Enduring misogyny in the Senate Chamber, Elizabeth Warren was then championed by feminist allies around the world with the ubiquitous tag #ShePersisted. Here, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou looks at the dance works inspired by this phrase and the women who, through their art, persevered.
You may recognise the title of the English National Ballet’s latest triple bill, She Persisted. In 2017, the democratic Senator, Elizabeth Warren, was interrupted and silenced in the Senate chamber when reading out a letter by civil rights leader, Coretta Scott King. King’s letter, written to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, had opposed the elevation of Jeff Sessions on the grounds that he would ‘chill the free exercise of the ballot’ for black citizens. Her appeal was heard, although Sessions later secured the position of federal judge. Thirty years later and Warren was facing a similar situation to King, only this time Sessions was looking to be nominated to the higher position of Attorney General. Standing in the Senate chamber, with King’s powerful plea to hand, Warren must have felt on a political precipice, one where history was folding in on itself, and the work of women like King was being undone and ignored. Armed with the spirit, conviction and justness of King’s words, Warren began to read the letter out loud to the chamber, only to be interrupted by the Senate Chair for ‘violating a Senate rule’. Rightly questioning this interruption, Warren was allowed to proceed. But seconds later, after resuming the speech, she was again interrupted by the Senate Chair and asked to leave the podium.
What – or rather who – triggered the effective silencing of Warren was an objection to her speech made by Republican Senator, Mitch McConnell. After successfully having his objection heeded, McConnell was quoted saying, ‘She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.’ Little did McConnell know that the moment his patronising comment had been uttered a feminist backlash would ensue. Not since Trump’s infamous phrase ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’ had Republican rhetoric so sorely misfired. Much like the now-famous pussy hats and signs proudly declaring this ‘Pussy grabs back’ (seen during the Washington women’s march), the phrase ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ was used against the sexist establishment from which it originally sprung. Warren’s silencing, her exclusion from the Senate proceedings and the implicitly misogynistic words of McConnell unleashed a persistent vocality by women the world over.
Several years later and the phrase ‘she persisted’ is ubiquitous as ever. Used as a hashtag on social media sites and in posts, the slogan has become a rallying cry, a verbal (viral) punch in the air that testifies to the individual and collective strength of women. When faced with institutional, political and social obstructions, particularly of the white patriarchal kind that Warren encountered in 2017, women fight back, push on, move forward; they persist and resist with a force all of their own making (Warren herself went on to read King’s powerful letter outside of the Senate Chamber and had the Washington Post release the recording, such was her determination to be heard). Whether persistence itself is a tiresome behavioural trope expected of women is beside the point; what the appropriated slogan lays claim to is unapologetic, resolute perseverance, even at the point of being knocked down, shut out and denied a seat at the table.
The English National Ballet’s choice of title in 2019 not only taps into the socially mobilising spirit of the phrase, but enacts its galvanising implications. Featuring works by three female choreographers, She Persisted marks a watershed moment for the company even after their brilliant She Said in 2016. With a programme led by the formidable Tamara Rojo, the second woman to take the company title of Artistic Director, She Persisted brings together emerging, established and late female choreographers, all of whom foreground the lived experiences of women in their works. In doing so, English National Ballet honours its past heritage of women dancers and choreographers, including its co-founder Alicia Markova, and looks ahead to brave, daring compositions that celebrate the input of women both onstage and behind the scenes.
But the stunningly assorted work of Stina Quagebeur, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Pina Bausch still signals a need for more women choreographers in the world of ballet (Rojo herself notes in the programme that during her 20 years as a professional dancer never once did she perform in a ballet choreographed by a woman). It also demonstrates the importance of having a repertoire that’s true to the actual lived experiences, struggles and desires of women; the highly innovative and astute programme of She Persisted suggests that a deeper commitment to leading characters, ones who significantly differ from the usual Auroras, Juliets, Giselles and Odettes, is necessary. True to Warren’s determination and the mainstream feminist appropriation of McConnell’s phrase, She Persisted captures the passionate and, at times, violently forged stories of women fighting for greater volition, respect and creative control.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings speaks most directly to the title and persistence of women – or rather one woman in particular: the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Condensing Kahlo’s exuberant and pain-filled life into 30 minutes of ballet, Broken Wings focuses on the artist’s self-discovery through her paintings, after a horrific accident on a school bus. Left with life-altering injuries that meant she would be bed-bound for long periods of time and had to wear plaster corsets and metal braces for the rest of her life, Kahlo turned to painting and drawing instead of completing her medical studies. Using a specially-made easel and mirror fixed onto a four-poster bed, Kahlo began to paint self-portraits in a bid to stave off the boredom, isolation and agony that came with prolonged convalescing. For Kahlo, it was a formative time of self-realisation and assertion; a time of burgeoning creativity in the midst of loss, of new life in the face of a near-death experience; of human defiance when given cause to despair.
In Broken Wings, Ochoa beautifully commemorates this time by having Kahlo (danced to perfection by Katja Khaniukova) stripped of her school uniform (she was only 18 years old when the accident occurred) and placed in a white box-like space imitative of a hospital bed and cubicle. Fastened to the opening slats of this box are mirrors which summon an altogether sterilised and exposing surgical atmosphere, and also suggest the clashing metal of the fatal streetcar. Trapped like a wounded animal, Kahlo hangs limply from one side of the boxed interior only to curl and crumple up, defenceless, in the opposite corner. Positioned centre-stage, the box-cum-bed is the cruellest of confines, exposing Kahlo’s broken body for all the world to see. But slowly she awakes to the possibilities – not only the physical limitations – of her predicament. Peering into one of the mirrors she reviews each limb, each arm, each shattered fragment, taking in her fractured self from head to toe. What at first is a painful reminder of a past body once whole, becomes a growing fascination with what this new fractured form can achieve from the circumscribed space of a bed – and a canvas.
With this new curiosity and consciousness, an opening of red light shines from the left of the stage. The mirror – once an instrument that exposed and taunted her – is now a looking glass that inspires and returns a most reassuring and assertive reflection. In Kahlo’s physically limited world, mirrors translate into surfaces upon which she can reinvent herself; they become portals through which she can enter an imaginary, though no less emotionally real, realm greater than the one her box-cum-bed will allow. As she sets to working her mirror magic, like another Lady of Shalott, painted Fridas enter the stage from the crimson-lit entrance. And this is what Ochoa does so brilliantly; each appears as if they’d just stepped lightly out from a canvas, decked in her resplendent traditional Mexican dress, regal, pre-possessed, looking the audience dead in the eye much like Kahlo’s self-portraits do. The persistence of women, whether written in a letter like King’s, spoken at a lectern like Warren’s or painted on canvas after canvas like Kahlo’s, may trip lightly and quietly onto the social stage, but it does so with mighty, unwavering intention.
That Ochoa’s painted Fridas are noticeably male does not diminish the purpose and integrity she invests in them. If anything it reveals the potency of Kahlo’s painted reincarnations; it obscures the designated categories of male and female, man and woman, and what they traditionally – and often detrimentally – connote. The male Fridas are Kahlo’s resolute counterparts, her dreamed-up avatars of a permanent persuasion that only paint affords. They are the Fridas of paintings such as Fulang Chang and I (1937) or the innumerable self-portraits (1938 to 1945) that capture a mischievous spider monkey (a pet given to Kahlo by Diego Rivera) looking over the artist’s shoulder, its long furry fingers wrapped protectively around her upper body. They are the Fridas of Self Portrait (1948) and Self Portrait as Tehuana or Diego in My Thoughts or Thoughts of Diego (1943), where Kahlo’s face is framed by the unfurling lacy petals of traditional Tehuana dress.
In the former painting her face is a crying effigy, a religious icon miraculously spiriting tears; in the latter, her forehead is marked with a miniature portrait of Rivera – the ‘Diego’ in her thoughts – whilst thin threads like electrical wiring crackle from her flowery headpiece, across the layered resplandor, to the sides of the painting. It is significant that these painted male Fridas wear the traditional Tehuana dress – the finely embroidered huipil and cotton skirts she was known for. Kahlo’s self-fashioning, as the recent V&A exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up showed, was politically motivated and physically liberating (the loose fitting skirts and tops hid her corseted torso and withered leg). When wearing the Tehuana fashion, Kahlo was not only reconnecting to her Mexican heritage, to the Zapotec culture of Indigenous Mexico, to a matriarchal people, to her mother who wore the traditional dress as a child; she was also connecting to the intellectual left of the times, one where a revolutionary, educated Mexican woman could assert herself, both body and soul, over colonial powers and western imports. Through her dress, Kahlo resurrected a cultural past, an indestructible, persistent Mexican selfhood native to her and her post-revolutionary country. With Kahlo at the centre and the painted male Fridas fanning out like an iridescent peacock’s plumage, Ochoa’s multi-coloured production, a phantasmagoria of Frida-esque symbols and signs, celebrates the spirit of a woman who lived, breathed and survived through her work.
Although Broken Wings pays homage to Kahlo’s relationship with Diego (many of the spirited, Latin-inflected pas de deux capture the push and pull of their intense relationship), what it really explores is her partnership with death. In every scene Kahlo is circled by death and its dark portents, whether in the shape of the playful and humorous calacas or a more ominous skeletal figure that taunts the artist with strands of hair (reminiscent of when Kahlo cut her hair after splitting from Rivera and famously commemorated in Self Portrait with Shorn Hair, 1940). In a heart-rendering scene where Kahlo is enmeshed in a red thread, symbolic of the several miscarriages she suffered, the calacas punishingly tie and twist the string around her corseted body, triumphant Heras to her fallen Arachne. In other lighter scenes, death lurks in the corners of the stage as it does in her work; the threat and grief of death, but its beauty too. The final scene bears this all too poignantly, when a flotilla of Fridas, fantastical humming birds and the wounded ‘little hart’ (of the eponymous painting) surround an ailing Kahlo. She is broken but not defeated; death is present here, in the turning of her manifold doubles, in the fluttering of the birds, in the timely demise of the ‘little hart’ by Kahlo’s own tired hand. The pain of it all, magnified by Peter Salem’s score and Ochoa’s carnivalesque staging, is intoxicating and ends with the universal symbol of transformation and transcendence: a butterfly. Falling against its painted wings with open arms, Kahlo succumbs to death and its promise of new life. ‘Why have feet when you can fly?’ uttered Kahlo before having her foot amputated. Why, indeed, when she flew so well and her name continues to soar today?
In Stina Quagebeur’s Nora, a different kind of flight is foreshadowed. Taken from Henrik Ibsen’s renowned play, A Doll’s House (1879), a drama that observes the inequalities and oppression inherent in late nineteenth-century marriages, Nora focuses on Ibsen’s title character to marvellous effect. Reducing the play down to its main characters and Ibsen’s fundamental interest in the dynamics of power and agency, Quagebeur creates a haunting portrait of Nora Helmer. Gone are the three children, Helene the maid, the critical Mrs Linde, Dr Rank and his soft innuendoes; instead, the main action is delivered by Nora (danced stunningly by Crystal Costa), her husband Torvald Helmer (Jeffrey Cirio), and Krogstad (Junor Souza). But Quagebeur provides another significant alteration to the original play. Disposing of Ibsen’s dialogue in favour of the language of dance, Quagebeur ingeniously invents the collective role of the 5 Voices, who all form a kind of psychic shadow or echo of Nora’s inner world. This is where Quagebeur’s portrait of Nora gains a texture tantamount to text. Serving a similar purpose to Kahlo’s Male Fridas in Ochoa’s Broken Wings, the 5 Voices extend the psycho-social world of Norma out onto the stage and add an extra layer of dramatic tension to the events that unfold between her and Torvald. As the truth of Nora’s secret debt to Krogstad spills out, the 5 Voices spin and spiral around her. It’s a whirlwind of movement and emotion set to Philip Glass’ relentless Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Contained in the sombre and sparse set of the Helmers’ home, the 5 Voices gain a hyperkinetic charge as Glass’ score accelerates dangerously forward, lending the piece a claustrophobic feel. Refusing to allow the tension to escape through moments of stillness, Quagebeur speeds the action up, as Nora and her psychic doubles crescendo head first into a fast and sophisticatedly choreographed exit from her marital home. Flight may not come in the form of literal death, as it does for Kahlo, but Nora’s decision to leave Torvald and flee the suffocating restraints of domestic life is a type of soaring liberation of its own – and one that caused shockwaves in 1870s Scandinavia.
When A Doll’s House was first performed it caused endless controversy in Norway. Many audience members accused Nora of being a monster; forsaking marital duty was one thing, but turning her heel on motherhood was quite another. In Germany the play’s ending was rewritten, much to Ibsen’s horror, so that Nora remained with Torvald and the children (one German actress refused to take up the role unless the alternative ending was used). What appeared shocking, monstrous and distasteful in the 1870s, appears in a post- #ShePersisted and #MeToo world utterly understandable. Quagebeur’s redaction dismantles the doll in the house trope to reveal a thinking, feeling woman stifled by her husband’s infantilising treatment and slow to wake to its abusive edge. Quagebeur is quick to place the emphasis on Nora above all else, so much so that she remains downstage until her resolute departure. Torvald, however, is fixed to his desk upstage, unwilling to engage with his wife except to pet and return her to a “privileged” perch at the front. There are some playful exchanges at the beginning of the piece, where Nora wittily weaves in and out of Torvald’s arms, teasing and willing him to connect with her; but these exchanges always end with Nora being forcefully ‘placed’ like a doll in a corner downstage, the fixed spot in their relationship literalised. In Ibsen’s original this interaction frustratingly revolves around Torvald’s continuous dismissal of his wife’s intellect and autonomy, and his patronising epithets of ‘my little sky-lark’, ‘my pretty little pet’. The spatial demarcations become, therefore, the fault lines of their relationship, the constricting coordinates with which Nora must intricately move in and negotiate her personhood. When a strip of light at the back of the stage signals a release from the narrow domestic circumference she’s come to occupy, Nora, along with the 5 Voices, marches forthrightly out and doesn’t look back.
Nora’s persistence may appear belated, her resistance to the suffocating petting and babying by her husband all too late. But her stand against the socially constructed norms of the time made it radical then, and Quagebeur’s sharply executed psychodrama pays testimony to the Noras of the past. What became of Nora, what became of all the women who walk out on their husbands and children is still a sensitive subject today. Much like the title heroine of her work, Quagebeur bears testimony to the importance of braking rank and going against convention. In an interview for Nora, Quagebeur observed how limiting it could be for a dancer to be part of a classical corps de ballet; in the corps you have to ‘look like the girl next to you, you must stay in line’. Quagebeur remarks, ‘I always wanted to suggest things, but it’s not done. You don’t talk, you wait to be told what to do, you can’t really show personality. It does crush you a bit.’ Stepping out from the line, from the strict formation that classical ballet demands of its dancers, Quagebeur has made the bold move into choreographic terrain, into a new kind of expression and creativity, and the future of the English National Ballet looks all the better for it.
Before Quagebeur dared to dream of choreography, Pina Bausch was challenging the dance establishment with her daring, experimental work. Her early productions for Tanztheater Wuppertal were received with difficulty from both the press and public. The raw, honest quality of her choreography, partly learnt from Kurt Jooss (her dance teacher at Folkwang School, Essen), was too much for audiences. However, the choreography for Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) marked a turning point for her, both as a choreographer and director. As one of the first of Bausch’s works to bring the outside natural world into the auditorium and onto the stage, The Rite of Spring was and still is a performance of epic proportions. Even when it comes to the pre-show preparation – a veritable ballet of men tilting large metal wheelie bins crammed full of soil which are then tipped onto the floor and strategically raked across the stage – a profound sense that the extraordinary is about to take place is felt. If Vollmond (2006), a later work famous for its poetic use of water, was about the playful fluidity of desire, then The Rite of Spring, which is literally rooted in dirt, concerned the dark, guttural, blood thirsty nature of it.
To welcome the season of spring the villagers gather, young maidens and men; but this is no sight of Arcadian joys, where innocent nymphs frolic with pipe-playing shepherds. Rather the payment for innocence and rebirth is a scene of singular blood-letting; a young virgin must dance herself to death. It is characteristic of Bausch to give this tale the embodied violence it deserves. There is no half-hearted or apologetic attempt to tell the story; Bausch demands her dancers and audience must feel to their very sinew the full blooded and full bodied response to this carnal cry. Her young women, quivering with fright and anticipation, and dressed in thin translucent slips, are as culpable as the strident bucking young men, who leap and arrogantly stride onto the stage like a herd on heat. It takes three quarters of the piece for the victim to be selected, all the while the young men and women work themselves up into a vigorous and at times erotic frenzy.
Still, the pall of the occasion hangs heavy, and the leaping, balletic upsurge of movement turns into a heavy, oppressive dirge of extreme effort. Assembled in a circle, Stravinsky’s section, the Rondes printanières (the spring rounds or the Khorovod) thrums deep into the earth-bound ritual, as the young men and women fold in on themselves. Here the weight of the soil, the afflictive anticipatory atmosphere and what still lies ahead is almost too much. Cowering under the yolk of this procession, the men and women are levelled, before the music picks up and the frenzied free-for-all begins again. When the fragile chosen one (Francesca Velicu) begins her dreaded dance clad in a red dress, the men and women are too exhausted and smeared with dirt to care or intervene. The ritual must reach its dark conclusion for life to resume.
That this has become one of the most famous dances of Bausch’s oeuvre, if not of all time, speaks volumes not only of the late choreographer’s talent but her persistence and determination. In the early days of her takeover the audience would guffaw, walk out, and even her dancers would leave the company, staunchly refusing to perform her choreography. But for the sake of art, sacrifices have to be made. The Rite of Spring, an epic that grandiosely dramatizes the dark primal urges beneath such sacrifices, is proof that Bausch was right to persist. What McConnell later said of Warren could easily be applied to Bausch: ‘she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.’ Thank god she did.
The English National Ballet’s She Persisted was performed from the 4th to 13th April at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for information or to book tickets.