Stroke of genius

A perilously animated skeleton elicits both alarm and affection from Kelly Davis’ Frida Kahlo in Looking for Frida, Viva la Vida. The dancer’s warring reactions to the skeleton’s wayward charm fuel a crucial scene in Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s original modern ballet.

“In Mexico, the skeleton is the image and symbol of death, and Mexicans often play with that idea,” explains choreographer Susan Collard.

Kahlo, she notes, “had them everywhere in her house.”

The emotionally complicated dance cleverly represents the life and legend of the late Mexican painter, an ardent feminist and unlikely optimist whose relative obscurity in her lifetime did not prevent her from eventually being hailed as one of the early 20th century’s most important painters.

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. It is ridiculous to make one’s life into a tragedy,” Kahlo once noted in her diary. Bits of recited text (including both journal excerpts and Kahlo’s poetry) enrich Collard’s heavily researched work. The ballet (a full-length music-and-dance production) is, of necessity, a layered concoction — reverently attending to many facets of the painter’s life.

“Frida Kahlo is such a complex person — in her art, and who she was in her life — that it was impossible to do a [short] piece of choreography,” says Collard.

Born in Mexico City in 1907, Kahlo barely survived a childhood bout with polio, only to become permanently disabled by a trolley accident at age 18. The nearly fatal impact shattered her body; a metal pole pierced Kahlo’s pelvic region and the resulting injury caused her lifelong agony — precipitating endless surgeries, the eventual amputation of her leg, and her untimely death at age 47.

It was while bedridden from the accident that Kahlo began to paint.

“This pain that she endured most of her life stimulated the art. … One couldn’t have gone without the other,” Collard notes quietly.

“She was an amazing woman,” the choreographer continues. “Not only was she an artist, she was a strong feminist, and a woman very interested in her own culture. She was extremely political and got very, very involved in the Communist movement in Mexico.”

Together with famed muralist Diego Rivera — her sometime-husband, and the subject of much of her poetry — Kahlo championed the work of fellow Mexican painters, whose work was then generally viewed as inferior to European art. In many photos, Kahlo is pictured in traditional Mexican folk dress, instead of the era’s popular styles.

Her relationship with Rivera was, by all accounts, a lively affair (in fact, the two seemed to love and hate each other equally; the muralist was known for a particularly sadistic flair).

“I think they were really codependent,” offers Collard. “In one of the later books I read, Diego talks about enjoying inflicting pain on the person he loved. But he couldn’t live without her.” And he didn’t: Rivera’s death closely followed Kahlo’s, notes Giles Collard, who portrays the muralist in Looking for Frida.

Toward the end of her long decline, Kahlo, in a now-famous move, arranged to appear at one of her gallery openings in bed (by that time, in fact, she was unable to leave it). The strength required for such an act is evident in the forceful stare that typifies her many self-portraits. But whimsy is exercised just as actively in other paintings: In her and Rivera’s wedding portrait, Kahlo depicts herself as an almost-comical appendage of the hulking muralist, while startling images like “Little Deer” (depicting Kahlo’s head on an arrow-pierced deer’s body) treat pain with a lonely smile. (“They thought I was a surrealist, but I was not. I never painted dreams; I painted my own reality,” the artist once said. And surrealist Andre Breton called her work “a ribbon around a bomb.”)

In conceiving the ballet, Collard concentrated her themes at “an emotional level, the pain that [Kahlo] was going through, and her relationships with her family, friends and with the Mexican culture. … I looked at photographic images, read different things into them, and interpreted that into the dance.” Because of the choreographer’s wish to show all of Kahlo’s many colors, seemingly less-crucial decisions — such which music to use (Collard chose traditional Mexican folk music and the tribal assertions of New Age alchemists Dead Can Dance) — figure prominently in this richly nuanced work. A particularly profound touch is the bright assemblage of hand-painted body casts used in one scene (a festive tribute to Kahlo’s own self-decorated “cages”).

Local artist Fleta Monaghan designed the production’s costumes, and will exhibit her own paintings — executed in homage to Kahlo — at Pack Place during the show’s run.

But Collard herself may never enjoy such a finite catharsis. The choreographer debuted an early version of Looking for Frida at Diana Wortham Theatre two years ago, but felt the need to enhance the already well-received production. Even now, she says, her work is far from finished.

“There are many, many more scenes that I was going to put in this ballet,” she explains. “And I’m sure I will [eventually]. But it’s more of a complete work than it was before.”

The second half of the ballet’s title, “Viva La Vida” (“long live life”), comes from Kahlo herself — who included that phrase in her last painting, completed just eight days before her death.

As for the first half of the production’s title, Collard explains with a shy laugh: “I’m always looking for Frida wherever I go, whether it’s a bookstore or museum. I can’t get enough of her work. … It’s too beautiful.”

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