The Two Fridas – united yet apart

The birth of an idea

Balbir Singh's The Two Fridas is a fusion of dance, storytelling, music and art that brings together classical Indian, traditional Mexican and contemporary Western dance alongside narration and live painting, to tell the story of two major artists of the twentieth century: Amrita Sher-Gil and Frida Kahlo.

The Two Fridas is the brainchild of Olga Maloney and Balbir Singh, regular artistic collaborators who have worked together on such innovative works as Peacock Lake and The Creative Spirit of John Curry, both of which have been performed at the Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance, of which Olga is Artistic Director.

Olga is also a leading figure in the international organisation for world folk dance, CIOFF. This connection to the wider world of folkloric traditions meant that Olga could inspire other arts organisations with the concept that she and Balbir were beginning to discuss.

The result has become an international partnership that is set to generate a rich and diverse body of new work around its central theme.

The theme: two artists – ‘united yet apart’ – has captured the imagination of Olga’s colleagues around the world.

And the project now counts CIOFF members in Mexico and Hungary among its creative partners.

The Two Fridas project centres on two women painters, one Mexican, the other Hungarian-Indian, who shared a common path in life despite never meeting or indeed knowing of each other. For Olga and Balbir, it is a theme that offers immense creative potential.

And the fact that Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil challenged the cultural, gender and sexual norms of their day made the idea all the more fascinating – and current.

Amrita Sher-Gil has at times been described as ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’. As someone of Indian heritage, I wondered whether, instead, we could explore an alternative view: is not Frida Kahlo also ‘the Mexican Sher-Gil?’
Balbir Singh

The parallels in the two artists’ lives have been noted before. But the idea of interpreting this through dance is, as far as Balbir and Olga are aware, new.

Both Kahlo and Sher-Gil fused their modern approach with respect for folk traditions. This was especially appealing to Balbir Singh.

As a choreographer, Balbir’s work does exactly that: his dual training in Kathak and contemporary dance mean his work often seeks to synthesise these two apparently contradictory worlds. The Indian connection to Amrita Sher-Gil is another strand of the concept that drew him to explore the idea further. As Balbir points out:

“Both artists are today appreciated far more than during their own lifetimes, but Frida Kahlo has perhaps entered the popular consciousness most widely. Partly as a result of this, Amrita Sher-Gil has at times been described as ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’. As someone of Indian heritage, I wondered whether, instead, we could explore an alternative view: is not Frida Kahlo also ‘the Mexican Sher-Gil?’”

It is not the first time Balbir Singh has interwoven dance with the world of painting. His Painting the Indian Gods invloved an artist painting live on stage alongside the dancers.

Balbir is mindful of the fact that the current pandemic poses a significant challenge to developing the work. Yet he is upbeat and sees an opportunity to use the time doing things in a different way:

“For me, as an artist, process is everything. When I come up with a new idea for a work, it is just the start of a journey that is creatively rewarding and often leads in unexpected directions. A finished show is the culmination of months of detailed research, conversations with partners, studio R&D sessions with the dancers, and interaction with musicians. For audiences, most of this is hidden beneath the surface and the only part the audience sees is the final production. So we want to capture this journey, and share it with audiences, so that they can really get under the skin of the work, even if – for now at least – live performances will be few and far between.”

It’s a journey that we will be following closely as Olga, Balbir and their international partners continue to explore this rich creative seam together, ‘united yet apart.’

Olga Maloney and Balbir Singh during the 2017 premiere of Peacock Lake in Billingham

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