“In classical ballet, in Swan Lake, when you see the swan, you see a woman,” Nelson Reyes mused during a recent interview.
“I’m thinking: Why? Why no men?”
The Cuban-born dancer pauses, then takes a leap: “I think Frida [was] thinking the same way.”
Reyes is guessing the mind of the once-obscure, now pop-pasteurized late Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — the subject of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s upcoming Looking for Frida.
“She painted skeletons, and people [at the time] thought that was [morbid],” Reyes continues. “But she could see the beauty in everything.”
Now he’ll have his opportunity to be the swan, so to speak, shaking up tradition Frida-style by taking on the title role in the dance production, a retailored version of the show ACDT premiered five years ago, to much acclaim.
That’s right: Reyes will dance the ultra-feminine role of the stormy, seductive Frida Kahlo. But the casting isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.
“I [connect] with Frida,” the dancer insists. “If nobody else opened the door, she opened the door. She was a leader; really progressive.
“I’m a strong man, and I’m not conservative in dance or in the arts.”
As for conjuring the provocative spirit of Kahlo, Reyes intones, “I feel like I seduce that [muse] to come and dance with me.”
Passion and pain
Those are the two words that keep popping up as ACDT co-founder Susan Collard talks about Kahlo.
The self-portrait-prone painter was born in Mexico in 1907, contracted polio at age 5, and then, as a teenager, survived a streetcar accident in which a section of metal railing pierced her pelvis. She endured 32 operations in her lifetime, along with corrective corsets and body casts — only to spend her last years confined to a wheelchair.
And then there was her tumultuous relationship with her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
All of this is what Collard set out to capture in her newly reworked Frida, slated for the Diana Wortham Theatre as part of ACDT’s 25th-anniversary performance.
While the Salma Hayek film Frida, from 2002, did a lot for its subject’s popularity, Collard concedes, “It didn’t go into how she lived her life: in a great deal of physical pain.”
So don’t expect a lot of pretty Mexican shawls or romantic arias from the ACDT production. Debuted in 1999, Collard’s dance was born out of her self-professed obsession with the Mexican artist. But the upcoming performance has undergone many transitions.
And obviously, new casting is among the most striking.
“Each time I went back to edit, I found the character of Frida was getting stronger and stronger, and it was getting harder and harder to cast the dancer,” Collard explains. “This time I have the ultimate: Nelson. He has such passion in his dance, and he loves Frida.”
But this show isn’t about campy gender-bending.
“It’s risky,” Collard admits. “But I didn’t [cast him] because Nelson is male. I did it because he has the passion and desire to dance that part.”
Still, she confesses, “You could read a lot into that cross-gender identification, and people will. That’s what art is for: To make you think.”
“When Susan told me she was re-creating Frida for this year, I was thinking I wanted that character,” Reyes puts in. But the dancer, who collaborated on the production’s choreography, didn’t mention it — he just waited for Collard to come to the conclusion on her own.
And it makes sense: Reyes is physically slight, though large in presence — like the woman he’ll portray.
To balance the fiery role of Frida, Collard then had to find a strong dancer to portray Kahlo’s husband. The first time she was casting Frida, ACDT founder Giles Collard danced the part of Diego, Collard recalls.
“Giles is very thin, very light,” she says.
But the real Rivera was not. Standing over 6 feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds, he was — at least in amplitude — Kahlo’s opposite.
“I needed to find a person who really understands the character of Diego, and who has the size,” Collard says.