Choreographer Caroline Bowditch didn’t get Mexican artist Frida Kahlo until she discovered she too was disabled, she tells Ellie O’Byrne.
FRIDA KAHLO, the renowned Latina artist, is remembered for her mercurial beauty, her distinctive surrealist style, her fiery relationship with her husband and fellow artist, Diego Rivera, and her profoundly personal approach to her art. Yet we rarely remember her as a disabled artist.
Caroline Bowditch, an Australian-born choreographer and performer, sets out to reclaim Kahlo as a disabled artist in her highly personal work of dance theatre, Falling in Love with Frida.
“They all fell in love with you. I’ve never met you, but I’ve done it too,” Bowditch says in the piece, and when she describes her journey of discovery in researching Kahlo, it truly does sound like a love story.
Her first encounter with Kahlo was inauspicious; she went to see a Frida Kahlo retrospective 15 years ago in Australia, and “didn’t really get it”, she says. It didn’t occur to her at that stage that Kahlo was disabled. Despite Kahlo’s work explicitly exploring themes of pain and hospitalisation, Bowditch believes that we don’t view her as disabled because of her success: “I didn’t even contemplate back then that a disabled artist could be so successful. That makes me a bit sad.”
Kahlo (1907-1954) contracted polio as a child. At 18, a trolley-car crash left her spine shattered and her reproductive organs damaged. She endured 35 operations, including three terminations, in her lifetime. Rare photographs exist of her in the wheelchair she used periodically, and she set up an easel over her bed so she could paint while recuperating.
Bowditch was born with Osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition that causes skeletal deformities and bones that break extremely easily. She laughs when it’s put to her that a career in dance was a brave choice for someone with her condition.
“Doing contact improv may not be the most sensible choice for somebody with osteogenesis imperfecta, but it’s the route I went down.”
A visit to Australia by a UK Integrated Dance Company, Candoco, in 1996 inspired Bowditch, who had a performing arts degree, to move towards a career in dance and choreography.
“For once I actually tested my body out. I found I could do much more than anyone had ever told me I could,” she says.
She began her love affair proper with Kahlo during a residency at Nottingham’s Dance4 in 2012. A visit to Mexico City brought her even closer to the object of her affections. In Casa Azul, the house where Frida Kahlo was born, now a museum, Bowditch was enchanted by Kahlo’s personal possessions: “All of her notebooks had little cut-out pictures on the spines. In one way or another, she had left her mark on everything in the house.”
Vulnerability, honesty and bravery are traits of Kahlo’s that Bowditch both loves and emulates. “I wanted to be braver, to be vulnerable, and to be open to being judged, just like Frida was,” Bowditch says.
In laying herself bare, Bowditch enters the taboo territory of sex and disability. “We drink tequila and I talk about love and sex during the show, and I’m sure that’s not what people are expecting,” she says. “But disabled people are sexual beings too, and we need to acknowledge that and talk about that.
“Disability is implicit in my work; if it’s got my body in it, it makes that statement whether I want it to or not. But I want to challenge those assumptions about love and relationships and how I want to be viewed. What if people could come and watch my work without any sense of pity, or whatever else is associated with disability? I just want them to come and see the art.”
Falling in Love with Frida won a Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014. Fresh from a sell-out run at the 2015 Fringe, Bowditch is excited about presenting the piece at Dance Limerick, as well as running a workshop while she’s in Ireland.
A performance of Falling In love With Frida takes place on Friday the 11th of September in Dance Limerick Space (St John’s Church). Caroline Bowditch will also hold a workshop for professional choreographers on Sept 12. See www.dancelimerick.ie
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