More Frida needed

'Walking into the Woolwich artillery barracks, I cross a wasteland of yellowing grass. Pink dusklight and filmy clouds stream over the park outside. The architecture of the barracks is austere, arresting, intimidating. It is not an obvious venue for an “open air spectacular” featuring music, acrobatics and indigenous Mexican spiritual practices. I feel more like I’m about to be conscripted and the silhouettes of vast cranes and lighting rigs only add to my industrial-military awe.

As I enter the Parade Ground, jungle sounds and the smell of incense drift over me. There are volunteers in GDIF (Greenwich and Docklands International Festival) T-shirts to guide you towards the venue, but it’s a disparate tumble of elements rather than a single stage. Guests can sit for free on the promenade ground or pay between £12 and £15 for the delights of a plastic seat. It’s such a strange and immersive dreamscape that it might be better enjoyed from the tarmac.

A giant white dress tumbles in the wind like a hot air balloon, suspended from a massive crane at one end. There is a platform that might be a stage and a huge four-poster bed one on side. In the centre, there is a 30 metre high wooden pole with a tiny square frame shaking in the wind at its top, and to the right what looks like the base of a vast bonfire.

The physical action can scarcely be faulted, but it’s an all-too-brief whirlwind

In the course of just 45 minutes, The Four Fridas disrupts and destabilises all these seemingly solid structures. The stage blooms into different configurations; objects swap horizontal for vertical arrangements; they flip, rotate, burst into fireworks, move on wheels through the audience, dance sideways and upside down in an anarchic imagination of flight.

As a self-billed “spectacular”, The Four Fridas certainly is sublime. The physical action can scarcely be faulted, but it’s an all-too-brief whirlwind. Having trekked across London – or rather, beneath London, pasted to other sweaty strangers – on a day of record heat, three quarters of an hour just doesn’t cut it. I thought the dancers’ bows were a choreographic joke before I realised they’d genuinely finished and people were getting up to go home. However mesmerising the show was, a piece that calls itself The Four Fridas shouldn’t leave you feeling short-changed in the Frida department. It’s true that we see different aspects of Frida: she strides tall and proud over the stage, dances in a wheelchair suspended high over the stage and is lashed to a moving bed in torture or recovery from the bus crash that attacked her body. But there’s almost no character development and Narrator One’s words offer murky insight into her motivations.

These words, written by Jay Griffiths (author of a novel about Frida Kahlo, A Love Letter from a Stray Moon) fall fairly flat. There are some cracking lines (I loved “I am a lesbian lover of man”) but if you know Kahlo’s English-language writing then they feel pretty jarring; there’s something haunting about the show being named for this woman but offering so little of her internal experience.

Acting-wise, Pippa Nixon’s Narrator One (Frida Kahlo) was irritating. She hammed it up, leading every line into an over-stressed, over-enunciated crescendo. Perhaps she missed out on Shakespeare in the park and was taking it out on poor Kahlo. Her clipped English accent didn’t help. Although Narrator Two (Psyche) also spoke in RP, her delivery was sensitive and emotionally-inflected enough not to generate laughs. However, we can be pretty sure Kahlo didn’t speak like a grammar school girl from Sussex, and a Spanish speaker’s tones would hardly have rendered it incomprehensible.

Are they really women and not superheroes? I expect to be proven wrong at any moment

12Voladores ©Seoirse O'Mahony

The theme of love and liberation for the impaired body reverberates throughout The Four Fridas. One-legged dancer Welly O’Brien is magnificent as post-amputation Frida, and the production is accessible on a more practical level, with on-screen audio description and a wheelchair accessible venue.

Hofesh Shechter’s choreography re-imagines bodies free from constraint, tipping acrobats to one side, inverting our orientation as wheelchairs spin up vertical screens, shifting the world into new arrangements and bodies into new possibilities. It tenderly evokes Frida Kahlo’s love affair with the possibility of flight, during her long confinements to bed, but beyond this, the plot doesn’t speak to many concerns which are recognisably Kahlo’s.

Tal Rosner’s video design is incredible. He projects Kahlo’s artworks over a screen on which wire-suspended acrobats spin and tumble. They swell and hum with the music, distract us cleverly while the climax of the show is underway and five young indigenous Mexican women clamber up a wooden pole in the dark.

As they ascend the mast – studded with only the lightest footholds – my eyes strain to catch sight of a harness, a net, something approaching a safety device. Are they really women and not superheroes? I expect to be wrong at any moment. The Ritual Ceremony of the Voladoras is a spiritual dream of flight that UNESCO has designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is hard to overstate the magic of witnessing it. It is heart-stoppingly brilliant and mind-meltingly impressive.

Miguel Negrete’s helpful programme notes tell us that the Voladoras’ flight allows dancers to “maintain the balance of the cosmos”. It is a dream and delight to witness, but while it may bring the elements of the universe into harmony, it cannot bring The Four Fridas into the same state. The show offers disconnected parts, with the strongest feeling given over to Frida’s longing for flight. We learn almost nothing about her, and although the Voladoras’ spiritual ritual is given the centrality and admiration which is deserves, it feels like an awkward yoking of two traditions. Although Kahlo was certainly influenced by Amerindian art, she lived in a very different Mexico from that of indigenous, pre-Columbian practices.

For all its gravity-defying, The Four Fridas never quite gets off the ground.

The Four Fridas was at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 1-4 July 2015.

The feature image is © Alex on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons licence.
Image one: A woman presumably acting as Frida Kahlo stands on a set of steps leaning against the banister. There is a lot of metal behind and above the steps and a pile of crates in front.
The first two images in the text are © Alastair Muir.
Image two: A woman presumably acting as Frida Kahlo stands with a triumphant stance, looking up into the middle distance. Behind her, a screen has images projected onto it – a watermelon pattern, with Kahlo’s face among them. Image three: A group of about ten people are shown mid-dance, in the same position with their arms stretched up to the left.
The fourth image is © Seoirse O’Mahony.
Image four: The Voladoras shown in this image are from Mexico and travelled to Europe to perform for The Four Fridas. Four brightly dressed people dangle from ropes tied to a wooden central pole.