Dutch National Ballet
Amsterdam, Dutch National Opera & Ballet House
6 February 2020
If ever there was a case of biting off more ballet than a choreographer can chew then that happened during Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s making of Broken Wings for English National Ballet, back in 2016. Her subject was Frida Kahlo and the Belgian/Columbian choreographer quickly realised that she had way more ideas than could be accommodated in that one-act contribution to the She Said programme.
Lopez Ochoa is based in Amsterdam and so step forward Ted Brandsen and Dutch National Ballet with the rather unique offer (I can’t think of another) to expand that single act into a full-length ballet. Although much will be familiar to anyone who had seen Broken Wings, the new ballet stands proud and alone as a rather remarkable work of art. Lopez Ochoa has retained, unchanged, around 25 of the original 45 minutes’ from Broken Wings; has reworked around thirteen additional minutes’ of pre-existing choreography; and added more than an hour of new material. These old and new elements have been woven together seamlessly like a lavish Mexican shawl.
The striking visual impact in the set and costume designs of Dieuweke van Reij translates Kahlo’s art to the stage through emphatic mimicry without plagiarism. They utilise elements that Kahlo experimented with herself, notably in the painted bodies and eclectic headdresses of the ten male Frida’s. The Mexican fascination with death is well-evidenced in the ubiquitous Dia de Muertos imagery
Peter Salem’s expanded score integrates well with the narrative, providing clarity of themes for each character and group in Frida’s imagination and linking fluidly with the story (Nancy Meckler again providing dramaturgical support). In addition to the beautiful La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) song , recorded by Chavela Vargas, Lopez Ochoa added two more of her evocative songs to the second act (Noches de Ahuatepec and Que te vaya bonito) bringing an authentic vintage ranchera sound to enliven Salem’s excellent bespoke score, performed by the Het Balletorkest under the direction of Matthew Rowe.
The new title role was created on Maia Makhateli, a Georgian dancer who has been based in Amsterdam for many years. She captured the essence of her subject with great clarity in a journey from the young, idealistic schoolgirl through the dreadful injuries sustained, aged 18, when the bus she was travelling on collided with a streetcar; her compulsive, sometimes destructive, relationship with Diego Rivera (she married him twice, later claiming that their marriage was a worse accident than the streetcar); her cursory success as an artist whilst she was alive (the new New York scene was a particular triumph); her miscarriage and failing health. Makhateli captured all these crucial elements of the Kahlo biography with dramatic panache, always aligned to the crispness of her impeccable technique. The persona of Kahlo has come to be reinterpreted in strength many years after her death, but in truth her crumbling physicality was as brittle as a dry twig and the candid essence of that innate vulnerability shone through in Makhateli’s intelligent ownership of the role.
Her Diego Rivera was James Stout, a Canadian-British dancer from Calgary, whose first taste of dance was through his parents’ Argentine Tango milongas. Having seen every one of Lopez Ochoa’s Rivera’s (even Yuri Possokhov, partnering Tamara Rojo, in Guadalajara), it is clear that Stout brings something of his own to the role. He is more serious than most (and the character seems to have dieted since Broken Wings) and Rivera’s eye has the chance to rove even further in this expanded material. The duets between Makhateli and Stout were arrestingly good.
This is, however, an ensemble work with most of the company on stage either as Male Frida’s, skeletons (including those listed as “female hairy skeletons”), reporters, leaf girls and women (there are twenty of these) and sundry other roles. Connie Vowles joined Dutch National Ballet, last year, from ENB, and having just missed the premiere of Broken Wings, she has finally caught up with Frida, appearing here as both a leaf girl and one of the two additional birds in the final scene. Erica Horwood was effective in the leit motif of the deer (Frida’s animal spirit, as if akin to one of Philip Pullman’s daemons from His Dark Materials); and Riho Sakamoto had a similar linking role throughout the ballet as the principal bird. After the premiere, the choreographer generously said that her ballet now belongs to the dancers since they have ‘infused it with life, artistry and creativity.’
This was much more than my expectation of an update to Broken Wings. Part prequel, part sequel; it now stands proudly alone as an excellent new addition to the Dutch ballet repertoire. The importance of the occasion was justified by a red-carpet premiere attended by the Queen of The Netherlands.