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> > > Unlimited 2014: Caroline Bowditch: Falling in Love with Frida

13 September 2014

Combining monologue and dance, Caroline Bowditch’s Falling in Love with Frida is a passionate reclamation of Frida Kahlo as a disabled artist and a reflection on how we are remembered by others. Victoria Wright reviews a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 7th September 2014 as part of the Unlimited Festival.

photo of performer Caroline Bowditch holding a large slice of watermelon

Caroline Bowditch gives an intimate and enticing performance that explores the life, loves and legacy of painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

"I know you so well.
I know the things you like to eat,
The clothes that hang inside your wardrobe,
I know where you sleep, the music you lay down to.
I've sat in your garden and at your table.
I know you left your mark on everything, including their hearts.
They all fell in love with you.
I've never met you, but I've done it too."

Performed in an intimate and enclosed space within the main stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the stage is decorated with a table, three chairs and neon lit cacti. As the audience enters, Bowditch is lying on the table looking into a handheld mirror. ‘Is she looking at us in the mirror?’ whispered an audience member behind me before the show started.

Indeed, this is a piece where the performers get to gaze as intently at the audience as we do of them. Throughout the piece, Bowditch moves her wheelchair around the space, looking into our faces, inviting us to join her, whether that be through accepting the offer of a shot of tequila (‘To Frida!’ we all cheered as we knocked it back) or being offered a bite of juicy watermelon. This is not a bland show for those who prefer to sit quietly at the back.

Wearing Mexican inspired dresses, Bowditch is joined on stage by the wonderful dancers Nicole Guarino and Welly O'Brien (known for her work with Candoco), and the mischievously expressive BSL interpreter Yvonne Strain (rocking magnificent pigtails), who is so successfully integrated into the show that she becomes a performer in her own right.

Credit, too, must go to the composer danbeats for his beautifully melodic and Mexican influenced soundtrack, which I’m still humming as type.

In Falling in Love with Frida, Bowditch draws parallels between her own life as a disabled artist with Frida’s. “I know you tried to drown your sorrows” Bowditch sympathises. “But the damn things learnt how to swim!”

In one scene, she talks about the accident which led to Frida becoming disabled, recounting the list that Frida herself had made of her injuries. Later, an audio recording of Bowditch’s voice lists over and over the incidents in her own life that lead to Bowditch, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, breaking her bones (‘Sat on by my brother, colliding with a fast walking Italian…’). “These are the stories in and of my bones” she reflects. Not only does Bowditch empathise with Frida’s own struggles, it is clear that she draws much strength from them too.

Despite the serious nature of the piece, it is full of humour throughout, and particularly in the delightful scene where all four performers sit around the table eating watermelon. It was so unexpectedly riveting that not only could you hear a pin drop, but you could also hear every deliciously wet slurp.

In another scene, Bowditch wryly recalls how she once attended the Little People of America convention in Los Angeles, assuming it would be the one place she would be average - only to find herself unexpectedly seduced by 5 foot 8 Nebraskan security guard called Susan.

Frida Kahlo, too, loved women. And it is through these parallels that the dances sequences intertwine. Performed with grace and sensuality by Bowditch, Guarino and O’Brien, these sequences encapsulated for me the tightrope that our bodies tentatively balance on every day between pleasure and pain, strength and weakness. Sometimes we rise up. Sometimes we fall. Life and love requires both.

“How do we ever know what we’re leaving in our wake?” Bowditch asks. We hear an audio message left by a woman who, after recognising Bowditch on television, remembers seeing her as a young child having an x-ray taken at the surgery she worked at. She tells Bowditch “You were a special kid and still have that infectious smile”. It is a moving reflection on the quiet impact we have on others.

Falling in Love with Frida is a sensual, funny and haunting piece of work. I raise a glass of tequila to you Caroline. You have certainly left your mark.

Please click on this link to visit Caroline Bowditch's website


Paul F Cockburn

17 September 2014

So many questions. When the audience enters the intimate performance space for Caroline Bowditch’s latest creation, she is lying flat out on her back on a bright yellow table, almost like the main dish of the day. Are we here to eat her? To dine on her life and memories?

Then there’s the fact that she’s holding a mirror in one hand. Is she looking at her own reflection, or taking a sneaky peek at the audience as they take their seats around the performance area? If the former, it’s certainly apt; the Mexican painter on whom this show is nominally hooked, Frida Kahlo, is famous for her boldly coloured self-portraits. Yet the latter is apt too: after all, in our own observational world, we can all too easily become obsessed by the people we see, only obliquely, through the reflections of our media culture.

Bowditch certainly seems to have become obsessed with Frida Kahlo, who died—aged just 47—more than a decade before Bowditch was born; a fact she recognises in a monologue during which she itemises what she knows about the minutiae of the dead woman’s home, life and art. “They all fell in love with you,” she tells us. “I’ve never met you, but I’ve done it too.”

Unrequited love has its advantages, of course; Bowditch wryly suggests that it’s unlikely to ever face the disappointments inherent in real life. Yet reality is important too in this show; for much of the humorous, conversational monologue strung through the piece is Bowditch being remarkably frank about her own life and relationships.

This is an intriguing, if not always satisfying, mixture of speech, text, music and movement, with Caroline and her two on-stage associates—Welly O’Brien and Nicole Guarino—dressed in the colours and full-skirted clothes Kahlo preferred. As an example of integrated dance, bringing non-disabled and disabled performers together, this show certainly plays with form and ability. On occasions, the three perform exactly the same choreography in sync; at other times, the three differ in what they do, quite radically, necessarily performing with some precision in what remains an extremely tight space.

With her predilection for lipstick and mascara, Frida Kahlo would leave her mark on anyone she kissed, but it is the wider concept behind this that Bowditch is working with here; that, one way or another, all of us “leave our mark” on the people we meet and are tied too through family, friendship and other social binds. (That, at one point, the three performers are literally tied together is a tad too, well, literal.) Kahlo was seriously injured as a teenager in a road accident, and so this show is in part a reclaiming of her as a disabled artist; but it is primarily an exploration of Bowditch’s own personal and creative journey—and how she, too, has is already beginning to realise that she’s left her mark. Not least with this performance piece which lingers long in the memory.

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