Feature: Javier De Frutos interview

Friday 9 April 2010

Javier De Frutos Photo: Chris Nash
Down Mexico Way

Phoenix Dance Theatre will premiere a new work by Javier De Frutos in London this week, co-commissioned by the company with Sadler’s Wells.
De Frutos was born in Caracas, Venezuala, where he trained as a dancer, but has been based in London for the last decade.

Here he tells Tanja Mangalanayagam about the Mexican influences that have shaped this new piece and his individual methods of making work…

The title of the piece Nopalitos is the name of the edible pads of the prickly pear cactus used in Mexican cooking. Why?
I was aware of the nopal and its use in Mexican cooking. It’s obviously something that is incredibly exotic. It’s the idea that something so rough looking on the outside, can be so incredibly juicy, sweet and tender in the centre – this kind of ambiguity encapsulates what the piece will be dealing with.

So what are the themes in Nopalitos ?
The piece deals with many Mexican imageries, the strongest one being the Day of the Dead. The incredible thing about it is that they celebrate the death of past members of the family by making a celebration rather than mourning. People go to the cemetery with food, candles and sugar coated skull sweets. It’s all done in very bright colours and completely opposite to the way that we deal with death in Europe. I found the whole thing quite extraordinary and fascinating because it somehow allows for the living to kind of carry on.
*Nopalitos* also deals with imagery of Mexican wrestling – and it is also about the strengths of the women in Mexican society.

Nopalitos also introduces music that is not familiar to an English audience, the Mexican Ranchero and Mexican peasant’s song. The music is all sung by a very famous Mexican singer, Lila Downs. She does incredible research into Mexican languages, languages that are dead but are still somehow spoken in many remote villages in Mexico. She introduces them in all these folk songs and it is quite an extraordinary thing to hear.

How do you use the Ranchero music?
There is not really a formula how to do this. I have known this music all my life, growing up in South America. Although Venezuela is far away from Mexico, I grew up listening to Mexican music and watching Mexican films, so somehow what I did was to try to tap into what I hear and what I feel about it. I did not want to be terribly clever about it; you can’t be clever about something that is so much part of the culture itself. So pretty much I had to trust my instincts that what I was doing with the music was somehow a reflection of, not only what the music was doing, but also I was trying to update it so that visually people could understand how strong these images and sounds were to me.

Since Nopalitos is influenced by Mexican themes and some of your previous works is concerned with sex, death, blood, pain and passion, I was reminded of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (recently exhibited at Tate Modern). Was she an inspiration?
Well, Frida epitomises women in Mexico, you know, the strengths, culture and intelligence. But the resurgence of Frida is something that is only relatively new to Europe, when I grew up we all knew of her.
Frida is an influence but she’s not the only one and its not an opportunistic thing, in that here we go, let’s use Frida because its kind of present right now and let’s make Mexico fashionable all over again.
Mexico is much bigger than Frida, but there are certain elements in the work that are similar because Frida epitomises a lot of Mexican imagery. So yes, there is an element of Frida, but the imagery in Nopalitos has a lot more to do with old Mexican cinema and television which I was very accustomed to when growing up.

So the piece is informed by your experience of Mexico while growing up in Venezuela – but is it also about your experience of being in Mexico later on in life?
Yes it is, but at the same time, I think it is important to point out that I am an outsider. I think somehow it is important to me that it is not something that is related to me. I find it really interesting that although I am from another culture – cultures in Latin America are all incredibly different from country to country – we share that common link of having been colonised by the Spanish and that sense of colonisation mixed with our own individual culture makes something very interesting. We are usually quite curious about each others cultures because of this common colonial link.

You became famous as a solo artist and your choreography then had strong autobiographical influences, often dealing with aspects of your identity as a homosexual man. How has your choreographic process changed now that you are making group work for other companies?
When I work on myself, it is a self portrait and when I work on others it is kind of a group portrait seen by the person who did the self portrait before. So it is through my eyes, but at the same time it has to reflect the personalities of the people that are actually performing it. I no longer perform my work myself, so somehow I very much rely upon, and I am very much fascinated in seeing how people interpret my instructions and choreographic movements. I am much more removed from the work and also because I am working for other companies, I serve more to bring out the personality of a company. But obviously the intentions of the piece are entirely mine.

You’ve been commissioned to choreograph works for a wide variety of companies (Rambert, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Candoco and now Phoenix.) They are all very different. How important is the company’s identity for you when you begin your creative process?
Well, if I didn’t think that the company had a strong identity themselves I wouldn’t be very interested working with them. A company like Phoenix, particularly in the last few years, has committed themselves to producing new work. This has developed very special qualities within the dancers as performers. They are aware that they are serving the aims of the choreographer but at the same time the choreographer is aware that he is serving them and there is a mutual relationship. They have the responsibility of performing my work well, but at the same time I have to make sure that I produce something where they look fabulous. So for me it is very important that the company has a very strong personality because then the spices are richer.

In a South Bank Show documentary about you in 1999, you said that your main inspiration for making work was from a source of anger within you and that you hoped you would continue to make work from that source. How do you feel about that statement 7 years on? Well, for a start I looked much younger and prettier then, that’s for sure! It’s obviously the same guy and it is pretty amazing how many of the sources of inspirations informing the work I made on my company then, is still informing a lot of the stuff I am doing now. I am slightly more pragmatic now, I wouldn’t say that I have mellowed, but yes I probably have, I am 42 now. Also the lack of performing myself and not having a catalyst to channel things makes it slightly different. I cannot apply the same level of anger to the dancers that work with me, that I could apply to myself. The anger issue, which is ever so vague, is still there and it will continue to be, but the process of how it is coming out, is now through the eyes of someone who is actually 10 years older, who is in his forties and who’s career has evolved into something different…

Will we ever see you perform again? **I certainly hope not! I do enjoy watching my dancers working, interpreting my stuff and struggling with how to make it their own. I find that process fascinating – sitting and watching, but at the same time having to go up and demonstrate a couple of things, but also knowing when to hold back, so they are not mimicking what you are doing. I am now enjoying my still physical interaction with dance, you know I am still active. But the idea of going on stage does not appeal to me anymore. I am feeling I am actually enjoying watching them going through what I went through before.

What else have you got lined up for 2006?
I am choreographing Carousel for Chichester Festival, (premiers 5 June, running until September). Doing this musical is kind of unusual, but somehow Carousel is a very dark musical so it is very interesting. And then I go back to New Zealand in June to do my third work for Royal New Zealand Ballet and I hope that the company may be touring the UK in 2007..

Nopalitos is part of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Stories in Red at Sadler’s Wells from 2 – 4 March 2010.

Transcript of online chat session with Javier De Frutos on londondance.com


Article posted February 2006

Photo: Chris Nash

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