If Frida Kahlo arrived in Belfast today as a tourist, one of the first places she might taken to is the wonderful St George’s Market. As she browsed the eclectic and varied stalls, she would see that she was far from forgotten. She would see her own iconic face staring back at her from plant pots, candles, jewellery, canvas bags, tea towels, scarves, notebooks and cards. She is Frida, in Belfast.
Mayte Segura is a contemporary and Mexican folk dancer who has trained and danced her way across the world. I first met Mayte in Rainbow Factory where we were both employed as facilitators for our respective skills of drama and dance. Click on Mayte’s website and one of the first things you will read is that she wants everyone to experience the joy of dance. That is maybe why, five or six years ago, we connected instantly – our mutual belief that engaging in the arts brings joy and that sharing that joy is a fundamental part of our work.
In the summer of 2021, we met for coffee in the Ulster Museum Café and talked on a glorious summer day about how, post Lockdown, it was more important than ever that dance and drama should be as uplifting as the sight of Mayte in her traditional Mexican costume of flowers, swirling full skirts and bright Huipil. We talked about collaborating and what female artists had inspired us. Frida Kahlo quickly came up in this conversation. Mayte was passionate about Frida and that was enough for me to go home and start to look at Frida’s life. Before I knew it, I had read a book of letters Frida had written to her mother and her own diary, which was a riot of text and drawings. The next time Mayte and I met, I was excited to talk about the extraordinary life this artist had led and the adversity she had overcome. We swopped stories and snippets about her life we had discovered. More importantly, we both imagined what it would be like to have the passionate and complex Frida as our friend.
How do you begin to tell the story of an icon? It could have been a daunting starting point but for Frida guiding us through her own painting. The Two Fridas is one of her most recognised portraits and as the name suggests, it is a double portrait of her. Mayte came up with the concept that she as the dancer, could physically perform the way Frida would not have been able to in her own life. Frida’s body was affected from Polio as a child and injuries sustained in a life changing bus accident when she was 18. Mayte would be the free, creative spirit who would dance the emotions of Frida. I, as the actor, would be the Frida who expressed herself through words and painting; together we are The Two Fridas.
It was important to us that we based our text and movement on Frida’s own, often witty and frequently moving, words and paintings. We discussed the chronology of her life and key events before her death at 47 years old, in 1954. The challenge was deciding what to leave off stage from a life that was full of art, politics, love, family, national identity, travels and overcoming personal adversity. It was important to us that the play was as joyful as Frida was. Despite her natural resting serious face, she was full of love and warmth. It was also important to us that anyone could enjoy the performance without prior knowledge of Frida’s life. Once the key life events were set, Mayte chose those that were likely to lend themselves well to movement for the narrative. I began using words and phrases written by Frida herself for the text. Then fun of weaving both strands began of “let’s just try that!”, “how about if we do this….” as Mayte and I responded to each other’s creativity and the magic of the rehearsal room.
The Lyric residency has supported Mayte in expanding her dance skills and creativity, which she in turn passed on to her group of dancers. They were enticed to push themselves out of their comfort zone by Mayte’s developing choreography. The beautiful McGrath room became our weekly hub where we immersed ourselves in Mexican culture and forged a creative community that will last beyond this project. We had a room to take risks in and a space to stretch in, mentally and physically. We know in the soles of our feet that without the support of the Lyric residency and the Arts Council funding, Frida in Belfast would have remained more on the page than the stage.
We added more dancers, a young version of Frida, we added the role of Diego Rivera, we have incorporated the original music that Mayte’s brother Edgar composed…….and if we tell you anymore, there will be no surprises left when you come to see our showing of the work in progress that is, Frida in Belfast!
- Melissa Smith