Javier de Frutos has stripped to dance naked onstage and outstripped “La La Land” and “Beauty and the Beast” to win an international choreography award.
He has overseen a wedding ceremony that ended in joyless slaughter – for “Game of Thrones,” where else? – and a fairy-tale romance that ended in joyful laughter.
He spent two years chasing the ghost of Tennessee Williams, which led him to New Orleans and the creation of ballets honoring “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and 10 years exorcising his personal demons onstage.
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Now he has come to Charlotte Ballet to re-create “The Most Incredible Thing,” a piece for families set to Pet Shop Boys music and a narrative by Hans Christian Andersen. The techno-heavy, visually multilayered show opens March 9, in the spot in the season usually reserved for “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Little Mermaid” and other works designed to make elementary schoolers goggle and giggle. (They still might.)
But for the Venezuelan-born de Frutos, who makes London his home base, the most incredible thing is always around the corner.
That’s literally true, in this case. He’s the first choreographer to become an artist-in-residence in the 18-year history of McColl Center for Art + Innovation. There he’ll stay (or drop in and out) through May, working on a project that will come to fruition two seasons later at Charlotte Ballet: An exploration of Maya Angelou, who died in Winston-Salem in 2014.
They’re a well-suited pair. He’s the dancer who, had Fate blessed him with any talent he chose, would have devoted himself to the written word. She’s the first-class writer who came to that career after failing as a singer-dancer.
Enter his still-evolving McColl Center studio, and you enter his many-chambered mind.
‘I want to know’
Tiny, full-body paper cutouts of Angelou swirl around on a turntable. Her “Miss Calypso” album plays, filling the air softly with Jamaican music. Printed texts sprawl across furniture and snake up the walls. Quotes about her from friends and casual acquaintances cluster on a board at one end of the room, near childhood pictures that show her smiling or with her mouth whited out. (She said in an autobiography that she elected not to speak for five years.)
“What does it mean to be in the presence of someone who chose not to speak and then became a writer who’s always quotable, always right?” de Frutos asks. “I want to know.”
Those four words define his artistic philosophy. As a teenager in Caracas, he saw a performance by Merce Cunningham’s company at the public library and wanted to know what life as a dancer might be: “I was about to study architecture, which was the most artistic thing my father would allow me to do. That performance was life-changing.”
He wanted to know what was going on inside his head and spent years making and performing pieces about sexuality, religion, family relations and other subjects firmly defined by his culture. Sometimes, in the process of exposing his innermost thoughts, he exposed his body. (The British paper The Telegraph reviewed a 1998 production of “The Hypochondriac” with the headline “No pants? No thanks.”)
His 2009 “Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez” emerged partly from Jean Cocteau’s stories and included a deformed pope, pregnant nuns and wild sex. Though critics and audiences reeled, he says shocking people was never a goal:
“I have seen work where shocks were manipulative, but I didn’t do that. I was sincere about my explorations of love, loss, identity, and I felt audiences would go there with me.
“I remember ‘Eternal Damnation’ being done in Monaco and thinking, ‘Uh oh, Princess Caroline and her son are coming.’ At the end, she ran down the aisle smiling. She said, ‘I found it very poignant, because I remember Jean visiting Mom’ – who was, of course, Grace Kelly. (That piece let Caroline) find the little girl inside the princess she had become.”
He stopped dancing at 38, struck by an epiphany during a performance of “The Misty Frontier.” He’d based that piece on a chance 1945 meeting in Mexico between Tennessee Williams and George Balanchine. Renowned ballerina Marianela Nuñez was whirling through fouettes, while a ventriloquism record explained how to make a dummy recite the alphabet. And de Frutos thought, “Wow. I wish I were watching this from the audience, not onstage.”
Then, seven years ago, he wanted to know what it was like to dream up a show an entire family might appreciate. Royal Ballet dancer Ivan Putrov had asked the synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys, who’ve sold 50 million albums, to compose a ballet for him and suggested de Frutos as the choreographer.
“They said they knew my work and wanted to reinvent the story ballet without alienating people,” says de Frutos. “I’d always dealt with dead composers, so I said, ‘Let me workshop this for a week with them and the dancers to see if it can work.’ What I discovered – this happened again when I worked with Chiwetel Ejiofor in a (stage) production of ‘Everyman’ – is that when you’re really good at what you do, you don’t waste time being an a------. You get right into it.
“It almost became a dare for me to do this piece. The producers kept asking, ‘You know you’re doing a family ballet, right? A family ballet?’”
Collaboration as key
He was. But in adapting Andersen’s tale of an inventor who wins a princess by inventing “the most incredible thing” in her father’s kingdom, de Frutos created a unique visual collage. His choreography paid homage to George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and other masters. Filmmaker Tal Rosner crafted animated sequences. Katrina Lindsay, who had won a Tony Award for her costumes for “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” handled the visual elements.
Among the dazzled audience members sat Hope Muir. She’d met de Frutos when he’d done a piece a decade earlier for Rambert, the contemporary dance company that employed her. Their friendship continued as his work diversified. When she became Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director in 2016, she put his half-hour “Elsa Canasta” (which she once danced) in her “Fall Works” program and gave him the story-ballet spot in March.
“I wanted a family ballet for a generation that had access to YouTube and Netflix,” Muir says. “It’s not spoofy – if he references ‘Sweet Charity,’ it’s in a respectful way – and it’s a good fit for our company. He’s using both Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II dancers and helping them grow. The theatricality of it will make them better actors.”
Josh Hall, who plays Leo the inventor, notes that “creating the character is everything here. You can’t just kick your leg for the sake of movement. We’ve played characters before, but in this case, you have to be comfortable with this added layer of acting. You can’t hesitate or hold back for an instant. I find myself asking, ‘Why don’t I do this all the time?’”
Chelsea Dumas respects de Frutos for not trying to recreate his 2011 success at Sadler’s Wells. Rather than have dancers watch videos, she says, he tailors moments to their strengths: “If the princess solo isn’t comfortable for me, he’ll re-do it. He lets us find ourselves in the characters. At the same time, the corps stuff requires everyone to hit exact marks, because it’s so complicated. That’s an extra layer of skill.”
Muir is working out de Frutos’ long-term relationship with her troupe, though she plans to have one beyond the Angelou piece. “I have a lot of work to do on the identity of this company, which involves bringing in a lot of new faces,” she says. “He will certainly be part of that.”
She also recommended him for the McColl Center gig. Two of that center’s artists-in-residence, Shaun Cassidy and Frank Selby, teamed with choreographer Sasha Janes on “Innovative Works” pieces in 2009 and 2015. But this is the first time the McColl Center has brought a choreographer aboard for a four-month residency.
“To partner with Hope was a no-brainer,” says Armando Bellmas, the McColl Center’s director of marketing and communications. “Javier’s creative process has been very similar to what one of our visual artists might do: He’s created this space full of art, and he’s open to visitors coming by and sharing information.” (One visitor, fellow artist-in-residence Xenobia Bailey, bonded quickly: She designed hats for Angelou, including the one Angelou wore at the Million Man March.)
The McColl Center doesn’t require artists to complete works during the residency; it simply gives them space, time and privacy to move forward on a project. That’s a good thing for de Frutos, as he gets pulled in more and more directions.
Awards, GoT and more afoot
He won a Chita Rivera Award last fall for choreographing “London Road,” an experimental film musical about the real-life murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England. (You read that right.) It beat out the favored “La La Land” and “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as “Popstar.”
Grisly material doesn’t trouble him. He worked on “Winter is Coming,” the 2011 pilot episode for “Game of Thrones,” choreographing a wedding that ended in death.
“We were shooting in Marrakech, and that whole thing was my being-a-jerk moment,” he recalls. “I asked, ‘What am I doing here? This script is so guttural!’ I put in an obscene amount of work on the wedding, which has all this dancing that turns into rapes and slaughter. Then I went to a bar with (producer) Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”). We looked at each other and said, “I don’t see this show going anywhere.’”
De Frutos, who turns 55 this year, even explored his own death in “Fiction.” He created that 2016 piece as half of an evening-long BalletBoyz show titled “Life.” (“I told them, ‘I suck at life, but I can do death.’”) British theater greats Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter and Derek Jacobi, who de Frutos says paid their own taxi fares to the recording studio, intoned his “obituary,” while dancers responded to his triumphs and travails.
“I heard one narrator say, ‘He never got married,’” de Frutos remembers. “I thought, ‘Did I never have time for that? What else did I miss?’ I’m not a fearful person, but I am now very aware of time ticking.” (His life partner has since proposed and been accepted.)
So these days, he’s mentoring a younger choreographer. He’s aware that, when “I put a love moment at the end of ‘Most Incredible Thing,’ it doesn’t need a punchline. It’s sincere.”
And he wants less angst in his life. “I don’t want to lose my passion for the job,” he says. “But when the drama gets way out of proportion, I say, ‘Slap your own hand. Get a grip. The problems are surmountable.’ And they are.”