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Javier de Frutos	Javier de Frutos
photo Chris Nash
When I spoke to Javier De Frutos he had just finished his season of The Hypochondriac Bird which was part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. Our discussion covered the production itself, his career as a London-based artist with Venezuelan origins and seemed to constantly veer back to what he sees as a crisis in dance at the end of the millennium.

Geography—Community

A lot of people who see my work find it difficult to place as a product that has come out of England. Although I am an unequivocal member of the British community I am an outsider—all communities have outsiders and all immigrants, no matter how hard they try, are always outsiders. Countries need that. I don’t know if it’s an outside perspective—I never pass judgement on the things that I am experiencing. I’m very direct so I’m always at odds with ‘Englishness’, yet I think that is the very reason why I have remained in England, even while not liking it—the confrontational nature of my work and people who cannot deal with it.

I think I understand the pace of a country like Australia that has more beneficial weather. I’ve never produced my work in Venezuela, my native country—always in cold countries and I think that conflict shaped the work. The tension works because the work is so autobiographical. I’m not very happy about sharing happy things but dealing with more anguished moments. Then somehow the work becomes an outlet. Happy moments are so few I don’t know if I would share those.

In the context of Mardi Gras I’m becoming more aware of how diverse as a community we are. I had a great big sense of pride when I came—I caught the launch at the Opera House and I was surprised at how political it was and how attentive and interested those 20,000 people were. I am also surprised at how—mainstream is not the right word—it is a major festival in this city.

The Hypochondriac Bird

I’m actually sorry that it was the first example of my work here because it comes without any preparation. It’s probably the least direct work that I have produced. But there’s a line in the work that deals with the absolute boredom of a long term relationship. As Wendy Houstoun commented, it really looks like the 2 of us had different books of instructions for this relationship and suddenly, having read the books, we realise we’re not even in the same library, the same bookshop.

I think there is a threshold of pain in (the sex scene) that one has to go through because we [De Frutos and Jamie Watton], as performers, go through that in the work. The more we did the sex scene the more bored we were with it and we started to match the way the audience felt. The audience is a very contagious source of energy. Together, we had to reach that level where nothing is happening any more, which happens to relationships when they are on their way out. Someone commented on the structure of the piece where the climax of the work is not a climax, or such a long climax that it stops being a climax and becomes an anti-climax. It introduces a new sense of structure. So the work starts as representational, becomes high melodrama, then the ‘installation’, then the drama again. That meant you had to pace yourself which caused problems with the audience.

It’s also quite brutal and realistic—when you look at the vocabulary we had to go for a more realistic range and it’s tough because it doesn’t necessarily satisfy dance-goers. And it goes back to the whole question of what is dance anyway? This is probably one of the most danced works I have ever done. From beginning to end it’s non-stop dancing. It might not be recognisable as that qualified thing that we know as ‘dance’, which is frightening in itself—that we cannot move on.

I think there was a mistake in the Mardi Gras’ publicity. I never did a version of Swan Lake—it was a piece that used Swan Lake’s score because those ballet references are close to me—the sound. Music is very much like perfume. My mother used to wear Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in the beginning of the 70s, and when I smell it my mind just goes back—I see the bottle, I see the bedroom…the music does that to me. What does it do for the audience? If you have a sound that is immediately recognisable like Swan Lake you go for the narrative you know and the layers start—you try to match what you see with what you think you know—and it becomes an interesting exercise for those who allow it to happen. The Mardi Gras adds another layer——the choreographer is gay and what you’re seeing is a gay love story. So you go to the theatre with all that information—perhaps too much.

Design

The Hypochondriac Bird was the first time I was working in a very clean, clear looking space—I always work in very black spaces. My partner, an Australian Terry Warner, is the set and costume designer and Michael Mannion is the lighting designer. They are the oldest members of the company and it was something we wanted to work on. When you work in a black space you have the possibility of making the space smaller or bigger with lights—the magic of the black box. When you work on a white space you never forget how large the space is and psychologically it gives it a grander context, emphasising how irrelevant to the order of the world the lives of these 2 people are.

The point with the design (a aquare of illuminated clear plastic pillows) was to make things that could be everything and nothing and it was up to the audience to decide what they were seeing. I realised that the works I had done in the past had a sort of half-finished architecture. (I studied architecture for about a year and abandoned it.) There are always marks on the floor that could be a laid out plan. The original design was a half-finished house—every clear plastic pillow becomes a brick.

Movement and Meaning

I’m a great believer in first of all creating an atmosphere—the movement can be quite unimportant but if the atmosphere is right then the movement can be right. In a workshop years ago this playwright got this actress to do the same scene, peeling potatoes, in many different places in the house. It became so clear. Dancers say ‘my character wouldn’t move that way’ or ‘that movement doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t signify’—like 32 fouettes signifies a lot anyway—like, ‘thank god for the 32 fouettes, now I get it, now I know what she’s feeling!’ So suddenly it was clear to me that the movement wasn’t important but the context of the movement and the intention of how you did the movement. So describing it means nothing—she’s peeling potatoes—and suddenly the physical action changes in her muscles and peeling potatoes becomes the medium to express something else—she could be stabbing someone in the stomach. I can’t bear the idea of trying to find a movement that’s going to mean something. What’s the point of looking for something that’s going to look like a kiss when the kiss is such an effective thing to do?

Dance

This piece has been a major turning point for me in regard to the effectiveness of dance. At one point we have to stop looking at the museum pieces and the function of the body. I’m so terrified now that most dancers I know are concerned about whether their lower back is aligned with their neck and there’s nothing else. Something that was only meant to be a tool for you to feel better physically suddenly became an aesthetic goal. It seems to be the only branch of the arts that doesn’t want to suffer. If you’re really worried about a healthy body and healthy mind you’re not an artist any more—just let it go. Go and teach aerobics or something, but you can’t just go on stage and tell me how aligned you are because I’m not going to connect with you at all—certainly not with my own alignment.

What happened with the underground scene—it’s just completely gone. Some of the so-called underground productions that are happening in London are frighteningly similar to commercial productions but with less money so they don’t look as good. Does anyone have anything to say for themselves any more? Who wants to be second best? Is it some kind of millennium bug that suddenly we have to go into more direct ways of communicating, that dance is starting to lose its touch? People don’t read poetry any more, they read newspapers.


The Hypochondriac Bird, choreographer, dancer and music Javier De Frutos, dancer Jamie Watton, music Eric Hine, lighting design Michael Mannion, set and costume design Terry Warner; The Seymour Theatre Centre, Sydney, February 10 - 14

RealTime issue #30 April-May 1999 pg. 29

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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