When she was little, Frida Kahlo yearned to be able to fly. Her parents’ gift of a dress with wings proved disappointing though her dreams of flight remained, particularly following a crippling bus accident that left her with chronic pain and unable to have children. Bedridden for months during her recovery, she channeled her despair and rage into painting. These paintings, along with the ones she made over the rest of her short life, are the inspiration for Bradley Hemmings’ stunning outdoor multimedia event at Greenwich & Docklands International Festival this year. Using pyrotechnics, dance, projections, aerialists, music and the Mexican fertility ritual of the Voladores, The Four Fridas is a visually arresting spectacle but the show that is meant to be a tribute to Kahlo does not provide any particularly unique insight into her life and work.
Divided into for sections that reflect the elements earth, air, water and fire, The Four Fridas chronicles Kahlo’s life. Whilst there were clear acts to the script that took place in different areas of the site, the association with the elements was loose at best. The most sculptural set piece, a bus and tram crash built from metal and crates, was only used briefly towards the beginning. The script itself was fantastical and poetic, but densely written and delivered at a quick, even pace. The language was second rate to the visuals, though what with how impressive they were it would be nigh on impossible to surpass them with any other production element. It was easy to ignore the language in favour of visual performance surrounding the audience allowed to freely wander the performance site.
There were two highlights of the 45-minute long production. The first was an extended projection and aerialist hybrid against a giant screen held up by a crane. The projections were animations based on Kahlo’s work, with the performers against the screen adding texture and further detail. The most exquisite sequence was a flying butterfly, with a performer as the body of the insect. Each aerialist was controlled by a less obvious human counterbalance who scrambled up and down the vertical rigging on the side of the screen. This added an element of puppetry to the performance mediums used. These sections reflected freedom Kahlo felt when painting and her anguish of being trapped in a body that had previously been healthy and unscarred, but made no specific comments on her life.
The second most notable feature was the ancient ritual of the Voladores. Using nothing but rope to ensure their safety, four people climbed a wooden pole without harness, only to fall backwards suspended by their feet. The top section of the pole gently spirals, lowering them to the ground. Whilst this is a Mexican fertility ritual, the vague connections to Kahlo are her inability to bear children and that it also hails from Mexico. Surely it is an affront to an infertile woman to end a performance about her life with hope for children? Nevertheless, it is a remarkable cultural phenomenon to witness.
The free access to an event with such high technical requirements is highly commendable, though the tech is at the mercy of the outdoors. On the last night, part of a scaffolding tower collapsed and had to be removed (fortunately no one was hurt). On a previous night, winds meant that the screen was unable to be used. Whilst this adds to the immediacy of live performance, it also means the performance is shortened. Whilst it was free to stand in the site and watch, bleacher seats came at a price. Those that paid may have felt short changed by the abbreviated length.
Hemmings had set the bar high for this kind of accessible public performance though his work on the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony and stylistically, work like this should be produced often, up and down the country. It is a shame that the spectacle did not particularly support the woman it is meant to honour. Even with basic knowledge of Kahlo and her work; the opportunity was there to communicate a deeper understanding but that was never reached. Though this kind of theatre is still new and infrequently produced, it should aim to develop more nuance and meaning. I look forward to more artists creating large-scale public performances incorporating a rich combination of performance practice and technology. This is the sort of art that has the potential to capture public affection and encourage them to more fully marry art with day-to-day life.
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