LONDON — As the centerpiece of this year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival (GDF) in London, artistic director Bradley Hemmings has created an outdoor theater production called The Four Fridas, inspired by the life and work of legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Hemmings, who is also the chief executive of the festival, is not new to large-scale projects, having co-directed the Opening Ceremony of London 2012 Paralympic Games. For The Four Fridas, he has brought together an outstanding creative team. The spectacle is designed by Georgia Lowe, with an original script by award-winning writer Jay Griffiths, and music by BAFTA Award-winner Dan Jones. Hemmings has commissioned Shechter Junior, the talented protégé of the Hofesh Shechter dance company, to dance in one part of the show. The Four Fridas is conceived of as a monologue performed by Kahlo, integrated with video projections, animations, and pyrotechnics. A collaboration between UK aerial dance company Wired Aerial Theatre and filmmaker Tal Rosner, Kahlo’s paintings are projected onto a screen while disabled and able-bodied dancers — who reference Kahlo’s own physical ailments — perform onstage.
Though the project is already an ambitious visual experience, Hemmings has gone even further. He approached a group of young indigenous women from the village of Xochiapulcho in the Mexican state of Puebla to enact the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers), a pre-Colombian Mesoamerican ritual dance still performed in some areas of Mexico.
Four women, wearing garish costumes, sit on a square, wooden frame fitted over the top of a 20-meter tall pole. At the center of it, a fifth woman plays a flute and a drum before starting to dance in circle. At her signal, the four women roll backwards off the frame, slowly unfurling the ropes tied to their waists and fixed to the pole, and float upside-down, gliding in widening circles until they reach the ground.
As is usually the case with ancient rites, through the centuries the dance’s meaning has shifted. Originally thought to bring prosperity, through references to indigenous cosmogony, the dance has changed in today’s secularized version of the ritual.
Spanish colonization and the subsequent conversion of locals to Christianity left a mark on the practice, so that the dance is today usually performed on holidays for patron saints or for other Catholic events. To keep the ritual alive, in 1999 the Dance of the Flyers was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Groups of voladores have performed in many parts of Mexico and in foreign countries as well, usually as part of cultural festivals, including the New York World’s Fair in 1964, but voladoras (female flyers) are a new phenomena and a remarkable change in the ancient ritual, traditionally performed only by men. Witnessing the voladoras’s performance, which is set aside for the grand finale of the show, is particularly striking. The women float in the air with hypnotic grace, grabbing the audience’s attention in a mix of admiration and apprehension.
The history of Kahlo’s posthumous fame is a great lesson in how cultural perception shifts. Since the 1980s the artist’s status has shifted from that of a forgotten Mexican painter, mostly remembered only as Diego Rivera’s wife, to the worldwide, beloved art star that she is today.
The reasons for her popularity are not solely because of her art, to the point that her paintings are often left behind for her biography. (A good axample of this is Ishiuchi Miyako‘s current exhibition Frida at Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, a fetishistic photographic record of Kahlo’s wardrobe and belongings.)
A fashion and feminist icon, Kahlo’s troubled life, intense love stories, and — in a word — her ‘persona’ are easy to sympathize with. This is plain to see in the enormous turnover of Kahlo-related books, films, and merchandise. In this regard, almost any production about the artist is destined to succeed. Overall, The Four Fridas is pleasing, even if it doesn’t add any new element of interest to the already substantial number of plays inspired by the painter. The script attempts to underline Kahlo’s physical condition as the source of her art. But since this theme is frequently interrupted by dances and fireworks, it’s the general experience to be enjoyed the most. More than once, I had the impression that the show’s final aim was to impress the public rather than inspire reflection on Kahlo’s work and life — which is a completely legitimate goal, if it weren’t for the voladoras performance.
Although we have inevitably come to associate Kahlo with a certain overpowering passion and exoticism, weaving the Dance of the Flyers into the The Four Fridas looks more like cultural appropriation than a convincing idea. The festival’s program justifies its integration in the show by hinting at “Frida Kahlo’s lifelong empathy with indigenous Mexico.”
I asked Hemmings whether he thought the display of an ancient pre-Hispanic ritual in a summer festival was controversial. He replied by saying that he discussed that point with great care with the voladoras, as his intention “has always been to create a production which is respectful of the tradition of the flight of the voladoras.” They decided that the ritual flight fit into the concept of The Four Fridas, as “Frida Kahlo’s empathy with indigenous Mexico and the natural world is a key focus and the ritual flight is very much integrated into this vision.”
In spite of the voladoras’s consent, the conceptual links between the artist’s life and the Mexican performers still seem too vague to be justified. I can see how in enacting a ritual that was once men’s prerogative, the voladoras bear a faint comparison with Kahlo’s life as an independent woman. However, the link with the aspiration to fly — invoked by the production quoting Kahlo’s renowned line: “Feet, what need do I have of you, when I have wings to fly?” — seems like a stretch.
“Kahlo’s lifelong empathy with indigenous Mexico,” however true, can’t be the sole reason for fitting the Dance of the Flyers into the theatrical production. However breathtaking, the ritual has dense meanings that need some deeper consideration. It could have been presented to the public as an independent performance, for what it is: an ancient rite that is changing through the years, facing the ambivalent dynamics of globalization.
The Four Fridas continues at the Royal Artillery Barracks (Woolwich Common, London) through July 4. Greenwich + Docklands Internation Festival continues in Greenwich, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Canary Wharf, Bethnal Green, Oxleas Wood and Woolwich through July 5.