A wintry dance with death

A woman stands with a sword through her chest, weeping beside her extracted heart. A deer, with a woman’s face and a side bristling with arrows, leaps. These startling images come from the self-portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who in bold, firm strokes seemed to map her own personal suffering on the canvas — and to find some solace there.

Local choreographer Susan Collard spent three years creating “Looking for Frida,” a dance piece that pays tribute to the complex alchemy of pain, courage and hope expressed in Kahlo’s work. The piece is one of three new works the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre will premiere at its winter concert, “Primal Cheer,” at Pack Places Diana Wortham Theatre Jan. 23-24. Collard — who established the nonprofit dance company with Giles Collard 18 years ago — describes the concert as a multidisciplinary event incorporating dance, theater and art.

One glance at a self-portrait of Kahlo — her face unsmiling, her eyebrows an angry black line – and the rightness of the concert’s title, “Primal Cheer,” becomes apparent.

Kahlo’s own life was nothing if not dramatic. At age six, she contracted polio, spent nine months in bed, and was left with a right leg shorter and thinner than her left one. Then in 1925, when she was 18, Kahlo was flung to the street when a trolley hit the bus she was riding in. An iron rod pierced her abdomen, and her back was broken in three places. Following the accident, which left her unable to have children, Kahlo struggled with chronic pain and physical degeneration. That’s when she began to paint.

Studying Kahlo’s paintings and reading the diary she kept over the last 10 years of her life “has been a doorway for me into her character,” explains dancer Kelly P. McCall, who represents the artist in “Looking for Frida.” Kahlo, notes McCall, “is so graphic about her body experiences, about how her body experiences her life.” Because Kahlo was often ill and in pain, McCall feels the painter became “intimate with death.”

In one of the piece’s seven acts, “Dancing with Death,” McCall, as Kahlo, “plays” with death while dancing with a skeleton. In real life, Kahlo — who spoke of death as a friend and companion — dressed papier-mache skeletons in her own clothes and hung them from the canopy of her bed. Her husband, Mexican painter Diego Rivera, teased her that death was her lover.

Kahlo died in 1954, at age 47, with more than 200 works to her credit. Eight days before her death, the artist finished her last painting, a still life of sliced and chopped watermelon. On the center slice she painted, in large red capital letters, “VIVA LA VIDA” (“Long Live Life”).

Accompanying the concert is a photographic installation with video (in Pack Place’s exhibit space, The Forum) by guest dancer Julie Becton, which intersects interestingly with “Looking for Frida.” Like many of Kahlo’s paintings, Becton’s photographs deal with the body in relationship to its environment — be it underwater, or even, as in some of the photographs, encased in garbage.

The performance itself opens with “Bone after Bone,” a celebration of the mentorship of the young in our culture by those older and presumably wiser. McCall and Jean Johnson choreographed “Bone” and perform it, along with Jim Curtis.

Second on the program is “Calm Morning,” created by Vietnamese artist Thierry Raymond. The dance-cum-theater piece invites us to enter a village, explore it, recognize our shared hopes, and rejoice in the diversity of our human community. Blues-guitar player Tyler Ramsey and percussionist Bob Geyer (both of Dancing Spirit) portray village musicians in the piece.

“Looking for Frida,” the concert’s finale, provides a fitting tribute to a painter who stared into the jaws of death — and found there her inspiration.

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