What do you think of when you hear the name “Frida Kahlo?” Her lush, Tehuantepec-inspired dresses? Her flowered headdresses? Her unmistakeable unibrow? These days, one of the most iconoclastic and eccentric artists of her time is often reduced to a mass-produced fashion icon. With all the Halloween costumes and kitschy Frida-printed magnets, bags etc, she’s surely one of the most recognizable Mexican figures in the world–and the most commodified. (Though those El Chapo t-shirts could change that.)
Trying to sweep off some of those layers and get back to the core of Frida’s story, Mark DeGarmo (of Mark DeGarmo Dance) worked for seven years on a penetrating tribute to the painter’s spirit. Over three decades of travel to Mexico, he felt a deep connection and affinity with the painter and her homeland. “She’s almost like a secular saint in a way. She’s become beatified,” DeGarmo mused. “I kind of wanted to tell what I thought was the real story of Frida Kahlo: the pain and the suffering and the beauty.” Part dance piece, part theater, part visual art, the 60-minute “movement installation” is playing at the Clemente Soto Velez theater tonight and this weekend.
The slow-moving performance takes place in front of a miniature blue house, referencing Frida’s childhood home in Mexico City. Video projections in the windows show educational theorist Maxine Greene’s hands and Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina’s feet, influential figures in DeGarmo’s life who recently passed away. The piece, normally performed by DeGarmo and Marie Baker-Lee, is more abstract than linear, though it does culminate with Frida’s death. Through two sections (“innocence” and “experience”) divided into eight chapters, it draws out different elements of Frida’s complicated life, such as the chronic pain she lived with after a teenage trolley crash, her stormy relationship with her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, and her fluid gender identity.
DeGarmo said he was always drawn to Frida’s duality and relentless spirit. “It’s her frailty against this giant husband of hers, her petiteness, but also her ability to hold her own,” he said. “She no doubt was the life of the party and could swear and drink and smoke with the best of anybody and was extremely intelligent.”
In the work, both Baker-Lee and DeGarmo represent the painter (“light” Frida and “dark” Frida), a nod to the masculine/feminine fluidity of many of Frida’s work and identity. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, both Fridas are played by men (DeGarmo and Luis Gabriel Zaragoza). DeGarmo said this element was partly due to happenstance–originally he’d planned that both Fridas be played only by older women. But a week before their preview performance in December, one of the Fridas fell ill.
“I learned the 60-minute role in a week,” DeGarmo said. “It was so different from having created it and directed it and being outside the part. And then having the chance to be inside this part was so extraordinary–I didn’t expect the effect it would have on me.”
He said he hoped the performance would be both a unique experience and inspire intercultural dialogue “It’s very emotional, and I think it also crosses…it’s not dance, it’s not theater, its not visual art, it’s a bit of all of it. I think we’re creating a kind of a new form,” he said. “I hope it would also stimulate curiosity in Kahlo’s life and work.”
Las Fridas at The Clemente Center Flamboyán Theater. April 23-25 at 8 p.m. and April 24-25 at 3 p.m. Tickets $20.