Frida Kahlo could barely walk. In this ballet, she dances

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Frida Kahlo could barely walk. In this ballet, she dances
Dancers of the Dutch National Ballet, costumed to represent trees, rehearse "Frida," a new work based on the life of Frida Kahlo, in Amsterdam, Dec. 20, 2019. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a choreographer who has also worked in flamenco, hip-hop and contemporary dance, presents Kahlo in 16 incarnations, each played by a different dancer in the ballet, which premieres at the Dutch National Ballet on Feb. 6, 2020. Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times.

by Nina Siegal

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Frida Kahlo’s vibrant art, turbulent life and tragic death at age 47 are certainly operatic. But the Mexican surrealist painter, who was left disabled by polio and a bus accident, might seem an unlikely subject for a ballet.

But that’s the medium Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a choreographer who has also worked in flamenco, hip-hop and contemporary dance, has for her newest work, “Frida,” which will have its world premiere at the Dutch National Ballet on Feb. 6.

The ballet, which is based on the painter’s life — including her tempestuous relationship with her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera — does not linger on Kahlo’s physical disability, Lopez Ochoa said in a recent interview. Instead, it will animate her emotional world and artistic legacy, using dance.

“For me, it’s not a biopic but a portrait of who was she as a person and her inner lives,” Lopez Ochoa said. “There will be some moments where we see her struggle with moving, but it’s not going to be central.”

The choreographer presents Kahlo in 16 incarnations, each played by a different dancer. There is a Frida wearing a white corset, as depicted in her famous 1944 painting “The Broken Column,” and one as Kahlo envisioned herself in Victorian dress as part of the 1939 work “The Two Fridas.” Frida also appears in the ballet as a male dancer, a deer and a tiny skeleton, performed by a child.

Georgian ballerina Maia Makhateli will dance the primary Frida; to indicate the physical decline after the bus accident that left an 18-year-old Kahlo with a shattered pelvis and other life-changing injuries, Makhateli will dance in point shoes until the accident, and then in flat ballet slippers.

Kahlo, whose broad body of work includes many self-portraits, has become a symbol of female liberation, but she has never before been the subject of a full-length ballet by a major dance company, said Ted Bransen, director of the Dutch National Ballet.

In 2016, Lopez Ochoa created “Broken Wings,” a 45-minute dance piece about Kahlo, for “She Said,” a triple bill at the English National Ballet of works by female choreographers. “Broken Wings” was set to music by Peter Salem, with costumes and sets designed by Dieuweke van Reij, both of whom also worked on “Frida.”

Bransen, who saw the piece at the time, said that although he was “impressed” with it, he felt that “it didn’t do quite enough justice to the subject. It needed more space to breathe.”

“It was like an hors d’oeuvre, but I had a taste for more,” he said.

Lopez Ochoa’s 2018 piece, “Last Resistance,” was a hit with Amsterdam audiences, Bransen said. On the strength of that connection with the local public, he invited her to create “Frida” for the Dutch ballet.

“I was very interested in this question: How do you deal with someone who has been in bed most of her life?” Bransen said. “What Annabelle has demonstrated is that you can show that in beautiful ways, in ways that are very captivating emotionally, and in very immediate ways, through dance.”

In a rehearsal studio in Amsterdam in December, Lopez Ochoa set the scene as a dozen male dancers pulled on floor-length lace-bottomed skirts, which Kahlo often wore to conceal her damaged leg.

“In this scene, Frida Kahlo is getting more and more injections for her pain, at the same time she drinks a lot and smokes a lot,” Lopez Ochoa explained. “Then she has just witnessed her husband cheating on her, so she drinks more. So, we’re going to come in as dervishes, completely drunk.”

The men set off whirling across the floor, their skirts swirling. Their movements mimicked poses from Kahlo’s self-portraits: hands folded at the waist or crossed over the chest.

“Hold your skirt, passé, leap!” Lopez Ochoa instructed. “Now, Frida pukes a butterfly, because she’s in a wheelchair, but she wants to be free.”

Lopez Ochoa, who grew up in Belgium with a Colombian father and a Belgian mother, said that she’d heard of contemporary dance productions about Kahlo, but never a classical ballet.

“I was brought up in Belgium, and the ballet world is a white world — and I was taught that art had to be this intellectual thing, and I could never use my own culture, my own traditions in dance,” she said. “So it’s such a big thing that I can bring some Latino flair into the ballet.”

The sets and costumes of the production are drawn from Mexicanismo, the art movement embraced by both Kahlo and Rivera, and feature a cheerful, almost garish palette, and a flattened perspective.

Van Reij, the production designer, said she borrowed several ideas from Kahlo: “skulls, butterflies, monkeys and birds.”

She also created 29 long red fabric braids that hang from the top of the stage and represent a recurring motif in Kahlo’s work.

“She used red lines to connect herself to her miscarriages, to her family, to Diego, to everything,” van Reij said. “Red lines are an important element in the sets, and in the choreography we use red lines to connect dancers.”

In scenes in which Frida appears in a bed, the bed will stand upright on the floor and Frida will move in front of it.

Lopez Ochoa said the driving force behind her depiction of Kahlo was “really the emotion of what happened with her fighting for her Mexican identity, her passion and love for Diego, and her sexual life — because she was as promiscuous as he was, also with women.”

“She was always saying, ‘I’m not a surrealist; I paint my own reality.’” she added. “For her, the emotions were so present that the reality starts to shift and change. I’m trying to find, through dance, the symbolism of her paintings.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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