She Persisted – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 4 April 2019

You got Nora rite to break my wings

Exercising the grey matter. Crystal Costa in Stina Quagebeur’s Nora for English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

In 2016 Tamara Rojo announced that English National Ballet were going to present a Triple Bill of all female choreographers called She Said. It caused quite a fuss at the time, highlighting the lack of female choreographers in ballet and garnering plenty of column inches in the process. Obviously, times have changed since then and, oh, hang on, no they haven’t; classical female choreographers are still as rare as hen’s teeth. To be fair, it was never going to an overnight fix – good choreographers of either sex rarely pop up overnight – so to continue the fight, Rojo’s not only committed her company to another all-female programme in She Persisted but she’s also given a main-stage choreographic debut to one of her own dancers, Stina Quagebeur.

Nora is the result from Quagebeur. Ambitiously based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the story is stripped down to its bare bones, with only three characters surviving the cut; the titular Nora, her husband Torvald and Krogstad the creditor. What basically happens is that innocent-looking Nora’s been up to some dodgy financial dealings and she’s being blackmailed by Krogstad, something that ends with Nora leaving her rather violent husband to protect his honour. To be honest, I only know this from reading the programme notes – from watching the ballet it merely looks like a letter has caused some upset.

Actually though, dramaturgy aside, this is an entertaining work, mainly due to the fizz of the dancing. Even though she doesn’t plumb any great depths of emotion, Crystal Costa is a suitably torn Nora and her relationship with Jeffrey Cirio’s Torvald is fundamentally believable. Cirio is a whirlwind of threatening arms and bullet-paced spins but the always excellent Junor Souza is underemployed as Krogstad. There’s also a group of people in grey who presumably represent Nora’s emotions but they’re completely unnecessary – Costa expressed them quite capably herself. All told, this was a decent effort by Quagebeur and hopefully she’ll be given more opportunities to hone her craft soon.

The only survivor in tonight’s programme from She Said was Broken Wings, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s expressionistic take on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately, the story is told too episodically to really impress and we never get to see the complexity of Kahlo’s nature beneath the weight of all the unfortunate events that happen to her. Katja Khaniukova was excellent as Kahlo – although the work doesn’t really allow room for her to fully develop her character – but the small male corps, though wonderfully dressed by Dieuweke van Reij, were ragged in their movement and overall it seemed to take a long time to get to the end.

The night finished with Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), one of the great works of dance. It’s 43 years old now but stands the test of time like no other piece and ENB did it proud here. Francesca Velicu poured everything into her frightening closing solo but clearly everyone worked hard on it, with Precious Adams’ fierce rhythmical presence being another stand-out. A brilliant way to finish any show.

She Persisted runs at the Sadler’s Wells until 13 April 2019. Tickets and lots more info can be found on the English National Ballet website.

Gerard Davis

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