English National Ballet: She Persisted review – odes to Frida, Pina and Nora

Sadler’s Wells, London
Ibsen gets an urgent retelling, Kahlo dances with a monkey and Bausch’s masterwork is back in Tamara Rojo’s stellar triple bill

In 2016, English National Ballet director Tamara Rojo took a stand with She Said, a programme of all-female choreographers. She Persisted reassures us that Rojo is serious about showcasing women’s work, and it appears in a landscape that already shows signs of cultural shift.

This time there’s only one new work, by Stina Quagebeur, a dancer Rojo is nurturing from within ENB’s ranks. Nora is a stripped-back version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, intended to illustrate the eponymous heroine’s emotional journey. It gets caught up tussling with the plot over Nora’s loan (various bits of paper passed back and forth) but as Nora, Crystal Costa morphs from blithe young woman to stifled, conflicted wife and finally to a woman of firm resolve, even if we don’t quite see why.

Boldness and finesse … Crystal Costa and Jeffrey Cirio in Nora.
Boldness and finesse … Crystal Costa and Jeffrey Cirio in Nora. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Quagebeur creates a distinct feel for the movement: urgent surging phrases, endless spooling circles. The speed is deftly handled by Costa and Jeffrey Cirio as her husband Torvald; he is a dancer of great finesse who never leaves a frayed edge. The whole piece is rather hampered by its score, Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto, which so relentlessly implores us to feel something that it becomes meaningless. Nonetheless, Quagebeur has interesting ideas and – unlike her titular character – a clear sense of her own voice.

Alongside Nora is the return of Broken Wings, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Frida Kahlo ballet from the original She Said, slightly reworked. Katja Khaniukova brings spirit and sorrow to Kahlo, and, aside from a costume incorporating a stuffed monkey, the highs all come with the pas de deux, fully human and full of spark between Kahlo and philandering husband Diego Rivera (Irek Mukhamedov, playing him as a wild-eyed, soft-hearted old fool).

Fiercely intense … Francesca Velicu in The Rite of Spring.
Fiercely intense … Francesca Velicu in The Rite of Spring. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Pina Bausch’s masterwork The Rite of Spring is as compellingly bleak as ever, riven with wrenching anxiety and performed with great commitment by ENB’s dancers. Francesca Velicu reprises her gruelling turn as the Chosen One, Erik Woolhouse is notable for fierce intensity and one heavenly, extra-buoyant pas de chat, and James Streeter uses stone-cold stillness to ominous effect. Great playing by the ENB Philharmonic, too. Quite frankly, it blows everything else off the stage.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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