One of the first things that came to mind when watching She Persisted was just how, exactly, these delicate performers were going to remain this sure-footed at sea. Then I remembered that these weren’t just any performers, these were the crème-de-la-crème of the English National Ballet who could probably stay on pointe during the strongest of gale-force winds. She Persisted, three iconic stories and three bold works about and by women, was showing at Sadler’s Wells in London and I was lucky enough to join Cunard representatives in the audience.
Partnering with Cunard later this year, the English National will be joining the traditional cruise line for a special voyage on board their iconic flagship Queen Mary 2. The sailing will feature stunning performances in the ship’s Royal Court Theatre, including extracts from Swan Lake, Dust and Le Corsaire as well as offering guests the chance to meet the lead dancers. Having attended a moving and stunning performance of She Persisted by the English National Ballet, I can safely say that Cunard guests will be in for a treat when joining this voyage.
There’s something quite magical about a ballet - the very idea of the dance conjures up images of pointe shoes, lace and taffeta, classical music by a live orchestra and crisp, cold Champagne in glinting flutes. As we arrived at Sadler’s Wells, I wasn’t disappointed and soon had a glass of Champagne and a canapé in hand. After mingling with Cunard agents and getting the low-down on all that we could expect from Cunard’s unique English National Ballet sailing, it was showtime.
Taking to our seats in the stunning theatre, a hub of excitement ran through the audience and as the lights dimmed, our chattering lowered to a hushed whisper. The first part of the ballet began and four skeletons climbed out of a giant cube on stage; I hadn’t been expecting that. The eerie dancers moved in time to escalating classical music and, with a flourish, produced a petite dancer from a trap door in the top of the box. Then it all made sense - there was no mistaking the resemblance to Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo. Iconic painter Frida Kahlo is the heroine of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings and as we joined the performers on a journey of broken bones and broken hearts, we couldn’t help but feel connected, moved and just a little bit confused.
After spending the interval processing the journey that Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography had just taken us on, we returned to our seats and prepared ourselves for Stina Quagebeur’s first work for the main stage, Nora. Inspired by the lead character in Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, Nora follows a woman on the path to independence as she falls victim to a loan shark and subsequently journeys from a conflicted wife to a woman of firm resolve. Packed with sharp movements, pulling and pushing, the main characters were inflicted with pain that tumbled into the audience.
As we returned to our seats after a brief interval, feeling both enlightened and in emotional turmoil, we dove excitedly into the concluding piece of She Persisted. We discovered that the stage had been covered in a thick carpet of soil in preparation for Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). This was only the fourth time that this piece had been performed in the UK since its creation in 1975 and it was compelling and bleak in equal measure. Female and male dancers took to the stage, an even number of both and, barely clad in their outfits, committed to the striking movements of the dance. Both frantic and sharp, intense and powerful, the performers danced to the selection and sacrifice of a victim and, with seeming disregard to their soil-covered bodies, came to reach a momentous crescendo. I’d never considered the idea that ballet could leave me feeling pensive as well as enlightened. But as the curtain came on the mussed-soil stage, it appeared that it was so.
Although She Persisted won’t be performed on board Queen Mary 2 - after all, where would they put the soil? - other performances by the English National Ballet will certainly be a sensational addition to Cunard’s iconic repertoire and one that we’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for.