June 2024




Dos Mujeres at San Francisco Ballet
 A Domestic Carmen and Ten Male Fridas

Renate Stendhal

The title of the program, Two Women, refers to two cultural icons: Bizet’s operatic heroine Carmen (Spanish) and painter Frida Kahlo (Mexican). It also embraces the two Latina women choreographers of the evening: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa  and Arielle Smith. Dos Mujeres was the final commission of the season by new artistic director Tamara Rojo. Once again, Rojo brought in “exports” from her time in London, creating a rich, provocative program with cross-cultural and feminist themes. She framed it as an event that attracted crowds with luscious decorations of the War Memorial Opera House, a stunning curtain by local fabric creator Maria Guzmán Capron, and a women-only Mariachi band in the lobby to end the evening on a note of celebration.

Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa


Broken Wings is the 45-minute initial version of a Frida Kahlo ballet that Columbian-Belgian choreographer Ochoa created for Tamara Rojo at the English National Ballet London, in 2016. (She later developed it into a full -length ballet, Frida, for the Dutch National Ballet.) The award-winning choreographer tells the story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo  as a concise series of dramatic tableaux centered around her crippling accident and her relation with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. It is set to a beautiful score by Peter Salem that mixes modern orchestral music with Mexican tunes.

Kahlo once commented that she died twice in her life: the first time from the accident and the second time from meeting Diego. The story starts on a black stage with a high black cube surrounded and topped by skeletons dressed as mariachi musicians—a fitting opening to a life of tragedy and pain. The skeletons pull Frida—Soloist Isabella Devivo—from the black cube, dressed like a schoolgirl. Death is the leitmotif in this telling, and Frida “faces the music” with defiance and a playful familiarity with death. I was instantly struck by the convincing personality of Devivo who seemed to embody both the strength and fragility of Frida with uncanny ease and impressive acting ability.


Once let down to the ground, Frida cavorts with a boyfriend (charming Soloist Cavan Conley) in a similar feisty, even boyish, self-assurance. Then the accident happens. A huge bang from the orchestra pit, strobe lights, and in the glare her young body is taken by the skeletons, lifted and thrown up in twisted positions as if broken to pieces. This brutal and at the same time tender manipulation is so effective that one forgets all one has read or seen on film about the disaster that crippled the artist for the rest of her life.


The black cube is flung open, revealing a hospital bed that we look at in bird’s view: the dancer stands against the white sheet and gives the perfect illusion of lying flat on her back, in pain. Now twelve of Kahlo’s famous self -portraits break into her solitude: they sashay in splendid colors, crowned with flowers, feathers, horns, sporting Frida’s winged eyebrows and makeup—all of them male. At some point Frida joins them, now in the bandages of her medical corset and a bare slip of a skirt, looking intrepid among her imposing androgynous selves.


The cube, moved to the side, produces Diego Rivera: the skeletons have to bring in a ladder to reach him as if he were symbolically on top of his fame as a muralist. Guest dancer John-Paul Simoens (who left SF Ballet for the Oregon Dance Theater) does a convincing, sympathetic impersonation of the larger than life man. He looks burly in his big suit, with a full head of hair and boisterous movements of arms and legs. Next to him, Devivo looks like a fragile doll, almost the way Frida did in the paintings, photos and films we know of the couple.


It's Frida, however, now in an orange skirt and with a crown of flowers, who snatches her man away from two other beauties. It’s she who seduces and knows what she wants. Their dances have an exuberant egalitarian power and charm. Now the open cube shows Frida’s diary pages with words like LOVE, LIFE, DEATH. Of course, the bliss won’t last. Frida’s body goes into devastation again and again and Diego has one of his notorious affairs (Soloist Sasha Mukhamedov as Frida’s sister). The reconciliation is a mix of tenderness and heartbreak, set to Chavela Vargas’s song “La Llorena” about the ghost of a mother looking for the children she killed in the river.


This links to Frida’s many miscarriages and abortions: she lies on the floor and the skeletons pull a long red thread from her body like a wasted umbilical cord. The stag from her famous  self-portrait with arrows piercing her body comes to console her, followed by green leaves and birds, and Frida sometimes joins their happy parades. When the deer—a lovely appearance by Corps Member Jihyun Choi—dies from an arrow it is a premonition of Frida’s own end. The ever-present skeletons take her away from Diego, deposit her back on her hospital bed and gently close the doors. The black box is silent, then a bird rises from the black cube, a glittering afterglow of an artist’s imagination.


There was a storm of emotion, of bravos from the audience. No wonder. It takes daring and self-assurance to bring forth such a deeply satisfying telling of the well-known story of Frida’s life, without kitsch or sentimentality. Ochoa told the story with dark humor and, controlled inventiveness. Closing a season of memorable events (Mere Mortals and Song of the Earth, reviewed in these pages) Broken Wings is another superb addition to SF Ballet’s repertoire.

Carmen by Arielle Smith


I doubt that the world premiere by award-winning Cuban-born, London -based Arielle Smith will have a future at SF Ballet, unless one considers it a work in progress. There certainly is a challenging idea: Carmen, the tragic heroine of the 1845 novel by Prosper Merimée and Bizet’s opera, this time is not killed by her jealous soldier, Don José, but married to him!

In the opera, Carmen swears she will never give up her freedom—she’d rather die. So the idea of her marriage seemed both amusing and absurd. But the choreographer ran only a few steps with this concept before getting lost. Her Carmen, Principal Sasha de Sola, appears in a red dress in an empty space with a big countertop that is supposed to be her parents’ Cuban pub. A male dancer in the same red, Principal Wei Wang, is the father, but there is no mother, only a faded couple photograph on a TV set high on the wall. Carmen does not seem to be working, although she gets to wear an apron (also red). De Sola dances beautifully and with earnest intensity, but between vague longing and being bored, all she has to do is pacify angry hubby José, danced with aplomb by Principal Joseph Walsh. Sometimes the father tries to “talk man to man” with José. There seems to be disagreement about everything and nothing. A sign advertises hirings, and a few candidates show up. Suddenly the choreography turns
burlesque. The candidates bounce around with clownish antics and are gone. Excitement arises when a tall stranger arrives. Aha! Don Escamillo, the sexy toreador from the opera, who steals Carmen away from José.


Danced with ease by Principal Jennifer Stahl, Escamillo, wields a chef’s knife. She has a few seductive moments with Carmen before leaping on top of the table as if playing King of the Hill. José is furious, but the dramatic potential of this triangle with a gender-bender remains unexplored. The choreography stays flat and erotically “vanilla” at best. In the end, José threatens to force himself on Carmen and pulls the chef’s knife on her, but as with the rest of the ballet, nothing arresting happens and he just
runs off. End of story.


Too bad. Given that Smith has been an assistant of Matthew Bourne, the creator of the sensational all-male Swan Lake, it makes sense that she would try on a cross-gender theme. (Bourne has created his own Carmen ballet, The Car Men, a sex-and-crime story featuring the heroine as a waitress with an apron.)


There is no doubt that Smith can tell a story, but I kept wondering what she was after? Her version was neither The Taming of the Shrew nor The Grand Escape of a frustrated wife; it wasn’t The Mad Woman in the Attic nor The War of the Roses. So, what was it? The fine dancing of everyone and lovely Sasha de Sola in her striking red dress could not answer the question.  


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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2024 Renate Stendhal
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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