By the time I tried to book to see Caroline Bowditch’s Falling in Love with Frida at Dance Base, Edinburgh – where it was part of the Fringe – it had completely sold out. There were two performances a day for six days, but, I discovered, there were only 12 places per performance. I was squeezed into an extra performance for promoters. Frida in the piece’s title is the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54). Bowditch, together with Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino who perform with her, greet us at the start and offer us all a shot of tequila (or non-alcoholic alternative) as we sit around the small studio as if we are in Kahlo or Bowditch’s living room for an intimate soirée. The studio is full of bright colours – blue hangings on the wall, a solid yellow table and three chairs, a real cactus and green neon in a cactus shape. All three dancers are dressed after Kahlo with white blouses and bright coloured skirts, and they have bright red lipstick and flowers in their hair. Bowditch tells us about herself, about Kahlo, and how she wants to draw attention to the fact that Kahlo was a major artist with disabilities.
Talking is interspersed with dance sections, many of them in unison, and Bowditch sings to us. The ambiance is vivid and passionate, like the exotic scenery and high key colours of Kahlo’s paintings. A lot of the dance movement seems to involve the spine, raising the shoulders and arching the back in a way that conveys emotional intensity. These are movements that Bowditch can manage in her wheel chair, but I imagine that Kahlo would not have been able to execute because of the severe damage she suffered to her spine in a tram accident as a young woman.
If Bowditch is falling in love with Frida, what does the piece tell us about Bowditch’s attraction to her? Bowditch hints at the possibility of a sexual attraction, referring to her own divorce, and telling us about her first lesbian experience with a security guard at the end of a conference in Los Angeles. This kind of intimate connection – of finding sameness across differences – is a theme in many of Kahlo’s paintings.
Kahlo painted herself being breast fed by a Mexican woman wearing a pre-Columbian funeral mask; she made a double self portrait as both a modern, Westerner and a Mexican woman. Red ribbon appears in at least two canvases: one showing her with a small monkey clinging to her, both tied with ribbon round their necks; the other depicts her family tree with her German and Mexican relatives linked together with red ribbon. At the end of the performance O’Brien and Guarino and both tied to Bowditch with red ribbon and dance beside her. Like Kahlo’s paintings, their dancing suggests attachment despite differences. Kahlo created some iconic images that are full of passionate intensity, and it seems to me that it is this which Bowditch is attracted to, in love with.
Something I read recently makes a distinction between love and passion. Passion, it said, is when people are vibrating at the same height of intensity. Love is about not smothering the loved one but leaving room for them to be different, and the most difficult thing is to accept love. When the three women are dancing passionately together, it is as if they are soaring to the same height. In an online interview, Bowditch says she has been asked if Guarino, who has Latin features, is meant to be like Kahlo, and reveals that she wanted to keep this ambiguous. For me, when they dance, all three women are becoming Kahlo. Then there’s the question of love. In the intimate space created for the performance there is a lot of eye contact, as if the dancers love their audience (apologies for this cliché). If it is slightly uncomfortable for us to accept the dancers’ love, this is perhaps because it is an invitation not just to watch but to feel and be immersed in this powerful attraction across differences.
Ramsay began writing about dance in the 1980s when he was a member of the editorial collective of New dance magazine. He lives in York and teaches at De Montfort University.