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Double Trouble in Dueling “Las Fridas”

by Bonnie Rosenstock
January 14, 2020
Mark DeGarmo Dance Studio Theater 310
The Clemente Center
107 Suffolk Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 260-4080
www.theclementecenter.org
“Las Fridas” returned to New York City for an encore engagement (January 9-13, 2020) following a five-performance run last year at the intimate Mark DeGarmo Dance Studio Theater 310. The duet featured Mark DeGarmo, choreographer and director of Mark DeGarmo Dance, and his dance collaborator of 35 years, Marie Baker-Lee, who represented the dual nature of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), i.e., Light Frida and Dark Frida, respectively, although those lines seemed blurred, porous, fluid or non-existent from what I could perceive from the choreographic content.

Due to the illness of one of the Fridas one week before the December 2015 New York City previews, DeGarmo took over the role, “adding gender fluidity and exploding my previous assumptions…In Fridas’ work there are often two figures, sometimes two Fridas.” He also asked, “What if all the different sides of herself, including the masculine and feminine, were made visible?”

The work also takes inspiration from his and Kahlo’s life, the duality of sun and moon, mother and child, sacred and secular, ancient and current as they appear in Kahlo's artwork and “challenges its audiences to examine their own history, heritage and assumptions about Kahlo, gender, power relations and aging,” he said.

The hour-long work, performed without intermission, is neatly packaged into two parts of eight sections each. Part I, “Innocence: The Blue House,” referred to Kahlo’s home in Coyoacán, a vibrant suburb of Mexico City, where she was born, died and returned to often. It was made into a museum in 1958. Part 2, “Experience: Ribbon around a Bomb,” is a reference to what French Realist André Breton called the fiery artist. The sections are named for an object (Bench, Frame, Bull, Cat), abstraction (Life, Death, Love, Home), Element (Rain, Water, Fire) or movement (Vibrate, Twist).

“Ex-voto projections” played in a loop on a small screen for each part. “Ex-voto” is defined as a religious offering given in order to fulfill a vow, so it’s unclear what DeGarmo had in mind. Part I featured the wizened, expressive hands of Maxine Greene, an educator, philosopher and social activist who died in 2014 at age 97; she was videotaped at 93. DeGarmo mimics her hand movements later on. Part 2 offered Judith Malina’s feet in a bathtub of water. Malina, best known as co-founder of the seminal The Living Theatre, was videotaped a year before she died at age 89.

DeGarmo was dressed in a black suit, white shirt and eyebrows drawn into menacing or clown-like black triangles. Baker-Lee wore a colorful two-piece Mexican dress. They perform slow movements together on and off the bench, a sequence which is later repeated. They dance together, he flirts with the women in the audience, they fight, they make up. He sexually assaults her in a harrowing sequence at the beginning of Part 2. They roll over each other. Both now standing, he flings her on the floor over and over, drags her, mocks shooting at her head. There are flying elbows, moans, yelling, stomping. He pummels her back; she slaps and spits at him. Standing, she wraps him in a red cloth and pulls and pushes him around until he leaves.

The piece makes ample use of fabrics of different sizes, shapes, textures and patterns. An effective visual is when DeGarmo enters ominously, draped in a large red cloth with a skull at the top. He covers Baker-Lee with his cloth while she’s on the floor, revealing a necklace of seven large-sized skulls. She gets up, leaves and returns in an oversized black men’s suit. Wearing a sullen expression, she slowly removes red scarves from her undergarments and the outfit while a recording of throat-voiced Mexican singer plays. Later, she cradles a stuffed black cat to the sound of wild animals, birds and water She happily talks to it and runs it over DeGarmo’s body.

At the finale DeGarmo carries her to the bench, rolled up in a large red cloth. She lies on it, feet towards audience. He shuts her eyes with his fingers, places another cloth over her body, flowers on her chest. She suddenly rises, in a scream, arms out to the side. The video shows a fire burning bright.

The two veterans are consummate performers and keyed into each other’s every move. They dance with grace, clarity and confidence. However, while the individual parts may have been of interest, the piece as a whole was tedious, slow and repetitious. My companion fell asleep several times. I would have liked to, but I had to keep awake in order to take notes. My companion wasn’t as obligated.
Mark DeGarmo & Marie Baker-Lee

Mark DeGarmo & Marie Baker-Lee

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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