Discover how the English National Ballet created a brand new piece inspired by the life and work of Frida Kahlo

Broken Wings was choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa for English National Ballet's Triple Bill 'She Said'. The piece was inspired by the life of Frida Kahlo and premiered at Sadlers Wells, London in 2016.

As a choreographer, Ochoa has been feted for her strong sense of narrative and has been creating works for a long list of companies around the world since retiring as a dancer in 2003.

It is not only in dance that women’s voices are not always heard, which is why the subject of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings was such an extraordinary woman of her time.

“When I was approached by Tamara Rojo, the Artistic Director of English National Ballet, and asked to look for a female figure in history or literature she gave me a whole list to look at,” Ochoa remembers. “I said, ‘Great idea, love the idea, but the name that comes back to me every time is Frida Kahlo.’”

Mexican painter Kahlo was the perfect heroine for the Belgian-Colombian choreographer Ochoa, not least because of her own affinity with Latin American culture. “I love the colourfulness of her paintings, the Mexicanismo,” she says. “It’s very close to me, through my parents. I love that music, listening to those Rancheras.”

More than anything it was Kahlo’s own story, and tragic life, that made her such good subject matter. “She started painting portraits because she had an accident and was bedridden for a long time, so her mother gave her a mirror so she could paint herself,” explains Ochoa.

“Then later in life, because of the accident, she could not give birth and suffered three miscarriages. So her painting started to change and became more and more surrealist.”

This progression provides an opportunity for Ochoa’s choreography to follow suit. “Every painting is a little door that opens to go into a more abstract and surreal world,” she says. Director Nancy Meckler, whom Ochoa previously collaborated with on the award-winning A Streetcar Named Desire for Scottish Ballet, acted as dramaturg and helped Ochoa navigate between these abstract and narrative worlds.

Dieuweke van Reij is a prolific costume and set designer for opera, dance, theatre, comedy, musical and TV. She was invited by choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to design her piece on the life and work of iconic artist Frida Kahlo.

Tell us all about your designs for Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings

Creating the designs started with a thorough research into Frida Kahlo’s work, her life and her artistic journey. Together with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, director Nancy Meckler, composer Peter Salem and lighting designer Vinny Jones, we had a couple of intense meetings, discussing Frida as a character, deciding what parts of her work and life we found inspiring and wanted to include in the piece. What is Frida Kahlo all about, for us? That was the big question.

From that I started designing. The challenge for me was to capture the powerful energy of Frida Kahlo’s work without making exact copies of her paintings. Her work is so strong that I felt I had to find a translation of her personality and work for the designs. Trying to copy anything would never be as impressive as her own paintings.

I started using elements and colours of her work and mixing them with the story we wanted to tell, the life she led. The final result has become a mixture of iconic Frida Kahlo images, with a big Mexican influence, a hint of time period and a glance of what we think her dreams and imagination was all about.

We’ve seen design sketches featuring large headdresses, and even body painting. Where did those ideas come from?

Frida Kahlo used a lot of body paint in her work: in her self-portraits there are tears all over her body, or an eye, or even her husband Diego Rivera painting on her forehead. That was the original inspiration.

Then Annabelle showed the work of Ryan Burke, a photographer and make-up artist who uses very extreme and powerful make-up and headdresses in his work. That inspired me to take this body paint idea further.

In the piece, there are ten men dressed as Frida Kahlo. They represent an enlargement, an extension of Frida herself, all the sides of herself that she feels or longs for. That's why I needed to make a big statement and transform her self-portraits into real, physical pieces of art.

Because they all enter as a group, I chose to have one strong style for all with a variety of details and headdresses. Their torsos will be painted on. Make-up artists from MAC are helping me make it happen: they are amazing to work with, so kind and excited to work on this project. Their expertise is invaluable: they mixed the colours exactly like the fabric colours I choose, and made beautiful samples for me to look at. We really inspire each other and I really feel they became part of the whole show as well.

What about the headdresses?

There are lots of different designs, based on Frida’s paintings. I've been lucky that Mark Wheeler has been asked to make the headdresses. He has a great creative mind and really knows how to translate my designs into real pieces of art that are still easy to wear and dance with.

The base for all the pieces are the wigs. I worked with Mark and Amelia Carrington from ENB's wig department to puzzle together all items together into one structure. Some headdresses are just the hair mixed with strips of fabric from the costumes, some have huge forms like antlers or sculls entwined in the hair, sculptured out of really light foam. Others have real feathers or wire in them. It is really a mix of materials that suit the different designs best.

You’ve worked with Annabelle before. Has the process for Broken Wings been the same?

For me all new productions feel like a new journey. The more you work together the better you get to understand each other’s way of thinking and creating, where priorities lie, what the focus should be. I have the feeling our work together grows because of that and I must say that dealing with such a great artist as Frida Kahlo made the whole process more intense this time: there is so much material to use and choose from! Every little detail you find opens a dozen new boxes of inspiration you’d not seen before and you want to absorb it all.

My set design is also a box with many secrets. It starts with a very literal image, to show where we are and what’s going on, and throughout the piece it develops to a strong end image that embraces Frida as a celebration of her personality and art.

Dominic Skinner is Senior Artist at M.A.C Cosmetics. He collaborated with designers Dieuweke van Reij and Kimie Nakano to create the make-up looks for Broken Wings and M-Dao. He tells us more about the experience.

How did the collaboration come about?

M.A.C Cosmetics is the official make-up partner of English National Ballet, so we’ve enjoyed a long standing relationship, which continues to create innovative work, season after season.

We are very curious about the body painting required for Broken Wings. What is exciting about it?

For me, it’s the idea of these two worlds collaborating. At M.A.C we often work within the theatre world but not with our body painting skills. It’s a real blend of two artforms colliding to enhance each other and deepen the story. To see a body paint come alive and be so full of movement is going to be exciting and
something I’ve never seen before.

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