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Finding Frida Khalo

From the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Ballet Hispánico, to the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has covered the terpsichorean waterfront. Indeed, the in-demand maker, who is half-Columbian and half-Belgian, has, at last count, created works for some 77 companies. Among those dances is her full-length “Frida,” which will be performed by Dutch National Ballet in its first appearance at the Los Angeles Music Center July 14-16, when the work receives its US debut.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in rehearsal with Dutch National Ballet for “Frida.” Photograph by Altin Kaftira

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Accompanied by a live orchestra and with an original score by composer Peter Salem, “Frida” tells the fascinating, yet gut-wrenchingly tragic story of surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, who died at age 47 in 1954. Not only had she been diagnosed with polio at age six, but as a teenager, she was also in a crippling bus accident, incurring severe and long-lasting internal injuries. 

In chronic pain throughout her life, Kahlo, a symbol of female liberation, nevertheless created some 143 paintings, among them numerous self-portraits, while her stormy marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera proved both a source of enduring art and demonstrative angst. And though each had extra-marital affairs, including Frida’s trysts with other women, their complex relationship continues to be explored and celebrated to this day. 

All of this was grist, then, for Lopez Ochoa’s balletic mill, with the choreographer, who was born in 1973, choosing to highlight Kahlo’s emotional universe and artistic prominence through a classical vocabulary.

Lopez Ochoa, whose honors include receiving the 2019 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, began her training at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp, Belgium. After a twelve-year performance career, including time spent with small German companies and dancing as a soloist with Scapino Ballet Rotterdam for seven years, she turned to dance-making. Her wide-ranging choreographies, which, in addition to ballet, include contemporary dance, hip-hop and flamenco, can also be seen in opera, dance films, musical theater and short conceptual pieces.

Fjord Review had a chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy artist over Zoom from Jacob’s Pillow, where she was the program director for the Contemporary Ballet Performance Ensemble.

Dutch National Ballet perform “Frida” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Hans Gerritsen

Did you always want to be a choreographer and was it easy transitioning from dancer to dance-maker?

At the age of 11, I discovered choreography, not even knowing the word. In school, a teacher said to make a one-minute piece while a pianist [played], and I created a work on a white floor and also saw seven, eight different interpretations from the other students. I said to myself, “If I could do this for the rest of my life, I’d be the happiest person on the planet. But I didn’t think it would be a job to pay my rent from, until I got a commission from Scapino Ballet when a workshop was being cancelled because of a tour to Italy.

I was the only one saying, “Oh, no,” and the director noticed that and said, “Okay, you seem passionate,” and he decided to invite me to [make a piece] for their repertory. That’s the first time I got paid, when I was 27. I lasted another three years being a dancer and gave myself five years to see if I could survive from it. 

If I would not succeed, I would go to the film academy that was on the way from my house; it’s telling stories, but with images. Dance is about ordering sequences, it’s about rhythm, perspective, colors. In five years, I could pay my rent, so I kept doing it. 

Frida Kahlo—the woman and the artist—has been mined in countless forms, having been chronicled in slews of books, films (Julie Taymor’s 2002 “Frida”) and operas (Gabriela Lena’s 2022, “Frida and Diego”), not to mention exhibitions worldwide. How did your vision of “Frida” come about? 

I was asked in 2015 by Tamara Rojo, who then was director of English National Ballet, to make a short one-act of a female character from history or literature that was damned and doomed. She had sent me a few names, [including] Princess Diana, and I pondered these names for a month, because it’s England and these names were English, but I kept thinking about Frida Kahlo. 

I’m half-Colombian and I’d seen a movie about the music of [singer/actress] Chavela Vargas, and thought she was an interesting woman, but it was not exactly balletic. So, I went back to Tamara and kept thinking of Frida Kahlo—I’m also a huge fan—and she accepted. That’s how I made the one-act dance, “Broken Wings.”

I wasn’t sure the British audience would appreciate a Mexican take on a narrative but they did. It’s not a typical classical ballet, but the British love storytelling, and they were more focused on that. For me, it was nice with my culture.

Story ballets have long been staples in the ballet canon, so expanding “Broken Wings” seemed the natural next step, no pun intended. In fact, DNB’s Ted Brandsen saw “Broken Wings” when it premiered in 2016, and was keen on it. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Yes, but Dutch National Ballet was looking for existing work, and we pondered the idea of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that I made for Scottish Ballet [in 2012]. But I said that my dream was to make a full-length ballet of “Frida.” Ted said, “Make your dream your reality.”

Dutch National Ballet perform “Frida” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Hans Gerritsen

You worked with composer Peter Salem on both “Streetcar” and “Broken Wings,” and asked him to collaborate with you again on “Frida.”

What I like about him is he dives into the subject matter. He works a lot in theater and film, and thought about Mexicanismo [an art movement embraced by both Kahlo and Rivera]. He used a lot of harp, guitar, and the rhythms were also very helpful when I made the libretto. There are also three songs of Chavela Vargas, because I could not tell Frida’s story without her voice. 

I believed they [Kahlo and Vargas] also had an affair. She was very hungry in meeting people, which is funny, because Frida was so jealous at Diego’s promiscuity, but for herself, she was very free in her concept of relationships.

The sets and costumes look brilliant, and are designed by Dieuweke van Reij, who also did, “Broken Wings.” With a cast of 47 and two children, the work, which makes use of black boxes for the set, also features an array of skulls, butterflies, monkeys and birds, all prominent elements in Frida’s paintings. Have you made any changes or tweaked the ballet since it had its world premiere in Amsterdam with DNB in 2020?

I’m always tweaking; for me a piece of work is never finished. I always look at it like, you see who you were at the time, and in those big companies, there’s not much time to create a full-length work. So, I took away two sections [in order] to go sooner into the dramatic moment of Frida’s accident—when pain takes over and when painting saves her from the pain. 

Those were the only moments when she would forget the pain. For me, it’s so inspiring as an artist to see how much she’s put her life into her work, and it’s also admirable. 

You’ve created a veritable world of Fridas, presenting her in 16 incarnations—basically imagery taken from her paintings—with each played by a different dancer, including men. 

Indeed! Why did I choose men to represent her portraits? As I was researching, I went to Casa Azul [the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City], and some of her portraits are really small. You see them, and you see the price is $4 million. 

The work has become bigger than the actual woman, so that’s how I thought I needed men to become portraits. A deer is also her alter-ego; there are birds that come in and console her; and there’s an explosion of colors and characters, especially when she experiences morphine. 

Dutch National Ballet perform “Frida” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Hans Gerritsen

Wow, that sounds, well, trippy! So, what comes first for you—the steps, the music, a concept, a character?

When it’s a narrative I start with a libretto. I write the scenes myself. I work with theater director, Nancy Meckler. She worked with me on “The Little Prince” [2019] “Coco [Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon,” for Hong Kong Ballet, 2023] “Frida,” “Broken Wings,” and in October, Ballet de Santiago is staging my Maria Callas ballet. 

We start with the libretto, then I go home and write, and I send her scenes. She says “yes,” or “no,” then I send that to the composer, then to the set and costume designer. But when it’s a short piece, it’s usually the music. I never prepare steps at home, I leave that for the studio. But I know what the costumes are, because I like to work visually.

 Lately, it’s been a lot of narratives, and my dream would be to only do narrative work. I find it the most challenging, and, in the end, the most rewarding—when human nature can be exposed and used in movement.

The Chanel ballet sounds intriguing. And one of her many quotes was, “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous,” which sounds a lot like you, Annabelle.

Thank you. I love a lot of her quotes. One in particular, was, “Before you leave your house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I always try to look at my work and think, “Do I need all of this to tell the story?” I like to go to pure form. She was a wonderful, difficult woman, and that will be coming to Atlanta Ballet, then it goes to Queensland Ballet.

You’re decidedly putting strong females forward, including last year’s work for Ballet Hispánico, “Doña Péron.” Described by the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaufman as, “deeply theatrical and expressionistic,” the dance recounted the life of the Argentine first lady, Eva Péron. What is your continued attraction to telling stories of powerful women?

Because I’m a woman, first of all. The classics have been made by men, and I feel that although they’re very well done, women aren’t the same as they were in, say, 1847. I feel I can give a nuance that male choreographers might not give. I don’t see women as victims, because even when they’re victims of a situation, they have a lot of power and will power to get out of it, because that’s how they survive. 

I also want to give ballerinas different characters to dance; characters that are not so one-dimensional. It’s like the dark side of women, and why usually it’s a society they have to survive in, like Coco, surviving in a man’s world. That’s why. I want to give dancers new roles to dance, and I want to enlighten female characters to an audience from a different perspective.

Dutch National Ballet perform “Last Resistance.” Photograph by Hans Gerritsen

Speaking of perspective, who or what have some of your influences been?

Painters—like Frida, Dalí, I love the surrealists—Magritte. I also did a piece about [the artist Fernando] Botero. I think there’s a fascination about that frozen state. When I was a kid, I thought paintings had a soul. I would look away and I thought it was moving, and looking back, it would freeze. 

As a choreographer, I could release the soul to its moving state, as opposed to a frozen state. There’s always a past and future to that frozen state or image. I like Michael Keegan-Dolan. He’s Irish, and a very theatrical choreographer. I liked what Béjart did with kabuki [“The Kabuki”], but nowadays we can’t do that—go to Japan and take their culture—that would be cultural appropriation. 

I was 14 when I saw that, then I went to Holland and there was Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen. The men that I saw, Ohad [Naharin], [William] Forsythe, I was always more theatrical than those men. When I was a young choreographer, my work did not fit in in Holland. It was colorful and I used a theater narrative. I had to get out of the country to come back. American audiences [seem] more open to colorful works.

Other than that, a source of inspiration is what happens around me, and what happens in the world now. It’s not pretty what’s happening now. But a lot of times dance gives us hope—what humans can achieve by dancing together and having that moment of attention with an audience. 

Dance does give us hope, and it’s astonishing to think that you’ve worked with nearly 80 different dance troupes in your career. What are your criteria in working with a company and what advice do you have for young female choreographers? 

I don’t have criteria; I just go where I’m invited. There’s always something to learn, and I love the fact that my work has given me the opportunity to learn about other cultures. You become more empathetic. Humor is different. Family is different. It has enriched me as a human being as an artist to travel and having to adapt.

Working in Turkey, they don’t speak English. Ten years ago, I didn’t speak Spanish, when I did my first work in Cuba. Wherever they invite me, I will go and will create something for those dancers. It’s not always the bigger companies that give the best experiences, so I say to young choreographers, embrace every opportunity to practice and to get better at craft. 

I had smaller dreams than what life has given me. But the fact that I’m open to everything has opened so many more doors than I had hoped for at the beginning. If you have a dream, you have expectations, and expectations sometimes bring disappointment. I have no expectations.

I just turned 50, and it’s about embracing everything coming my way, and it’s about giving. I did San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, English National Ballet. I did say to a friend that I like the fact that I’m not famous, I’m just under the radar. I love that position. All my work is so different; I can keep creating and trying different things as opposed to being revered for one thing that they want reproduced on their company.

I get the freedom to try new things every time. It’s difficult to pinpoint what is my style and who I am. I’m like that butterfly, but I don’t want the needle—like Frida—I’m very grateful that I’m not that; and that I have that freedom as an artist—freedom of speech, research, finding new ways of telling a story.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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