Thursday, April 21, 2016

She Said at English National Ballet

The luminescent Broken Wings
English National Ballet’s new program She Said, a triple bill of new ballets by women choreographers, has gotten a lot of press because of the gender of its creators. And as well it should - most of the highly-commissioned ballet choreographers are white men, and ENB is one of the companies actually doing something to change that. The resulting program was highly charged and fascinating, though not always consistent.

To start out with the absolute best: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s fascinating Broken Wings, a balletic exploration of disability contemplated through the life of Frida Kahlo. In the opening scene it looked like it might be dire on the music front, as the orchestra wheeled through some passages that brought to mind Copland’s El salon mexico - essentially the tourist’s engagement with Latin America. But it turned out that this was simply the naive music of Frida’s naively happy childhood, before the trolley accident that caused chronic pain and injury for the rest of her life. At this point both the choreography and music took off. Ochoa gave Frida a series of small, uncomfortable movements that clearly communicated her pain. They weren’t the soap-operatic contortions of MacMillan’s Lady Capulet, because they weren’t meant to glorify the artist’s suffering. Instead they demonstrated her struggle against illness. Begoña Cao, who I saw in the role, was mesmerizing in these dark, personal sections. Peter Salem’s music, as well, became haunted and broken, only slowly building back up into the rhythms of the earlier section.

Over the course of the ballet, as Frida began to express herself through art, those injured movements became more and more integrated into her dancing. I appreciated that the ballet didn’t reach for the tired tropes about achieving transcendence through disability, choosing instead a more complex narrative about the relationship between Kahlo’s pain and her art. The ballet explored the surreal space of Kahlo’s paintings and was particularly mesmerizing in the section in which a dozen men of the corps came onstage dressed in spectacular colors as the many Fridas of Kahlo’s self-portraits.

Mukhamedov and Tamara Rojo in Broken Wings

The other ballets on the program were disappointing in comparison. In the middle work, M-Dao, choreographer Yabin Wang retold the story of Medea through a rippling style of classical movement. The middle section of the ballet, however, in which Medea summons her rage, can only be described as hokey, particularly in relation to its overblown musical score by Jocelyn Pook. 

Yabin Wang's M-Dao
The final ballet, Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, used Mason Bates’s post-minimalist score Anthology of Fantastic Zoology. And there was the start, though sadly not the end, of the ballet’s problems. Bates’s music attempts to recreate the sounds of electronica using live musicians. Originally performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the music relies heavily on the virtuosity of the musicians - allowing the audience to take delight in their physical accomplishments. Other than that, it is very long and somewhat directionless. And while the English National Ballet has a great orchestra, they weren’t capable of mastering the technical challenges. Which makes sense. The music was written for a full-time symphony orchestra, who probably had at least an entire week of rehearsals for this one piece alone. The English National Ballet orchestra is working under much greater time constraints and learning three new scores for one program. These conditions drew attention to how grating Bates’s minimalist passages can be. There were some moments of relief in the slower sections of music, but those were few and far between. Aszure’s choreography did not help matters, meandering where Bates’s music was also directionless. And like the music, the choreography tried to rely on its dancers’ athleticism to provide the thrills. The ENB dancers are wonderful, but they need something real to work with, particularly when the ballet clocks in over thirty minutes. 

English National Ballet is one of the most diverse ballet companies I have ever seen, but even more importantly, one of the companies most dedicated to embracing diversity as part of its aesthetic. I admire this program, and while I only truly loved the first ballet, I am eager to see more daring and inventive programming coming from artistic director Tamara Rojo. I have no doubt that she will deliver.

English National Ballet, She Said, April 15, matinee. Broken Wings: choreography: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, music: Peter Salem, Scenography: Dieuweke van Reij, Dramaturgy: Nancy Meckler, Frida Kahlo: Begoña Cao, Diego Rivera: Max Westwell. M-Dao: choreography: Yabin Wang, music: Jocelyn Pook, set and costume design: Kimie Nakano, Medea: Ksenia Ovsyanick, Husband: Fabian Reimair, Young Wife: Alison McWhinney. Fantastic Beings: choreography: Aszure Barton, music: Mason Bates, Stage and Lighting Design: Burke Brown.

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