In 2016 Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, set out to redress the shocking realisation that in 20 years as a professional dancer she had never performed in a work by a woman. She commissioned She Said, a programme of exclusively female choreographers, now followed by She Persisted (the feminist slogan adopted after the notorious 2017 Republican putdown of US politician Elizabeth Warren).
What better way to open a showcase of female creativity than with the return of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, an exuberant portrayal of the troubled life of Frida Kahlo? In an impressive debut, Katja Khaniukova brings a winning combination of vulnerability and defiance to the central role (danced by Rojo in its 2016 premiere), as we follow Kahlo from mischievous schoolgirl to her tempestuous marriage to Diego Rivera, played as a bumbling, middle-aged lothario by Irek Mukhamedov.
Mexican skeletons, male dancers in the flamboyant dresses of her self-portraits, dancing monkeys and deers speared with arrows – comic touches capture the surreal playfulness of Kahlo’s art alongside the darker incidents of her story: the bus accident she suffered in her teens and the terrible injuries and miscarriages she endured as a result, all imaginatively and harrowingly suggested. The whole is both sexy and sad.
More muted and intimate than its raucous companion pieces (despite Philip Glass’s heart-tugging concerto) is Stina Quagebeur’s Nora, inspired by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The dancer’s first work of choreography and the evening’s entirely new offering, it is energetically and sensitively danced by Crystal Costa and Jeffrey Cirio as her stuffy husband, Torvald. While the details of the play are inevitably a little confusing, Nora’s evolution from frivolous plaything to desperate housewife is conveyed with growing emotional intensity, the simple set splintering to mark the famous “sound of a door closing” at the end.
You don’t watch Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring so much as experience it: 28 dancers – bare-chested men and women, barely more than girls, in nude-coloured petticoats and ponytails – thrash and flail and stomp and writhe in the mud. Atavistic, hypnotic, savage, thrilling and terrifying… the limitations of language are the whole point here. For a moment, Stravinsky’s rampaging score goes silent, the theatre filled only with the breathless panting of the dancers and you realise you are holding your breath. By the end, Julia Conway, mesmerising as the Chosen One, looked as wrung out as her red sacrificial slip dress. It is exhilarating and utterly exhausting. This is only the fourth time this piece has been performed in the UK, fittingly on the 10th anniversary of the great choreographer’s death. Bausch said it was all about fear: panic and anger, an endless, doomed battle and a frenzied, lonely dance to the death – could there be a better moment to revisit her extraordinary work?
Together, these are ambiguous feminist stories (none of them ends happily, after all). But She Persisted is undoubtedly a step in the right direction – and what dazzling, triumphant steps they are.