The first thing that you see as you enter the space is the slumped body of performer/dancer Caroline Bowditch on a bright yellow table, looking in a mirror at herself, looking at the audience looking back at her. Such an act is a statement of intent: Edinburgh Fringe sell-out “Falling in Love with Frida” is both self-reflexive portrait and a homage to the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54).
Kahlo’s debilitating injuries resulting from a terrible bus crash at age eighteen are interwoven with Australian Bowditch’s own personal experiences—she has brittle bone disorder—and as a disabled contemporary artist. Yet, this moving and wonderful piece is not about disability per se, but rather a multi-layered celebration: a lusty paean to womanhood in all of its colours, curves and shades.
“Falling in Love with Frida” artfully avoids the traps of cultural appropriation; a kitsch exercise in Mexican cliches, with a tourist-eye view of colourful melodrama it is not. (Recalling Salma Hayek and Julie Taymor’s bio-pic 2002 Frida, which reduced Kahlo to a victim of patriarchy and her own exotic hotheadedness.) Her Kahlo is a survivor—real, fleshy, vulnerable yet strong. “I feel as if I know you . . .. You never wore underwear,” she says, “you liked to smoke unfiltered cigarettes which turned your teeth black. You hated pink nipples.”
Fusing voluptuous choreography with an open letter from Bowditch to Kahlo, Bowditch is accompanied by her gorgeous trio: Welly O’Brien, Marta Masiero, and Yvonne Strain providing British Sign Language, all dressed in Kahlo-esque flamboyant finery, before stripping down to petticoats.
O’Brien and Masiero first appear in tableaux vivants, preening like adolescent girls in the first bloom of sexual awakening, before flexing, spasming and crashing to the ground—a powerful evocation of Kahlo’s horrific accident.
Bowditch, her face the picture of longing and mischief, archly regards her obsession with Kahlo as “the perfect unrequited love affair—she’s dead!” before revealing her real reason for Kahlo as muse:
“She makes me want to be braver.”
The women act as different facets of Frida Kahlo’s character: proud; flirtatious, deeply despairing, and in one poignant scene, restricted in movement by pretty pink ribbons. Arms and hands flutter, like a bird which can never take flight. Thwarted, yet undaunted, the women stick out lascivious tongues and strike balletic poses.
They are never still, ever restless until the moment when, backs cheekily turned to the audience, they slurp watermelons at the yellow table, cackling like a family in a brothel. Bowditch comes to the front of the audience, offering a man in the front row a taste. “I don’t usually give it to men,” she quips with a grin.
Bathed in a warm Mediterranean glow (Emma Jones’ lighting, complementing Katherina Radeva’s cacti-filled set, provides the intimacy of a cabaret setting) Bowditch confesses her first lesbian experience, with a woman called Susan, happened later in life—her twenties. Kahlo had many lovers, male and female, and this unabashed appetite for sex is implicit, in the flash of underwear, a slightly raised eyebrow or the arch of a back—yet never sleazy or gratuitous.
As everyone (theatre staff included!) knock back a shot of neat tequila (what else?) in a toast to Frida Kahlo, this is one show which defies simple categorisation: a provocation, an exploration, and visceral love letter to the untamed, timeless appeal of women’s bodies, minds and spirits. Caroline Bowditch has created a loving, profound, passionate and uncompromising slice of dance theatre which soars in unexpected places, challenges and tickles.
Cacti are spiky, but just look at the beautiful flowers that they produce.