He made his reputation as a soloist who danced naked, as much to expose his funny, vulnerable and supremely tortuous inner life as to reveal his human, all-too-human flesh. Later, Javier de Frutos also worked with other dancers, Jamie Watton in Hypochondriac Bird, and Watton and Pari Naderi in Grass. In both these pieces he remained the central focus if not quite the protagonist. In all visitors bring happiness, some by coming, some by going, a commission for Ricochet Dance Company, he was out of sight but certainly not out of mind. The piece – flamboyant, excessive and extravagant – still bore the distinctive stamp of its maker.
De Frutos’s new piece Montana’s Winter, Part solo and part ensemble, marks both a development and a departure from previous work. Act I, ‘Affliction of Loneliness’, sees de Frutos alone on a saloon-like set, accompanied only by some scattered wooden chairs and the looming presence of a large, bare Christmas tree. A pair of cowboy boots stands next to one of the chairs, while de Frutos himself wears the incomplete remainder of the outfit: no jeans, but a cowboy hat and yellow cowboy jacket and shirt below which a fringe swishes around his nether parts; tassels hiding his tackle. He’s seated upstage with his back towards us – and indeed this solo is uncharacteristically self-effacing and restrained.
a fringe swishes around his nether parts; tassels hiding his tackle
In fact, he remains motionless for some time, the luscious swells of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue suggesting the turbulent indigo shades of emotion that may be surging within him but which find no physical expression. This too seems atypical. Music has always been a cornerstone in de Frutos’s performances, but previously he often liked to ride the waves of showy operatic or orchestral excesses – Ethel Merman belting out a Broadway number, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – gesturing grandiloquently or emoting in accord with the music’s swell. Here, he lets Gershwin do it all.
A different sound – the jibbering monotone voice of a Texas cattle auctioneer – judders him into motion. He takes small sputtering steps, his body a nervous wreck of tiny tics, as hesitant and wracked with indecision as if afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome. The impression is almost as if the precise but expansive movements we’ve become accustomed to from earlier works – swooping arms, swishing shoulders and sashaying hips – have been compressed, repressed even, back into his body.
as if the swooping arms, swishing shoulders and sashaying hips have been compressed, repressed even, back into his body.
‘Affliction of Loneliness’ barely develops from this point on, the cycles of steps repeating over and again. De Frutos does take off his hat, and later he indecisively tries placing his jacket over different chairbacks (oddly, the jacket now looks much more like a spinsterish woollen cardigan). Towards the end, the cattle-auction score is replaced by more showy music, and though de Frutos continues the same sequences of moves, he now merges with the musical rhythm and spirit. The jerky steps become more like a minuscule paso doble, a tic becomes something of a shimmy; and he brightens up a little.
Act II, ‘Mazatlan’, sees him joined by five others, Milli Betterli, Suzie Heijari, Reka Szabo, Philippe Riera and Jamie Watton, all in plain, loose clothing. Sitting close up against each other, almost like a single organism, they begin with a series of Mexican waves passing slowly down the line: a circle of the shoulder, an unfolding leg, a slow reach to the side. The effect is mesmerising, like watching a marine worm or sea anemone.
But that effect is shattered by the remainder of the work. From the organic, harmonic opening, the women split off, take off clothes, self-consciously examine their bodies. Two men aggressively tear the trousers from de Frutos’s waist. The calm opening breaks out into more familiar themes: anguished couplings (and other combinations), clothing and unclothing, combative relations forged in the warzone between fear, aggression, obsession and desire. Here too, there is a more familiar mix-and-match approach to the score, ranging from Stephen Sondheim to quotes from The Glass Menagerie and maniacal, melodramatic Latin-tinged music. And finally de Frutos reiterates a motif from an earlier work, Grass, as two of the dancers have their bodies daubed in glistening blood-red paint.
There are moments when the dance becomes more structured – during a series of diagonal run-slides across the stage, for example – but mostly it is concerned with charting the anguished, occasionally playful but frequently sadistic relations between individuals. In fact I read ‘Mazatlan’ as a bleak fable: the disintegration of an organic harmony into a disturbing, often unpleasant world of self-conscious, egocentric individuals.
But Montana’s Winter makes few concessions to its audience. Both parts are way too long for the material – 25 minutes for the opening solo, over an hour for ‘Mazatlan’ – and both cross the line from relentless to wearing.It may turn out to be a transition piece for de Frutos: there are times when he seems to be exploring a different realm from his more familiar declamatory style, and certainly his own performing persona is much less present than in previous works. References in the piece – tree, cowboy outfit, cattle auction, and the names Montana and Mazatlan – made me wonder if the work had perhaps emerged from a trip to the American South and Mexico over Christmas. If so, he really can’t have had a very good time.