene where the voices can be heard (via voiceover), it was unclear to me what they were “saying” to Nora, and if there was any distinction between the five of them.

Crystal Costa with Artists of English National Ballet in Stina Quagebeur's Nora

Crystal Costa with artists of English National Ballet in Stina Quagebeur’s Nora. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

I would definitely see Nora again. It is a solid first work and more enjoyable than many pieces from more established choreographers. Which takes me to expectations. Are women choreographers more under pressure to show results than men given they are still a minority? How do we judge them on the merits of a piece versus the augmented expectations we may have, due to the fact that there are so few of them around? I hope Quagebeur is given the space to try more ideas and keep developing, since she creates beautiful dances and made great choices for her cast and her all-female creative team. Props also to ENB for nurturing her talent, and here is hoping for a third edition of this mixed bill. She Said. She Persisted. She Conquered.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

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