Ballet has long been an international language, but even by the genre’s standards, Dutch National Ballet’s Frida – one of the most hotly anticipated events of the dance season in Europe – is a melting pot. This new bio of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, the work of Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, is brought to vibrant life by a diverse company led by Maia Makhateli, a ballerina from Georgia. And as Frida, she is paired with Calgary-raised dancer James Stout, who plays the role of Kahlo’s fellow painter and long-time lover, Diego Rivera.
Stout has been working toward star turns such as this one since joining the Dutch National Ballet in 2007. Sitting in a company office a few hours before curtain-up, the 31-year-old, who climbed the company’s ranks steadily to become a principal dancer in 2018, is surprisingly calm. “Some ballets are stressful, but this one, you can play with,” said Stout, who attended the School of Alberta Ballet and Vancouver’s Goh Ballet Academy. Frida shows Rivera’s fraught relationship with Kahlo, whom he married twice and cheated on repeatedly. “He’s gruff, a bit wild, and he doesn’t have so much self-control,” Stout says, adding with a chuckle: “I don’t think he meant to ... I don’t think he did it with malice. I think he was maybe spontaneous, or impetuous.”
It’s not Stout’s first world premiere with the famously creative Amsterdam company. While it doesn’t have as long a history as the Paris Opera Ballet or the Bolshoi Ballet, Dutch National Ballet rose to prominence in the second half of the 20th century on the strength of its house choreographers. Lopez Ochoa, who is based in Amsterdam, made some of her earliest works there in the mid-2000s before going on to craft ballets for a range of major companies, including New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.
Frida ranks as one of her greatest achievements to date. The two-act production is a reworked and expanded version of a one-act ballet she created for London’s English National Ballet in 2016, Broken Wings. It packed a lot of storytelling into just 45 minutes, from the accident that left Kahlo in lifelong physical pain at the age of just 18 to her suspected suicide in 1954. In Frida, her complex life is fleshed out in greater detail, with additional characters including her younger sister Cristina, whose affair with Rivera devastated Kahlo.
Dutch National Ballet’s dancers had large shoes to fill. In London, the lead roles were created by two ballet superstars, Tamara Rojo and the Bolshoi-trained Irek Mukhamedov, a larger-than-life presence in the 1980s and 1990s, who came out of retirement just to play Rivera. Stout knows him well, but he says Lopez Ochoa didn’t let the new cast watch videos of their predecessors. “I have a different temperament than Irek. That can be intimidating, but I think Annabelle [Lopez Ochoa] is quite open to us finding our own character.”
Since Rivera was more than 20 years older than Kahlo and hardly in athletic shape, the role requires Stout to wear a “fat suit” underneath his costume – perhaps the only time in his career he will have looked anything close to his surname. “It’s actually quite light, but it does change my balance. I try to make the movement look a little laboured and heavier.”
Regardless, Lopez Ochoa upped the technical ante significantly for the younger male star, who lends Rivera a softer, bewildered quality as he betrays Kahlo, and partners Makhateli with sensitivity. Stout has unusual skills to draw on: His parents, who now live in Vancouver, founded Calgary’s first Argentinian tango club. Tango’s creative, improvisation-based partnering style “leaked over into my career,” Stout says. “I think it’s one of my strengths.”
It suits Lopez Ochoa’s fast-paced and imaginative narrative style. Frida weaves Kahlo’s imagination into the fabric of the ballet. Day of the Dead-style skeletons move the sets and interact with the characters. Slowly, characters from her paintings trickle in, blurring the lines between real events and her creative life. A deer (the delicate Erica Horwood) acts as her alter ego, as in her 1946 work The Wounded Deer, while butterflies, birds and a group of male Fridas (inspired by her self-portraits) sweep through the stage in gorgeous technicolour.
Dieuweke van Reij’s designs and the shimmering score by Peter Salem (interspersed with a few Chavela Vargas songs), efficiently contrast these scenes with Kahlo’s shrinking reality as she retreats from the world. Some detours, such as Rivera and Kahlo’s visit to New York, feel anecdotal: Straightforward biopics are always a tricky proposition in ballet, which thrives on symbolism. More often than not, however, Lopez Ochoa gives us Kahlo as a woman who contained multitudes.
For Stout, who opted to put down roots in Amsterdam instead of working with different companies, as many dancers do, a creation like Frida is the ultimate gift. “I get excited to develop with it. By the end of the run, it will probably be a completely different ballet than it is now.”
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