Any tribute to the legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) would have be colourful and highly dramatic by design, given what we know of the artist’s turbulent life. Columbian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa capitalises on all those historic attributes, bringing the world premiere of her ballet Frida to Dutch National Ballet.

Salome Leverashvili and ensemble © Hans Gerritsen
Salome Leverashvili and ensemble
© Hans Gerritsen

Frida Kahlo’s was no easy lot; crippled in her teen years after a serious bus accident, she was left with one of her legs disfigured and suffered unmitigated lifelong pain. Her father encouraged her to paint to relieve her anxiety, and in that genre, she found her own unique expression and iconography. What’s more, for her time, she was highly unconventional – a confessed feminist who carried on affairs with both women and men, most notably the accomplished Mexican painter Diego Rivera, to whom she was twice married.

Accompanied by the beating, sometimes thunderous tones of an original score by Peter Salem – the ballet orchestra under the direction of conductor Matthew Rowe – Ochoa’s ballet is full of flavour and rich with metaphor. A troupe of skeletons launch the dance by crouching on and around a huge cube, one that, thereafter, shifts position and serves symbolically to house a life, a love, and the various losses suffered by our protagonist. The skeletons consistently allude to the looming deaths in Frida’s life, first of the foetus that Frida miscarries and, later, of marital trust and fidelity, and finally, her own demise.

Salome Leverashvili and ensemble © Hans Gerritsen
Salome Leverashvili and ensemble
© Hans Gerritsen

Dieuweke van Reij’s set and costumes are commendable, although her oversized skeletal heads were often set awkwardly on the dancers’ shoulders, and left some of us longing for human facial expression and exchange. Particularly the imagined-baby with a skull half its height was at the mercy of that convention. That said, the designer followed Kahlo’s preference for the broad lace hem on long voluminous skirts, the model which Frida purportedly often wore to hide her leg’s disfigurement. Further, the lateral-striped white torso brace she often appeared in on stage, a motif taken from the artist’s famous canvas, The Broken Column (1944), was particularly haunting and effective.

The lithe and lovely Salome Leverashvilli danced the title role with great acuity and insight. A small woman herself, she perfectly portrayed a determined Frida who, despite her purported emancipation and many affairs, was herself victim of injury, both physical and emotional. Her mentor/lover Diego Rivera, who, in life, was physically very portly, was danced convincingly by Artur Shesterikov. He portrayed an almost farmer-like character whose leaps about the stage where commensurately heavy. Frida had two alter egos, both meant to lift her spirits: the omnipresent Deer (Floor Eimers) was precise and accomplished, but was a tad too geometric and contrived for a gentle animal; but Nina Tonoli’s bluebird was lithe and sparkling, which gave a distinctly light and upbeat twist to the otherwise tragic tale.

Salome Leverashvili and ensemble © Hans Gerritsen
Salome Leverashvili and ensemble
© Hans Gerritsen

Tragic, because Frida miscarries the baby she’d so hoped to have. Once the many red cords hanging vertically from the rafters have fallen to the floor, the protagonist sits in what seems a pool of umbilical and uterine blood, which made for highly effective staging, although the corps’ winding and handling of the cords over such a lengthy period stretched the gripping image’s resonance to a breaking point.

In the ballet’s second half, a celebrated Rivera and his Frida travel to New York City, and van Reij’s staging alternates from the spartan to an urban landscape of skyscrapers and high-rise windows. Taking the scene change to an extreme, the city set also features a Doric column surmounted by a huge toilet bowl, as if the audience really needed a reminder that “shit happens”. It did, of course, to Frida when Diego gleaned all the attention in the Big Apple, and left her to her own devices. It also happened to him, because he included a portrait of Lenin in a commissioned mural.

Peter Salem’s electronic score nicely amplified the burly city’s soundscape with sirens, whistles and cymbals. The music eventually morphed to something more placid, and differently timed, and the ballet ended in a remorseful Diego and the death of a disavowed Frida, who’s enclosed in the cube, defeated and crippled in her human form. At that point, the little bluebird of fortune cheerfully twirls on top of the cube as the last vignette, assurance, perhaps, that both Frida Kahlo’s color, images and pain will be long remembered.

***11