Choreographer Nanette Robinson has been a Frida Kahlo fan for years, ever since the 1980s, when an artist friend introduced her to the work of the then-little-known Mexican painter. (Even as late as 1990, if you looked up Kahlo in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, you'd find just her name and the instructions, "See Rivera, Diego.")
So when ZUZI! Dance Company settled on the theme of visual arts and dance for its Solstice show last year, executive director Robinson naturally thought of Kahlo. By then, of course, the painter had evolved into a posthumous art superstar, revered for using indigenous Mexican folk imagery to paint deeply personal truths. Confined to bed for much of her life, Kahlo concentrated on small-scale self-portraits that turned into universal icons.
"I delved into her life," Robinson says, "She was such an amazing woman. The material was so rich. Frida was totally raw in her ability to paint exactly her pain and her reality."
Robinson could have made an evening's worth of Kahlo dances, "but I didn't want to take over Solstice," she explains, and instead, she composed just a couple of works for that collaborative show.
Nine months later, ZUZI opens a full-length concert consisting entirely of Robinson dances about the late painter. Frida Kahlo: Blood and Gold is an extravaganza of modern and aerial dance, live music and song, and spoken word drawn from Kahlo's writings. Bright costumes reflect the imagery in her paintings.
Throughout the show, a dozen of Kahlo's artworks will be projected onto the stage backdrop, including the pencil drawing "The Accident," 1926, memorializing the trolley crash that nearly killed her at age 18; "The Broken Column," 1944, an oil imagining her fractured spine; and "Frida and Diego Rivera," 1931, a double portrait of the sometime spouses. Photos of Kahlo at different stages of her life will be interspersed among the paintings.
The ZUZI house band plays a number of original tunes, including the title song, "Blood and Gold," composed and sung by guitarist Pablo Peregrina. The band also features vocalists Sally Withers and Jackie Hesford; singer and accordionist Bobby Ronstadt, who plays an original accordion solo; and percussionists Randy Omdahl and Bubba Fass. Withers sings her song "La Frida Sufrida (Suffering Frida)" for a Robinson solo.
Apart from dances by guest artists Ballet Folklorico La Paloma (fresh from a performance at the London Olympics) and Tucson's "La Flamencista," Barbara Schuessler, "this is the first show that's entirely my choreography," says Robinson, though she gives creative credit in the program to the other dancers.
Normally, ZUZI enlists apprentice and youth dancers, but this time, the 10 company members do all the honors. The exception is young Frieda Muller, a 12-year-old who's studied at ZUZI for several years. She portrays the child Frida.
"She even looks like her," Robinson says.
Robinson has given the show a loose chronological structure, with a dozen different dances spanning the 47 years of Kahlo's life. Born in 1907, three years before the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo died in 1954. She's played by different dancers as she grows older.
Dancer Felice Espinoza narrates, threading the story together with quotes from Kahlo's diaries, interviews and poems. (One of Robinson's favorite Kahlo lines: "Feet, why do I need them if I have wings to fly?")
Opening with a dance set to "Blood and Gold," the narrative touches on Kahlo's childhood in a suburb of Mexico City, the daughter of a German immigrant and a Mexican mother. "The Accident" re-creates the trolley-car crash that condemned Kahlo to a life of pain and reproductive difficulties. Mechelle Tunstall (formerly Flemming) dances the piece eight weeks postpartum.
"My Diego," about the turbulent marriage between the two modernist painters (they wed twice), is followed by a Mexican dance by two women and two men from Ballet Folklorico La Paloma. The traditional couples' dance was choreographed by Jesus Angel Montañez.
"This is after the marriage scene," Robinson says. "Frida and Diego loved to watch traditional Mexican dance."
ZUZI dancer Ekida Sarang Laurie dances the solo "Dolls Remind Me" to an instrumental piece, "Loss of a Child," by Peregrina. Kahlo's uterus was pierced in the trolley accident, and she's believed to have suffered several miscarriages. Her painting "Henry Ford Hospital," 1932, commemorating one of those losses, is projected while Laurie dances.
The flamenco dance "Lagrimas del Corazón, Espiritu y Esperanza (Tears of the Heart, Spirit and Hope)" actually begins with aerial work by a half-dozen ZUZI dancers, including Robinson. The fliers descend to a specially constructed platform "that looks like a cajón drum, with guitar strings inside," Robinson says. "We do footwork in our bare feet, but the cajón gives it a rich sound."
When the ZUZI-ites retreat, Schuessler takes the platform stage, her face painted white, Day of the Dead style. Performing a full-out flamenco in percussive shoes, Schuessler claps her hands in the palmas gesture and pounds her feet, accompanied by the castanet-playing of Patti Franklin, Margaret Richey and Mireille Nashimoto. Guest vocalist Rocio Ruiz sings.
Robinson also wanted to celebrate Kahlo's spirit. The dance "Alegría (Lust for Life)" is all about joy.
"People often used the word alegría to describe Frida," Robinson says. "She had so much joy."
Though aerial dancing is a ZUZI specialty, "Alegría" is one of the few trapeze pieces in the show. Five dancers swing through the air to a song sung by Hesford a capella.
"As a woman, Frida pushed boundaries completely," Robinson says. "Politically, she pushed boundaries. She still struggled, in a relationship with a man who betrayed her. She suffered from chronic pain. But she found a way to be feisty and to have passion for life."