A maverick, an iconoclast and a heretic, Javier de Frutos is an itinerant choreographer, both personally and professionally. Wandering not just between companies but between the fields of dance, musicals, theatre and film, he carries his favoured themes with him: beauty and bestiality, desire and death, dissidence.
Born in Caracas in 1963, Javier de Frutos studied contemporary dance in Caracas and London before heading to New York, where he performed for three years with minimalist choreographer Laura Dean. Following a year-long spell in Barcelona, he returned to London in 1994. His first UK solo caused quite a stir for his bold, even reckless choice of music (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), his provocative theatricality, and above all his nakedness (nudity became a trademark of his solos). He went on to make several self-revelatory, combative solos, and subsequently started to work with other dancers and companies. But by 1998 he felt burnt out, and took two years off to travel through America in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Tennessee Williams.
On his return, he worked with Isaac Julien on the 2001 Turner-nominated film The Long Road to Mazatlan (it ended in tears, with a bitter legal dispute over authorship). De Frutos stopped dancing himself, but began to choreograph for a wide range of companies, including Candoco, Rambert Dance Company, Rotterdam Dance Group and the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Alongside this, he worked in musicals – Carousel at the Chichester festival, Cabaret (which won rave reviews) at London’s Lyric theatre (both in 2006); and in theatre – Death and the King’s Horseman (2009), Macbeth (2010), Shakespeare’s “lost” Double Falsehood (2011). Following much backstage histrionics, he bailed out of English National Opera’s disastrous Kismet (2007) a fortnight before it opened (“I got good reviews just for not being there”). He has also worked on Mika’s We Are Golden video and on the pilot for HBO’s new drama Game of Thrones.
But he’s still best known for two things. First, his directorship of Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre from 2006 to 2009. He completely changed the company’s profile, with his own works and revivals of several American modern dance classics – massively changeable, but always bracing programmes. Critics sat up and took notice and the company was invited to headline the Venice Biennale, but behind the scenes was a maelstrom of internal wrangling, and in 2008 De Frutos was abruptly ousted. Second, for his controversial Sadler’s Wells commission Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez (its title a dig at a Phoenix board member) which featured a hunchback pope in an orgy of sexual violence, provoking much outrage, booing and walking out; and the BBC also thought it best to cut it from their Christmas dance programme.
There seems to be a calm after these storms, and De Frutos is currently collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys on what Sadler’s Wells promises to be a “family” show – though in a recent Dance Gazette interview, De Frutos did point out that “they haven’t told me which family …”
Watching Javier de Frutos
Whatever else he may be, De Frutos is never risk-averse. Nothing is done in moderation, he doesn’t believe in good taste, and he values provocation above acceptance. He made his name as a soloist, exploring his own turbulent self in bare-all pieces that sprang from his ambivalent feelings – as an itinerant, Catholic-raised gay man – about religion, eroticism, solitude, love and fear. He used whatever it took to express himself: melodramatic, grandstanding music (Rite of Spring, Gypsy), cross-dressing, and a mash-up of styles from Anna Pavlova finesse to dirty bump and grind. With self-exposure his goal, he generally ended up performing naked. It was dancing in the raw. The most harrowing work of this period was Grass (1997), a trio to Madam Butterfly which found both abjection and exaltation in violence, and ended with gruelling images of mortified flesh and blood.
By its nature hit and miss, such confessional work was also emotionally exhausting. When De Frutos began choreographing for others, he broadened his range (though he’s still emotionally demanding with his dancers). He could lighten up: Elsa Canasta (Rambert, 2003) and Paseillo (Phoenix, 2008) are playful pieces, splashing through undercurrents of randiness without getting angsty about it. But the dark side is still there: Los Picadores (2007) and Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez show some of dance’s most graphic violence; Cattle Call (2008, with Richard Thomas) explores the psychological brutality of auditions; Blue Roses (2007) mines the desolation at the heart of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
Wildly unpredictable and hugely variable, De Frutos’s work does have some recurring themes and characteristics: full-blown music, particularly Stravinsky (he’s choreographed Rite of Spring four times, Les Noces twice), an operatic theatricality, hot-house emotions, references to dance itself (from Balanchine and Nijinsky to Las Vegas shows), inspiration from Tennessee Williams. Also, of course, sex, violence, death and religion. It’s all very un-British.
A bit of a rolling stone, De Frutos hasn’t gathered many regular collaborators. A notable exception is designer Jean-Marc Puissant, who has worked with him several times.
Australian film director Baz Luhrmann was in the audience for Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez. When the booing started, he booed politely too – because he thought it was supposed to be audience participation.
(From an interview with David Jays, Dance Gazette 2011)
In his own words
“I hate work that has mere shock value or which entices or seduces me to agree with it, because it patronises the audience.” – Interview with Lorna Sanders, Dancing Times 2006
“The term ‘worthy’ comes to mind, and I can safely say worthy is not in my plans.” – De Frutos on Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre shortly before becoming its director
“It was the very right move to leave that hellhole called Leeds.” – De Frutos, shortly after leaving as director of Phoenix Dance Theatre, Interview with Lyndsey Winship, Time Out 2009
“… work made me more stable – I had an outlet. I didn’t go out and kill 20 people in a supermarket in Idaho – I just got my clothes off and did Stravinsky.”– On the cathartic value of his early work. Interview with David Jays, Dance Gazette 2011
In other words
“At his best, De Frutos rides the line between audience fascination and disgust like a champion, dropping universal resonances prolifically along his path.” – Ismene Brown, Telegraph 2000
“Javier de Frutos may have confronted us with some of the most brutal truths that dancing bodies can deliver, but he also has the instincts of a showman.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian 2003
“Since his earliest performances in this country … Javier de Frutos has enjoyed setting his audiences a challenge. Not for him the unbroken narrative line or the lyrical set-piece. His work is fractured and ambiguous, existing in the flickering half-light between action and metaphor. Violence and desire are frequent elements, sometimes ritualised, sometimes viscerally laid bare.” – Luke Jennings, Observer 2008
“There’s no dance in it.”
Especially in De Frutos’s more controversial works, viewers sometimes see only the provocation. But remember to look at the dancing and the choreography. There is usually quite a lot of it.
Companies such as DV8 Physical Theatre have explored confessional theatre, sexual politics, the dark side of the human soul, religion, and dance itself – but there’s really no one quite like Javier de Frutos.
Now watch this
Where to see Javier de Frutos next
You could try the Javier de Frutos Facebook page for info.