The sweet smell of success

AT EASE: Javier De Frutos at Matterhorn.
AT EASE: Javier De Frutos at Matterhorn.

Ten years ago Venezuelan choreographer Javier De Frutos fell in love with Pacific culture. While juggling a career that includes pop duo Pet Shop Boys and television show Game of Thrones, he tells Tom Cardy why he is back with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. 

Javier De Frutos has a nose not only for what kinds of music can help make a memorable new dance work, but also for perfume. De Frutos, whose new work, The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud, premieres with the Royal New Zealand Ballet in Wellington this week, sees a similarity between the two.

The London-based Venezuelan choreographer recently finished working on a successful revival of Cabaret on London's West End. "There's a glorious actress [in Cabaret] called Sian Phillips. Sian came out of her dressing room one day with this perfume that just stopped me in my tracks. My mother, 40 years ago, would only wear [the same] perfume on the occasions she went out with my dad. The whole house would be full of that perfume.

ANATOMY LESSON: Royal NZ Ballet dancers Dimitri Kleioris and Antonia Hewitt in Javier De Frutos’ Pacific-inspired ifThe Anatomy of a Passing Cloudnf.
ANATOMY LESSON: Royal NZ Ballet dancers Dimitri Kleioris and Antonia Hewitt in Javier De Frutos’ Pacific-inspired ifThe Anatomy of a Passing Cloudnf.

"I love doing pieces where those kind of ‘notes' linger. It's where the music transports you to whatever your personal place is. There's the visual and the colours. Things become notes on a perfume. Only with dance can you deal with that level of poetry."

De Frutos has developed strong links with the Royal NZ Ballet, forged since it performed his work Milagros 10 years ago. That work, which had 12 dancers in long, flowing white gowns, including six men, was later nominated for an Olivier Award.

His career has also blossomed, and he's worked outside dance companies with theatre, musicals and more. It's included creating the choreography for British pop duo Pet Shop Boys' first ballet, The Most Incredible Thing, in 2011.

De Frutos says musicians Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe left it up to him how the choreography would work with their music. "We had a really good relationship. No choreographer in the world would have said no to that job, but I said I wanted to spend a couple of weeks with some of my dancers [first] and also feel comfortable around them so I could call them (Neil and Chris) and be able to say, ‘I don't like that'."

That variety also landed the job of choreographing an orgy scene for the feature-length pilot episode of fantasy television series Game of Thrones.

"It was seven glorious days [filming] in Morocco and was a very long dance segment. It was a wedding feast that turns into a big orgy."

De Frutos says one reason he is choreographing more theatre and musicals is that he has grown tired of some aspects of dance, including ballet. Passing Cloud will be his only ballet work this year.

But he must always be working on something.

"I find myself not very well in my head if I'm not working, especially in London, which I find can be a very destructive place on a personal level. So I just find it very important that I keep myself in the creative process. I somehow landed by accident in theatre and I landed by accident in musicals. The purists in London find it slightly puzzling, but I don't listen to them anyway."

He likens returning to Wellington to "putting on an old pair of jeans", having seen the company perform his works and having visited the city at least 10 times.

Passing Cloud is strongly influenced by the choreographer's impressions of Pacific culture, especially dance and music. De Frutos says the idea was probably planted on his first visit here. A friend of his would often quote Jonathan Dennis, the founder of the New Zealand Film Archive, who died in 2002. Dennis, says De Frutos, was passionate about New Zealanders embracing the fact they were in the Pacific, rather than clinging to distant Europe.

"That kind of struck a chord and I didn't forget it. I was coming to the largest nation in the Pacific. That was far more exotic, far more attractive and I became far more willing to discover more."

Frutos says he also became passionate about Pasifika music and began collecting recordings. "God knows why but I do love it. I guess I was collecting with a subconscious motive that at one point I would use it."

Like the numerous Pacific nations, De Frutos says there's a wide variety of music. But in developing Passing Cloud he leaned to "the ones that I liked and the ones that I thought the dancers would react more naturally and organically to".

De Frutos says his own background also made it easier for him to understand why New Zealanders in the past had looked to Europe for inspiration rather than the Pacific and Maori cultures that surrounded them.

"It is just to say, ‘Yes, we can make a ballet with this music. We don't have to use Prokofiev all the time or Stravinsky.' I treat it with the same level of seriousness. It's as complex."


Anatomy of a Passing Cloud is part of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Made to Move season of three works at Wellington's St James Theatre, February 27-March 2, 2013, and Municipal Theatre, Napier, March 5. The two other works are Of Days by Andrew Simmons and Bier Halle by the company's artistic director, Ethan Stiefel.

The Dominion Post