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Teeming with riotous colors, an exhilarating original score, and dancing of the highest, indeed, most glorious order, “Frida,” performed by Dutch National Ballet and choreographed by the insightful Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, not only proves that story ballet is alive and well, but can also be told in new and ingenious ways. Such was the case last weekend when DNB, under the artistic direction of Ted Brandsen, made its Music Center debut with the American premiere of “Frida,” the full-length dance drama that grew out of Lopez Ochoa’s one-act, “Broken Wings,” and brings Mexican surrealist painter, Frida Kahlo, to ebullient, albeit, tortured life.


Dutch National Ballet: “Frida,” choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa


The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California July 14-16, 2023


Victoria Looseleaf

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

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And what a life she had! Crippled by polio at age six and then severely injured in a bus accident as a teen, Kahlo was never without pain, both physically and emotionally, her turbulent marriage to famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera also having included extra-marital affairs. But all of this became the stuff of Kahlo’s art, which the Colombian-Belgian choreographer has so cleverly mined.

Boasting some 16 Kahlo incarnations, each avatar dances a different Frida, including 10 male Fridas, with the stage also populated by an array of fantastical birds, trees and flowers. The entire dance is a hypnotic and sensual journey that heightens Lopez Ochoa’s memorable and exacting movement vocabulary, and is abetted by Nancy Meckler’s dramaturgy and libretto, the latter co-written with the choreographer. 

Bursting with spectacular unisons, thrilling partnering and articulated pointework, the two-act, 18-scene work, which premiered in 2020 in Amsterdam, opens on the Day of the Dead, the ever-present dancing skeletons on hand for the festivities—and for moving the scenery that is realized through a stage set of black boxes. Designed by Dieuweke van Reij, who also conceived the vibrant costumes, the creations are drawn from Mexicanismo, the art movement featuring a flattened perspective that was adopted by Kahlo and Rivera. 

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

Integral to the narrative and providing the production an ongoing momentum, the boxes open to reveal a slew of scenes, from familial to painterly. Adding even more pizazz to the two-hour story is Peter Salem’s captivating music. Performed live and conducted by Matthew Rowe, the score captures the delirious flavors of Mexico, with each flounce of the skirt, each well-executed bourrée and each Rockette-style high kick accentuated by percussion, guitar, marimba, brass and, at times, elegiac strings. A trio of soulful recordings performed by Chavela Vargas, who was reputedly one of Kahlo’s lovers, can also be heard as part of the infectious soundscape.

Of course, none of this would matter if DNB’s Fridas weren’t up to terpsichorean snuff. Happily, the stunning and fierce Maia Makhateli, the work’s main Frida, most certainly was, her exuberance and sky-high extensions part of her balletic arsenal. But the work’s opening celebration soon turns somber, with the action moving to the bus accident and its aftermath: Our protagonist, now bedridden and kept together with surgical pins, soon begins to paint. 

Equally as colorful as Frida’s paintings, the corps of near-shirtless male Fridas dip and bend in their vibrant full-length skirts, while Kahlo visits Diego Rivera’s studio, the pair soon falling in love and getting married.

Ah, Diego, an overweight, somewhat slovenly egoist, albeit a talented artist who is credited with the reintroduction of fresco painting into modern art and architecture, is performed by the stellar James Stout, a Canadian who’s been with DNB for 16 years. Not the first ballet dancer to don a fat suit—French choreographer Maguy Marin created the 1992, “Groosland,” for DNB, which featured no less than 18 dancers sporting the flabby-wear—Stout wore his padding under a wool suit, the apparel not exactly Fred Astaire-worthy.

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

Yet the formidable Stout was able to move with grace and agility, often appearing in carefree mode. Whether coupled with Frida or trysting with other women (Nina Tonoli, Yuanyuan Zhang), his performance proved indelible, his jetés, pirouettes and ardent partnering a sight to behold, especially while hoisting Makhateli overhead, or anchoring her swooping fish-dives. 

And talk about a kaleidoscope of emotions, Kahlo used hers—from envy and ire to agony and adoration—to fuel her art. Represented by magical realism embodied in the dance, here was a delicate and dazzling bird (Riho Sakamoto, all flutters and finesse); and a striking lone deer/Frida’s alter ego (the antlered Erica Horwood projected a profound calm, easily negotiating her, well, fawn-like steps), also a constant presence when Frida feels abandoned. 

Trying to alleviate both emotional and physical angst, the artist succumbs to morphine-induced hallucinations, with the stage often a heady blend of both fever dreams and pointe shoe prowess, a powerful theatrical aphrodisiac, to be sure. But as high as the highs are, the lows are decidedly nadirs of woe. 

Wanting a child, Frida instead suffers a bruising miscarriage. A scene not normally found in ballet—if ever—this was tastefully realized in the first-act finale: A desolate forest consisting of suspended red, i.e., bloodied umbilical cords, features Makhateli envisioning a skeleton-headed child, only to know heartbreak in the wake of her unbearable loss.

Erica Horwood and Maia Makhateli in “Frida” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Hans Gerritsen

Act Two opens on a more jubilant note, with Diego and Frida travelling to the States, where he has been asked to paint murals in several big cities, including New York. With paparazzi pursuing Diego, Frida is, literally, left in the shadows (Michael Mazzola’s lighting design is pitch-perfect: monochromatic in the cityscape; vivid hues elsewhere).

It’s no surprise, then, that the artist opts for booze and taking lovers, her duets lively, frenzied and escapist. But reality rules, and when Diego includes a portrait of Lenin in his work, he’s ordered to leave the country.

Back in Mexico, with Diego spending more time in the studio and Frida’s health in decline, she keeps painting. Here, her fantasy garden is upended when her 1944 masterwork, “The Broken Column,” comes to life as a tortured Floor Eimers, clad in that famous white corset, moves affectingly, while “The Two Fridas,” an iconic work from five years earlier, is embodied by the Victorian dress-wearing Naira Agvanean, looking suitably uncomfortable.

With moments of misery flowing into more upbeat scenarios—a Mariachi-type band oompahs from the pit—only to return to bleakness, the penultimate scene features a furious Frida learning that Diego is having an affair with her, gulp, very own sister, Cristina (Zhang). Supremely depressed and hooked on painkillers, Frida dies, but whether from suicide or, as officially listed, from a pulmonary embolism, nobody knows. 

The work’s final image is that of Sakamoto’s delicate bird taking oh-so-tiny steps atop a black cube, with Kahlo, a continuing symbol of female liberation, now free from pain and her earthly body.

An extraordinary work on all levels, “Frida,” with its hard-working cast of nearly 50, is a triumph that raises the bar(re) for story ballets, and should be required viewing for anyone interested in dance, theater, contemporary music, high art, or the human condition. 

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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