Destiny commissions a dance.
Michelle Manzanales recalls seeing Frida Kahlo everywhere while growing up in Houston. Images of and by the artist decorated the walls of Star Pizza, a restaurant she would visit. Manzanales studied Kahlo in school and later saw the painter’s immortal self-portraits during a trip to Mexico City. Although she says “Frida’s always been present in my life,” Manzanales claims she never thought to choreograph a dance about her. “She’s just such an icon, such a huge topic, such a responsibility.” Eduardo Vilaro, formerly the artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater, even approached Manzanales about making a Frida piece; a choreographer too, he thought Kahlo would be a terrific subject for a company premiere but was hesitant to make the work himself. “I felt it needed a woman’s perspective,” he says. Still, she resisted. “Just think about it,” Vilaro told her.
Paloma Querida premieres at the Harris Theater Saturday 27.
Surrendered to fate, Manzanales dove into research, poring over details of Kahlo’s famously tortured life and holing up at the library with biographies and monographs. Paloma’s moment came when executive director Joanna Naftali was reviewing possibilities for Manzanales’s period as Luna Negra’s interim director. (Vilaro relocated to New York last year and his successor, Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, won’t begin until July.) Manzanales says Naftali told her, “We’re going to go after funding for Frida—do you want to do this?” Having become “infected” by Kahlo’s story, Manzanales says she had “no choice—whether for Luna or some other company, I had to make this piece.” She’d discuss what she was working on with friends and colleagues and discovered many shared her passion for the Mexican surrealist: “The conversations that came up were incredible. People are so moved by her work. It’s so honest.” Revealing personal experiences, both her own and her dancers’, has driven nearly all of what Manzanales has made for the stage. She wonders aloud about whether this is where the resonance lies.
Given access to the full company but not a full evening, Manzanales was at first unsure how to construct Paloma Querida. Deciding against biography, she chose three paintings and assigned a different female dancer to embody the Frida in each. In The Broken Column (1944), Manzanales says, Kahlo is “wearing all of the things that have happened to her.” Topless and bound by the straps of the back brace she was confined to by a horrific accident two decades earlier, she has nails piercing her skirt and skin like porcupine quills, and a fluted Ionic column rests inside her carved-out torso, cracked like a ruin and pressed up to her skull. It’s one of Kahlo’s most terrifying works; her eyes, wide open, are glazed over with silver and produce 14 white-hot tears.
It’s a devastating epilogue to the stunning but guarded young Kahlo of Self-portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926), the painting that initiated her turbulent 25-year relationship with Diego Rivera and another of Manzanales’s inspirations. “They brought so much pain to one another”—Kahlo and Rivera were briefly divorced and then remarried—“and yet they couldn’t help themselves. The Frida in that painting, to me, is this connection to Diego, the Frida that loved and was devoted to him.” Painted during the couple’s separation, Self-portrait with Cropped Hair (1940) defiantly dresses in a man’s garb and haircut the anger she experienced upon discovering Rivera’s affair with her younger sister, Cristina. A fourth dancer represents Kahlo’s sense of self and Mexican heritage.
Knocked down time and again by physical ailments and misfortune, including a skeleton-shattering bus accident, polio, gangrene and even, it’s been speculated, spina bifida, Kahlo is depicted through powerful movement by bodies at the pinnacle of fitness, an Expressionist take not unlike the surreal imagery the painter insisted was her reality. “My piece is about how I see her dancing inside her mind,” Manzanales explains. “She hated the fact that her body was ‘broken.’”
Paloma Querida, Vilaro’s Quinceañera and Edgar Zendejas’s Plight paint the stage at the Harris Theater Saturday 27.