14th April 2016
Many people have commented on the dearth of work on-stage by female choreographers. To underline this fact, Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, mentioned in a preview interview that she had never danced on stage in a work created by a woman. Rojo has taken decisive action and in She Said brings together an eclectic mix of dance makers – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang, Aszure Barton – for a ground breaking triple bill.
Frida Kahlo has inspired a number of dance works: the combination of tragedy, a highly creative artist and a fiery relationship with another significant Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, proving irresistible to many. In Broken Wings Annabelle Lopez Ochoa works again with dramaturg Nancy Meckler, following their great success with Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire. We see an account of Kahlo’s life, with designs by Dieuweke van Reij as striking as any we are likely to see this year. A large black cube centre stage is used first as a platform, then opens on different sides with backdrops for her story, a hospital bed, a Kahlo style jungle scene. Rather than wheel on paintings or scenes with the artist, paintbrush in hand, the corps de ballet bring Kahlo’s paintings to vivid life in bright, surreal costumes based on her art. Peter Salem’s tuneful mix of South American style tunes fits the action perfectly.
The narrative opens with our heroine, played by Tamara Rojo, as an impetuous, confident young woman and from the start she is defying death as portrayed throughout by a group of men in black and white stylised skeletal costumes. With the tragic car accident that shaped the rest of her life the cube opens to reveal a vertical bed where we see Kahlo in agony, but again showing her determination to fight the skeletal figures and see things through.
Her art with its flights of imagination are portrayed by a male corps dressed as in her self portraits making symmetrical patterns around her, and exotic birds and creatures with long fingers weaving. A return to tragedy with her three miscarriages is illustrated in a chilling scene by one of the skeletons pulling a red cord from her. Irek Mukhamedov in a fat costume portrays Rivera bringing happiness and passion back into Kahlo’s life and a return to her original boisterous nature. But his philandering brings an angry response and conflict with his mistress, played with great élan by Begoña Cao, making the most of her short scene.
Rojo is magnificent, projecting the dynamism, imagination and pain of the artist. Mukhamedov portrays Rivera as a happy go lucky rogue, but makes us warm to the character despite his failings. Ochoa’s choreography is always eye-catching whether describing scenes from Kahlo’s life in small ensemble sections or her imaginative canvasses with the stage filled with brilliantly attired dancers on pointe.
Yabin Wang’s M-Dao tells the classical Greek story of Medea, who murders her children in revenge for her husband’s desertion. From the start Erina Takahashi as Medea is like a malevolent spider and Wang’s sinister mix of ballet and contemporary with traces of Chinese movement suits the character. Jason played by James Streeter brings light into her life in a passionate duet, but as Lauretta Summerscale’s Princess captures Jason’s heart, Medea becomes increasingly distraught and aggressive. Murder of children on-stage is an almost impossible task and here, behind a screen without appropriate horror, comes as an anti-climax stalling the narrative. However, in the finale, Medea’s anguish is powerfully portrayed by Takahashi as she rolls on the ground, plagued in her guilt by spirits. Jocelyn Pook’s melancholy score, based on Armenian folk music and beautifully sung by Tanja Tzarovska, provides an emotional base for the dance. Kimie Nakano’s set features long silk banners which flutter to the ground like broken dreams. This small ensemble piece provides a contrast to the works opening and closing the triple bill both in scale and a more measured pace. Takahashi provides an absorbing central performance.
Aszure Barton has carved out a strong reputation in Canada, but is little known in the UK. Her Fantastic Beings is an abstract dance work with allusions to animals reflecting Mason Bates’s score, Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. This neoclassical ballet has some innovative off-centre moves and every now again a dancer doubles up like a grazing animal. The dancers seemed to enjoy the driving steps and the company impressed with their assured and accomplished performance. The fact that the lighting was down and all wore the same costume for the majority of the work made recognising dancers more difficult than usual. But Crystal Costa made the most of her snappy solo, spinning and jumping across the stage with a take no prisoners attitude. Towards the end, figures in shaggy outfits fill the stage which took on different shapes with dancers spinning ferociously in unison, making an exhilarating end to the evening.