Choreography was long a male preserve, yet it’s still sobering to learn that Tamara Rojo was dancing professionally for over two decades before she performed a ballet created by a woman. As artistic director of English National Ballet, She Said was Rojo’s response, a 2016 triple bill of new creations from female choreographers. One of those works – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings – returns in She Persisted, ENB’s sequel which also features Pina Bausch’s sensational Le Sacre du printemps and the world premiere of Nora, created by the company’s own Stina Quagebeur.

Katja Khaniukova and ENB artists in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's <i>Broken Wings</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Katja Khaniukova and ENB artists in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings
© Laurent Liotardo

The evening is prefaced by Grayson Perry’s ebullient, Frida Kahlo-inspired frontcloth, which sets up Lopez Ochoa’s work Broken Wings. The ballet takes its title from the Mexican artist’s journal and its linear narrative is interspersed with phantasmagorial episodes where Kahlo wanders into her own creations. Set to Peter Salem’s score – full of maracas, marimbas and Tijuana spice – Lopez Ochoa begins with Kahlo as a schoolgirl, cavorting with “Day of the Dead” skeletons atop a black cube until the music screeches to depict the terrible bus accident that confines her to bed – entrapped in painful isolation from which she finds release through painting, self-portraits which turn increasingly surreal.

Irek Mukhamedov and Katja Khaniukova in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's <i>Broken Wings</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Irek Mukhamedov and Katja Khaniukova in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings
© Laurent Liotardo

Katja Khaniukova is outstanding in the role, high extensions giving Kahlo exuberant life until tragedy strikes. Her crippling disability is signalled by a quivering leg, her limbs often manipulated by her skeletal companions. The ballet doesn’t shirk from Kahlo’s horrific miscarriages, red ribbon drawn from her body and tangling her in knots. But there is sass and humour too, especially in her duets with Irek Mukhamedov’s swaggering bear of a Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s philandering husband. Between this, there are mariachi and sombreros as a fiesta of colour invades the stage, brightly plumed birds catching the eye, until Kahlo is finally trapped, pinned to a butterfly of her own creation. There’s a longer work itching to emerge from Lopez Ochoa’s chrysalis. Next season, Dutch National Ballet presents a full length development, Frida.

Crystal Costa in Stina Quagebeur's <i>Nora</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Crystal Costa in Stina Quagebeur's Nora
© Laurent Liotardo

Stina Quagebeur’s Nora also depicts narrative in condensed form, describing it as an “essence” of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. Prefaced by snatches of text, we see Crystal Costa’s Nora Helmer take out a crippling debt from Junor Souza’s predatory Krogstad, a bank employee. Set to movements from Philip Glass’ Tirol Concerto, Quagebeur’s concise distillation shows Nora secretly paying off the money without her bank manager husband’s knowledge, all the time accompanied by a chorus of five dancers acting as her conscience, manipulating her thoughts. Costa, vivacious on pointe, becomes torn, trapped, treated like a doll to be toyed with until she rebels. Her duets with Jeffrey Cirio’s narcissistic Torvald ripple with emotion and tension to Glass’ restless arpeggios and, finally, she claims her independence. As Nora walks out on Torvald, the beams of their house fracture and the curtain falls.

The triple bill ends with Sacre, created in 1975 for Tanztheater Wuppertal, Bausch’s own company. When Paris Opéra Ballet took on the work, Bausch herself oversaw the casting. It’s a measure of Rojo’s bold vision as artistic director that, in 2017, ENB became the first British company to share custody.

Preparing for this Rite is a spectacle in itself. Five huge wheelie bins dump enormous quantities of peat onto the stage during the second interval, meticulously raked by attendants, a horticulturally choreographed episode of Gardener’s World.

Pina Bausch's <i>Le Sacre du printemps</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printemps
© Laurent Liotardo

Bausch physicalises Stravinsky’s earthy score in a visceral, shattering way. As the bassoon unfurls its wailing solo, a single woman is resting on a scarlet slip, like spilt blood. She seems to be the guardian of the dress, protecting it. Other women join her, darting into beams of light, convulsed with fear. They know what’s coming; motifs of breast-beating and self-flagellation recur throughout. They huddle together in clusters, taking turns to break away and express individual fears. Men arrive and perform a ritualistic dance, during which the women hurl themselves into dramatic lifts, legs wrapped around the mens’ shoulders, panting, gasping. It has a frenzied, primitive power – especially given the English National Ballet Philharmonic’s ferocious performance under Gavin Sutherland – and Rojo’s very young company throws itself into it wholeheartedly, kicking up the dirt savagely.

Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's <i>Le Sacre du printemps</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Francesca Velicu in Pina Bausch's Le Sacre du printemps
© Laurent Liotardo

In Part 2, the Chief selects the Chosen One – several women present themselves, holding the red slip, until he suddenly, violently clutches one by the shoulders. Bausch asked: “How would it be to dance knowing you have to die? The Chosen One is special, but she dances knowing the end is death.” Francesca Velicu won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance for her Chosen One in 2017 and reprises that role here. Velicu, displaying unsettling vulnerability, dances herself to death with child-like terror in her eyes, a performance that delivers a punch to the gut.

With English National Ballet on such irresistible form, She Persisted continues She Said’s important dialogue.

*****