A richly choreographed, visually stunning portrait of Frida Kahlo from Dutch National Ballet

United StatesUnited States Peter Salem (composer), Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (choreographer), Frida: Dancers of Dutch National Ballet, members of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and other artists / Matthew Rowe (conductor). Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 16.7.2023. (JRo)

Dutch National Ballet’s Frida © Hans Gerritsen

Concept, Libretto and Choreography – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Dramaturgy and Libretto – Nancy Meckler
Music – Peter Salem
Sets & Costumes – Dieuweke van Reij
Lighting – Michael Mazzola
Assistant to the Choreographer – Luis Torres

Principal Dancers:
Frida Kahlo – Salome Leverashvili
Diego Rivera – Artur Shesterikov
The Deer – Floor Eimers
The Bird – Nina Tonoli

The Dutch National Ballet’s production of Frida more than does justice to her life and legacy. This is a richly conceived and luminous ballet that avoids cliché and brings the imagery from Frida Kahlo’s paintings into a three-dimensional dance world.

Though Frida has something in common with Russian choreographer Boris Eifman’s treatment of artists such as Rodin and Tchaikovsky, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s work is an abstraction of Kahlo’s life rather than a literal recounting. Kahlo’s paintings are used as a springboard for the creation of character and scene.

Kahlo was often overshadowed by her husband, the famed muralist Diego Rivera, but it is Frida’s intimate art from the first half of the twentieth century that has captured the imagination of our time. Once seen, her self-portraits are seared into the memory for their immediacy, exoticism and relentless self-examination of a woman confronting pain. But Kahlo’s world is also one of delicate beauty erupting with parrots, butterflies, greenery, flowers, deer, monkeys and traditional Tehuana costume. It is almost impossible to avoid her imagery, reproduced on everything from coffee mugs to tee shirts. For this reason, the creation of a ballet with a fresh approach to Kahlo’s world is a major and welcome accomplishment.

In the hands of Ochoa, composer Peter Salem, set and costume designer, Dieuweke van Reij and lighting designer, Michael Mazzola, the stage became rife with magic. Skeletons danced in a Day of the Dead parade of souls, their regular presence on stage serving as a Greek chorus commenting on, initiating or disrupting the action. Ten male Fridas with various headdresses of bird plumage, flowers, leaves, antlers and lace and long vibrantly colored, traditional skirts glided across the floor, marshalling their petticoats into rhythmic figure eights. Skeletons on point waved pompoms like deathly cheerleaders. Leaf Ladies fluttered their fingertips of leaves, dancing in formations reminiscent of the swan maidens in Swan Lake or the waltzing flowers in Nutcracker. This is no pale imitation of the classics however: Ochoa stakes out new territory with this dark yet exuberant voyage into Kahlo’s mind.

Salem’s enchanting score was the engine that brought the dance to life: Minimalism mixed with Mariachi, lyricism segued into flamenco rhythms, classicism gave way to exuberant jazz. It was an immensely danceable score, and yet it had a life of its own – a personality suited as much to the concert stage as the dance floor. Under the baton of Dutch National Ballet’s music director, Matthew Rowe, the orchestra, largely comprised of the excellent LA Opera Orchestra members, kept the musical tension in balance and the vibrant sound flowing seamlessly.

Dutch National Ballet’s Frida © Hans Gerritsen

Though she had a great art director in Frida Kahlo, the sets and costumes created by van Reij were beautifully interpreted. Color popped against dark backgrounds. Two black cubes with sets of double-doors were spun around the stage by skeletons and opened into different Frida worlds: a white walled cubicle with a single pillow implying a hospital room; a blue chalkboard niche conjuring Kahlo and Rivera’s famed Blue House; a single butterfly, painted across an interior, serving as the backdrop for Frida’s final resting place. Even the top of a cube served its purpose as scaffolding for Diego’s mural making.

Perhaps the most charming set piece was the Alexander Calder-esque series of cars, trucks and buses than rushed by in the Mexico City scene. They looked like drawings in wire turned three-dimensional, but there was an aura of fatality about them. They foretold the tragedy about to befall Frida – impalement on a metal rod from a horrific bus accident.

The accident itself was a thankfully muted affair: a shower of glitter, denoting broken glass, as Frida was lifted overhead by her partner (Sem Sjouke as Frida’s young love, Alejandro Gomez Arias). Frida’s later health difficulties, as illustrated in her paintings, were handled with more urgency. Her painting, ‘The Broken Column’, came to life in a solo performed to hypnotic effect by Kira Hilli. A minimalist forest of red cords representing umbilical cords was the setting for Frida’s miscarriage. There the gifted Salome Leverashvili as Frida danced a pas de quatre with three skeletons, a red thread crisscrossing her legs and body in a cats-cradle of implied blood.

Sensitive and dramatic lighting by Mazzola illuminated the colors on stage without competing with them and showed off the superb dancers of Dutch National Ballet. Talent runs deep in this company. Every role was danced with authority from the corps to the star turn of Leverashvili as Frida. Ochoa’s choreographic language at once honored tradition while bending it, incorporating ballet and modern dance into an integrated whole and inserting flashes of folkloric dance and flamenco.

If there was a weak spot in the choreography and libretto by Ochoa and Nancy Meckler, it was in some of the overly literal scenes with Diego and his mistresses, with Diego and Frida in New York and in some of the moments of Diego working. As Diego, principal dancer Artur Shesterikov seemed encumbered by his baggy brown suit and disheveled hair. I would have preferred to see the reference to Rivera’s corpulent body forgotten to allow for a more danceable costume. The choreography for Shesterikov was either of an artist in heavy labor, head bowed and arms flying, or the classical vocabulary of jumps and turns. Though handsomely executed by Shesterikov, it was choreography that made Rivera appear as stereotypical male artist. On the other hand, the choreography for Leverashvili as Frida was mesmerizing – trembling bent leg and pointed foot to denote pain, standing splits to emphasize a body torn asunder, a walk on unevenly balanced legs with one foot flat to the floor and one pointed to reference her early bout with polio. The most touching pas-de-deux was the first meeting of Diego and Frida. To a ballad, Frida flirts with Diego, mischievously lifting her long skirt so he can assess her charms.

Also of note was the elegant Floor Eimers as The Deer (an image of a deer with Frida’s head can be found in Kahlo’s ‘The Wounded Deer’) and Nina Tonoli as the sprightly Bird.

Though humor was often provided by the Solo Skeletons, Jasmijn Vergeer as Young Frida and Cees Belloni as Young Diego supplied a dose of fun with their impish antics.

Remarkably, even though Frida’s days were replete with suffering, the ballet Frida brought art and the colorful Mexicanismo culture that produced it to blazing life. As her life ebbed away, the cube doors opened and Diego pinned Frida to the massive, painted butterfly inside. The tableau was hauntingly beautiful and, I thought, this ballet is surely a crowd-pleaser and should be seen by both seasoned dance goers and a new ballet audience.

Jane Rosenberg

3 thoughts on “A richly choreographed, visually stunning portrait of Frida Kahlo from Dutch National Ballet”

  1. Just as I saw it! I would love to see it again but I can’t find anything on future performances.


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