Frida Kahlo - Defining Moments, presented by Teatru Manoel and performed by Moveo Dance Company with choreography by Diane Portelli, tells the story of Frida Kahlo’s incredible strength in the face of tragedy.

Best known for her art and her striking appearance, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is sometimes reduced to visuals consisting of a monobrow and a brightly coloured floral headband. But beyond Kahlo’s famous face lies a complicated life story that directly impacted her art – a story presented through dance at Teatru Manoel.

Kahlo only lived to be 47 and her short life was full of pain, but her body of work will forever immortalise her. The artist was an influential figure in Surrealism, and her self-portraits are as riveting in their detail as they are emotionally charged. The Broken Column, one of her more striking pieces, is the inspiration behind the dance production commissioned by Teatru Manoel and performed by Moveo Dance Company.

Moveo director and choreographer Diane Portelli was inspired by the painting of a naked Kahlo, her body split in half and revealing a crumbling column instead of her spinal cord. Frida painted this piece when she was 44, following a series of spinal surgeries to correct ongoing problems resulting from a serious traffic accident when she was 18. “I was very intrigued by the contrast of beauty and horror in that painting, and it sparked the idea of playing with her duality,” shares Portelli. “She showed enormous emotional strength despite having a broken body and heart.”

In fact, apart from back issues following the traffic accident, Kahlo also lived with serious complications from polio, which she had contracted at the age of nine. She lived with chronic pain, managing to transform it into beauty through her art. Kahlo’s turbulent relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera, whom she married twice, was another source of pain for her.

“Nothing was straightforward with Frida, which makes her life story so relatable and timeless,” says Portelli. “Her relationship with Diego was filled with as much turmoil as it was passionate. Our show will feature Kahlo herself, her sister Christina, and Diego. Both Diego and Christina were pivotal to her life story, especially because their affair caused Frida great anguish, which is one of the themes tackled in the performance.”

Pain is a thread that ran through Kahlo’s life, but passion was another. “A total cast of six dancers will also play other very important roles - extensions of Kahlo’s pain and broken body, the foetuses she lost in her miscarriages, the brushstrokes of her paintings, and the Mexican people starting the revolution,” Portelli explains. “The creative process was very collaborative and intense. The only way to convey the intensity of the characters was to truly immerse ourselves into their life story.”

The artist was an influential figure in Surrealism, and her self-portraits are as riveting in their detail as they are emotionally charged.The artist was an influential figure in Surrealism, and her self-portraits are as riveting in their detail as they are emotionally charged.

Portelli and her colleagues went far beyond studio rehearsals in preparation for this production. “Frida endured 32 surgeries which were excruciatingly painful and might have led to her having multiple miscarriages,” recalls Portelli. “So we did several workshops exploring pain in different circumstances, like childbirth or broken bones. We also found ways to relate to her heartbreak through our personal experiences. The dancers were extremely receptive and open to the process.”

Another aspect of Kahlo’s life which Portelli didn’t ignore is the artist’s pride in her Mexican heritage. “For most of her adult life, she insisted on wearing traditional Tehuana dresses, partly to cover her deformed right leg, but also to make a strong political statement,” Portelli says. “These elements are also captured in the performance, through Ritianne Zammit’s costume design and the music composed by Albert Garzia.”

If Portelli had to meet Kahlo, she would have one question: “I would want to know what made her stay with Diego despite him breaking her heart,” she wonders. “Was it because he was pivotal to her becoming famous, or was she just a hopeless romantic? I guess we will never know.”

Frida Kahlo - Defining Moments, a Teatru Manoel production, will be performed at Teatru Manoel on June 10, 11 and 12. Tickets can be purchased at booking.teatrumanoel.com.mt. For further information, visit teatrumanoel.mt.

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