In a recent, controversial statement, contemporary choreographer Akram Khan declared that we should not encourage rising numbers of female choreographers “for the sake of it.” Many people have combatted this argument, yet English National Ballet’s She Said (a triple bill of newly commissioned ballets by female choreographers) rebukes this statement and proves that actions speak louder than words in the fight against sexism and male choreographic privilege in dance.
Anabelle Lopex Ochoa’s Broken Wings kick-starts the evening’s proceedings with an array of colour and a display of surreal imagination. The work is inspired by the life and artistic style of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (danced by Tamara Rojo) and aims to analyse the darkness and sorrow that lies beneath the bright playful scenes depicted in her work. Ochoa achieves this aim with ease. Whilst she choreographs visually stunning scenes featuring company members embodying the Latin spirit of Kahlo’s paintings (many wearing technicolour costumes reminiscent of tropical birds), there are also overt reminders of the artist’s pain and suffering. Dancers dressed as skeletons, reminiscent of Day of the Dead characters, are ominous and omnipresent throughout the piece, acting as a metaphor for the near-fatal car accident Kahlo faced in her teens. One particularly disturbing scene displays one of these skeletons pulling a long length of red fabric from between Rojo’s legs, seemingly representative of the multiple bloody and heartbreaking miscarriages Kahlo endured during her lifetime. The audience are also presented with scenes of Kahlo recovering from her accident – Rojo intricately distorts her body to create the illusion of injury – and multiple occasions in which the artist is filled with jealousy due to her husband’s illicit affairs.
Romantic jealousy is also the theme of M-Dao, as choreographer Yabin Wang retells the story of Greek tragedy’s anti-heroine Medea, who slaughters her children to punish her husband’s remarriage to Princess Glauce of Corinth. Whilst in Euripides’s original play Medea is portrayed as a heartless psychopath, Wang opens her work with an emotive virtuosic solo that introduces the audience to Medea as a beautiful individual with hidden depths. Her duet with her husband Jason is sensual and romantic, yet its accompaniment of traditional Armenian song creates a haunting sense of a higher power condemning the union and fixing the couple’s fates. The intensity of the choreography accumulates as Medea discovers her husband’s plans of remarriage, and she becomes consumed by a jealous rage. Her movements are animalistic as she is ritualistically encircled by a group of dancers who resemble furies (female deities of vengeance), giving a sense of Medea’s divine power and elevated status as a half-god. However, Wang concludes the work by shifting the dynamic yet again, displaying Medea maternally cradling two cloths representative of her murdered children, illustrating the complexity of this notorious tragic character.
She Said concludes with an altogether more abstract ballet. Whilst Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings is inspired by American composer Mason Bates’s Anthology of Fantastical Zoology, the choreographer states that she prefers her audiences to create meaning for themselves from her explorations of sculpting space. And she does just this. The dancers in Fantastic Beings spread across the stage, creating varying spatial arrangements, forming phalanxes and dancing in unison like a swarm of intricate insects. The movement language is quirky and organic, accenting Bates’s composition with admirable musicality.
In a foreword to the evening’s programme, Lyndsey Winship describes how ENB’s artistic director Tamara Rojo revealed to her that “in 20 years of being a professional dancer, she has never performed in a ballet made by a woman.” This shocking fact was the catalyst for this magnificent display of female creativity, which clearly showcases the power, artistic value and necessity of female choreography.
She Said played at Sadler’s Wells until 16 April. For more information, see the Sadler’s Wells website.