When New Zealand audiences encountered the dark, earthy physicality of Milagros, they were either intensely moved or confronted by Javier de Frutos’s passionate choreography. A desperate procession of 12 barefoot dancers, in androgynous billowing gowns and supercharged movement, enacted a pagan ritual to Stravinsky’s forceful Rite of Spring. The 2003 production marked the beginning of the celebrated Venezuelan’s creative relationship with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Milagros brought the RNZB onto the world stage when, following their 2004 tour of Britain, it won the British Critics’ Circle dance award for best new production, and was nominated for best new dance production at the country’s prestigious Olivier awards. De Frutos has generously gifted the work to be theirs and theirs alone.
The Celebrated Soubrette, a glimpse into the desperate world of a Las Vegas showgirl, followed in 2004, and then in 2006 came Banderillero, a teasing, voyeuristic work that explored the bullfight’s ritualistic spectacle.
In each work, the RNZB artists profoundly connected to de Frutos’s remarkable vision. The company’s essence somehow seeped into his choreographic voice, with the dancers adding their own intense expression.
So it is fitting de Frutos was invited to create a new work, The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud, to be part of the company’s 60th anniversary Made to Move season.
When I meet him in the RNZB’s Wellington studio, de Frutos has the dancers perfecting sequences to an intense soundtrack of Pacific Island drumming. He is meticulous and patient, demonstrating moves with the flexibility of his young dancers. Later, when he relaxes in a Courtenay Place bar, his accent is a compelling mix of South American and London influences.
Wellington offers him freedom, he says, a chance to concentrate fully on choreographing. “The company has a very particular way of interpreting my work, so my approach is, ‘I’m going to throw any stuff at you and see what happens’.”
The islands of the Pacific are the genesis of the work. De Frutos first heard about the Pacific from his ex-partner. “He had lived in New Zealand and told me that in the 70s and 80s people turned their back on Pacific culture and instead headed for Europe. The most interesting thing is that the culture was right behind you. I connected with that because I was born in the Caribbean – son of immigrants from Spain – so my sense of culture was European and a little American. There were many Latin Americans also turning their backs on the Caribbean. When I first came here, my excitement was not at coming to a British former colony but at coming to the world’s largest Polynesian island.
“The work is very impressionistic and only the tip of an iceberg because it’s just 35 minutes. I didn’t want to do anything anthropological – I’m not creating a politically correct map; I am seeing how the dancers respond best.”
A wide range of Pacific music is in the score, including the iconic Yandall Sisters.
“I wanted to celebrate the music because it’s an unlikely choice for a ballet company. But I feel it’s the right choice. After 10 years of coming back and forth to this country, I felt I have earned my right to say I’m going to use it because it’s beautiful. I cannot think of anything that represents New Zealand more for me.”
De Frutos identifies with immigrants. His mother is Argentinean of Spanish origin and his father left Franco’s Spain after his grandfather was killed, vowing never to return until Franco died. “It so happened that Franco took quite a long time to die, so I was born and grew up in Caracas.” Endemic economic instability eventually caused the family to return to Spain.
“I had a very solid training and began working with choreographers in Caracas. Then I went to London to study with the London Contemporary Dance School.” He joined the Laura Dean Dancers in New York, returning to the UK in 1994 to establish the Javier De Frutos Dance Company, which toured to international acclaim.
He has been called a “shock jock of contemporary dance”. It is a label he is prepared, even happy, to wear. He recalls hearing early in his career in New York how French Impressionists chose to exhibit outside the salon. This struck a chord and since then he has been intent on carving his own audacious pathway. “I have made it my quest not to be selected for a ‘final showing’. I would rather show my stuff to the 10 or 12 people who came over to say, ‘Yeah, that is what I want to see as part of my education.’”
Nevertheless, much of his choreography has met with acclaim. In 2009, though, one work ran up against the mood of the times. Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez included a deformed pope, pregnant nuns and wild sex. Made as part of a tribute to Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, it caused a major scandal and was pulled from the BBC’s pre-Christmas programming. Worse, he received death threats, was hospitalised with a nervous breakdown and spent a year unemployed.
De Frutos remains indignant, as “most of the material was sourced from Jean Cocteau stories with a little bit of Fellini”. What irks him is he has never been able to revisit it. “I don’t get to enjoy the fruits of being a bit naughty, which are positive for everybody else – for instance, a scandalous movie. In dance, it meant an absolute fear from every single company to rehire me, so it was a treacherous, horrific time.” Thankfully, a year later, the BBC returned with “a silver lining”, commissioning a ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, scored by the Pet Shop Boys.
Now on the verge of 50 – “I’m not dealing with that well at all” – de Frutos says his biggest achievement is not in his individual works “or my latest work but my body of work. I feel that surviving in the arts for over 32 years is something that’s good.”
MADE TO MOVE, Royal New Zealand Ballet, St James Theatre, Wellington, February 27-March 2, then touring until March 24.