After encountering Frida Kahlo’s paintings years ago, Susan Collard, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s creative director, was drawn to the Mexican artist’s story. “I started studying her life, and I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to do a ballet about Frida Kahlo,’” she says.
Now, commemorating 35 years of modern dance, ACDT re-creates its signature ballet, Looking for Frida. First choreographed in 1998, it was staged in Asheville, two cities in France (Montpellier and Toulouse), and Merida, Mexico. The production embodies the company’s mission to produce daring and often haunting performances inspired by the work of great artists and writers.
Kahlo is best-known for her striking self-portraits. Her work is saturated with color and infused with symbolism, drawn from both Mexican folk art and surrealism (but not contained by any single genre). There is a darkness and fierceness to Kahlo’s work, and her paintings are characterized by portrayals of great suffering. Considering her life story, it’s no wonder that themes of blood, skeletons and open wounds recur.
“When she was 6 years old, she had polio, and she was 18 when she was in the trolley accident, where she was basically impaled, her spine was shattered, and she was left for dead,” says Coco Palmer-Dolce, who narrates the ACDT show with excepts from Khalo’s diary (kept throughout the last 10 years of her life). Palmer-Dolce adds, “She met death twice before she was 20.” The artist would never fully recover.
To bring Kahlo’s encounters with death to the stage, Collard created a duet in which the painter literally dances with a skeleton. “Remember that Frida always saw death as her friend,” Collard says. “She would hang skeletons on her bed, all over her house, and she called death her companion.”
Jaime McDowell takes on the title part. “Frida is a dichotomy: a woman who loved to party, who was surrounded by friends all the time, but when you look at her paintings, she lets her pain come through,” she says. “She shows her sorrow — the sorrow of knowing that she’s going to live a short life, that her husband is constantly sleeping with other women, that she can’t have children [but] desperately wants children.”
Stepping into that role was no small feat. “The hardest part has been allowing myself to go to certain places that you don’t always want to go to, emotionally,” says McDowell. “Allowing myself to dig inside to find [my] own personal pain and personal heartbreak, and let that come up, has been the hardest part.”
To represent the physical pain that Frida endured throughout her life, Collard dresses her cast in plaster corsets. “Frida [had] many operations on her spine, and she painted her own body casts. She covered them with color,” she says. “I re-created the body casts [for the dancers] because I wanted the movement to be honest. The dancers will be, and are, restricted by these casts, as Frida was.”
Kahlo was married to and passionately devoted to her husband, Diego Rivera, a muralist and outspoken communist supporter. Their love of art and shared political zeal united them, but their partnership was volatile. They were in an open marriage, and both engaged in public love affairs. “You’ll see pictures of Diego holding another woman, and Frida sitting on another man’s lap, all together,” says Collard. “I think that was very much part of the artistic culture of the time.”
Frida’s many love affairs are portrayed through duets. However, Collard notes, she always returns to Diego. “That’s actually the first thing that the audience hears: ‘Diego, my love, my life,’” says Collard. “She’s completely devoted to him.”
Though the show delves into the dark complexity of Kahlo’s life and work, it has a bright side. “’Love life: Viva la Vida,’ that’s what Frida always said, and that’s what she wrote on her last painting,” says Collard. “The show is a celebration of her love of life.”
WHAT Looking for Frida
WHERE The BeBe Theatre
WHEN Fridays and Saturdays, June 20-21 & 27-28, at 8 p.m.; Sundays June 22 & 29, at 6 p.m. $16 in advance/$18 at the door
ALSO “Art of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,” discussion with Jennifer Goff, on Wednesday, June 25, at 8 p.m., free; and “A Frida Fiesta” and Frida look-alike contest with Mexican cuisine and live music by Jim Arrendell on Thursday, June 26, at 8p.m., $10 (the winner gets a free one-week stay in a house in Merida, Mexico). Both events held at the BeBe Theatre.