English National Ballet’s She Said, which opens later this month, sees world-class female choreographers exploring the lives of incredible female figures. Lifelong ballet fan Lili La Scala had a natter with a couple of them.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings tells the story of one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo, from her life-changing accident as a teenager to her stormy relationship with painter Diego Rivera. Lopez Ochoa collaborates with director Nancy Meckler and composer Peter Salem, with whom she created the acclaimed dance version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Yabin Wang is a leading figure on China’s contemporary dance scene. For She Said she brings the Greek heroine Medea into the realm of classical China, with music by Jocelyn Pook using Western and traditional Chinese instruments, and costumes by Kimie Nakano.
In what ways does being a woman influence your artistic/choreographic choices personally?
AL: I’m not so much a fairytale type of person. I like to portray strong heroines that behave like women would behave nowadays. Women know what they want. We don’t always express it, or in some cultures, unfortunately, we are supressed. I take full responsibility for and opportunity of my freedom of speech.
YW: I believe women are more in touch with their emotions than men. I’ve found other female choreographers like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Pina Bausch have all influenced my works, as have male choreographers like Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Hofesh Shechter.
Ballet, though a starscape for female dancers, is quite heavily male influenced historically (choreographically speaking). What are the ways that you, as a choreographer, strive to make – and show – a difference?
AL: I believe that in any creative art form there’s always some kind of bluffing involved. An artist dreams and visualises mentally what a work will become once created. There’s a whole process and period of guessing. It seems that men have less problem bluffing than women. Women usually want to be sure it’s going to be good enough.
I tend to not focus too much on the result of the work but surrender to the process and research. I know exactly how I want the process to go and I leave the result to the magic of the theatre. That would be my way of bluffing, which makes it easy to embrace all sorts of projects.
YW: Ballet was primarily choreographed for women, until Nureyev came along and choreographed roles for a male dancer as a hero. I have no gender bias when I choreograph; I believe it’s subject to the story.
Is there a difference between your choreographic journey and that of your male colleagues?
AL: I don’t mind how my career has evolved. I started choreographing at the age of 11. As a dancer I would always participate in the annual choreographic workshop until I was commissioned for the regular repertoire of the company. I was 28 at the time. At the age of 30, I decided to focus solely on choreography and two years later I got my first international commission.
At 42, I can say that I am an established choreographer. It might have taken me longer than my male colleagues but I believe that art needs not just craftsmanship but maturity. I don’t think that I could have choreographed Broken Wings with such depth and sensibility 10 years ago.
YW: Of course, in general, there is a difference between male choreographers and female choreographers. However when you come to the top-level choreographers, the difference is tiny.
Do you see any part of your job as a role model for future female choreographers?
AL: Definitely. The fact that I will be creating a new work for a major company this fall (NYC Ballet) feels like I might be opening the way for other female choreographers or at least inspire some younger women to work their way to the top. I never danced in a major company so it took me all these years to be noticed, trusted and finally given the opportunity.
YW: There are many things I need to do to create future dance works. I’ve never thought about becoming someone’s role model.
Do you feel perhaps, like me, that as a person who uses their body to create art, gender is irrelevant and potentially inhibitive?
AL: Gender is irrelevant in the arts. I focus on sharing an idea or telling a story through movements and I hope for the audience to feel the energy, the intentions and ultimately discover my personality reflected in the work.
YW: While they are watching my work, I prefer audiences to simply forget about me and concentrate on the stage and the roles I have created as choreographer and producer.
I’m a pointe shoes and tutus fan; nothing can make me more breathless than 32 fouettés [a pirouette performed with a circular whipping movement of the raised leg to the side]. Can you be both a feminist role model and still adore the tragic heroines of classical ballet?
YW: To me, dancing with 32 fouettés shows the superb skills that a dancer has. Equally important is what a choreographer then wants the dancer to express with those skills. To me, a solid skillset should help enhance people’s appreciation of the heroines in this Greek tragedy, no matter whether you are a feminist or not.
English National Ballet’s She Said premieres at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London from 13 to 16 April. For more information and to book tickets please see www.ballet.org.uk/shesaid2666 Views
Lili la Scala sings a bit, writes a bit and spends more time than is probably necessary discussing the toilet habits of her son. Bona fide vintage addict, though she is sure she sounds less tragic when described as a 'collector'.