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by Neil Nisbet
Following a long freelance career Javier De Frutos was the surprise choice to take the reigns of Leeds based Phoenix Dance Theatre in the Autumn of 2006. We caught up with him over the phone during a break in rehearsals for the company's up an coming tour.
You've been the artistic director of Phoenix now for over a year how's it going?
It's going very well, it's an incredibly difficult job, more than I ever anticipated it to be. I think, in general, the title of "artistic director" is a red herring because being the artistic director is probably the most unartistic job I've ever had in my entire life.
Obviously, I'm being artistic when we are in the studio working and even programming and seeing the other choreographers working with the company is still artistic. It's been a really tough adjustment and I'm trying to handle it as gracefully as I can, I think that's the best [way] I can describe it.
Every day [I'm] learning, every day is a new adventure. Also, I have worked as a freelancer for many many years with many many companies and with every company I said I never knew what I was going to do if I ever got a job as a director but I started collecting things that I knew that I didn't want to do and that's pretty much the learning [part].
So in many ways it's to prove that either I was right or I was wrong, in some cases I have been right and in some cases I have been wrong, like everything in life.
What are the company working on just now?
We just finished the Autumn tour, part of [which] was, what we call, the 'Venice Triptych' which is all my work and then the other one included 'Chaconne' by Jose Limon which is from 1942 and has never been done here before. The repertory this year is half my work and the [other] half is two piece by Jose Limon, 'The Moors Pavane' and 'Chaconne'. One of the original dancers from the works, Sarah Stackhouse who's 73 is coming in January to teach ' The Moors Pavane'. It hasn't been done here Since Nureyev did it with [English National Ballet] in the late seventies I believe.
It's going to be interesting because it's truly repertory stuff because they're doing the "classics" and to me the idea is that bringing [in] those pieces is a way to remind people that [some] modern dance works have acquired classic status and they're important pieces of history and it's great for the dancers as well and I love seeing them.
Also, at the same time we're working on a big project which is a collaboration between myself and Richard Thomas who's the creator of 'Jerry Springer The Opera'. It's a full length work which is going to be premiered here [in Leeds] and it's something really different for the company. We want to have repertory and we want to have these things which are more [like] events. It's a big thing for the company and good fun.
Has your approach to creating work changed at all?
Well it is hugely different. I got appointed [as] the director of this company because they [the board] knew my work. I already know, very well, that when you create a work for a company you tailor make it for the company that you are working for which is part of developing the craft.
In this particular case, what is different is, and every single artistic director that I have spoken to has mentioned this to me, you will never be able to close the door behind you when you go into the studio because the door, to your office, will always be open.
You will get a phone call in the middle of your rehearsal so those bouts of inspiration have to be developed very quickly because you don't know when you are going to be interrupted next or when the next emergency is going to be. Also, the dancers are now my employees so it's a very different relationship. On the other hand, these dancers, especially the group this year, are dancers that I selected because I have worked with them in several [other] companies.
So I know them and they know me and that's easier, as a relationship, but you still cannot forget that they are your employees and therefore your responsibility so the way you treat them is different. I can't be their best mate because I'm their boss as well. It's a tricky place to be because as the choreographer, normally, I need to be one of the gang to really immerse myself in there [the studio]. Separating myself from that has been an ordeal for absolutely everybody that I know and I think that's probably why this job is very hard to do.
I don't know, because it has advantages and disadvantages the silver lining is, obviously I can see work being developed and see it grow when I put it on stage which, normally, with other companies you don't. You leave it and then that's it, you leave the baby behind and it's time for him to spread his wings.
Also you form bonds with [the dancers]. I did three works for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, consecutively, and I developed a bond with those dancers and absolutely adored traveling there. Every time I left I had such a sense of loss and I hated getting so close to people and then feeling the loss because I never knew when I was going to come back to see them again.
You have to develop a sense of trust really really quickly and, trust me, not all companies can handle preserving work so for me it's interesting. Also, for me being the choreographer in residence, which is required by my contract, means that I also test on myself whether we are or are not ready to handle certain guest [choreographers] or certain works. If my work is produced the right way then charity starts at home and then we can invite guests to come over.
I don't miss not knowing what I'm going to be doing the following year, that part I don't miss. There were many years when I earned more money than I'm earning now, that's another thing as well. At the same time I do still have a couple of things that I do outside [of the company] because I think it's healthy and the company understand that it's healthy for me to do it so stuff that I do in the West End is like the Ying and Yang.
Phoenix is a "Dance Theatre" company how do you think think the company compares to other companies like Jasmin Vardimon Company and Motionhouse>
It's very different, I think the [phrase] dance theatre might be slightly misleading really. [Phoenix is] a repertory company. Those companies develop the work and the vision of one choreographer so it's what you would call "authored" and in the case of [Phoenix] it's a repertory company and it really should remain a repertory company because we are in the position of offering the opportunity to some of the choreographers to develop work.
The path of creating work on dancers other than your own is a long and arduous one. When I used to develop work for my own company I could say I'll present it when it's ready, it could be three or four months later. Then I had to learn that, especially if you work for a ballet company and you're a modern dance choreographer, they tell you you have to put this on stage in four weeks, working two hours a day..... Shit! (laughs)
It develops all of those skills. You have to accept that it is completely different than when you're doing work for your company and so it should be. I believe in that and I made a good living [doing] that and I learned how to enjoy the pressure of developing [that] craft so I think this company should [keep doing] that.
Also I'm really enjoying bringing pieces of [dance] history to the company because many of the dancers didn't know any of these works and I think it's criminal that they don't and that many people don't know some of these works and contemporary dance would not exist without these works.
It's [like] planting seeds, people learn Shakespeare so they can develop new drama and it just makes for [more] skilled dancers and better informed [dancers]. Also, as a practice, the practice of dealing with dead choreographers is more difficult than dealing with live ones (laughs), it's really a fascinating learning curve, what you can and cannot do with these works. I think, like 'Harmonica Breakdown', many people have forgotten about this work [so] it's been incredible to see it again and the response has been great so I want to do much more of that.
What still excites you and what annoys you about this profession
Dancers still really really excite me. Every once in a while I go up to the studio, I see them and I just, especially this group, this group now is truly truly extraordinary. Many of them have left companies like Rambert to be here, that trust is heartening. There is still that part of me that believes that this is a vocation and not a profession, if you happen to make money out of it then you can feel lucky and stop bitching, it really is a vocation to begin with. If you don't love it then you shouldn't be here!
It's very romanticised but this is a romantic business.
The thing that I absolutely hate are the people that don't feel romantic about it and see it as a business. The businessmen and the politicians who don't fully understand how this [work] is made. I think there is a way to make a balance between the two but people who don't understand the vocation tend to put things down and it's hard because normally I'm dealing with people that are younger than me, like my dancers. I feel very defensive and paternal about it so I would normally scratch [out] anybody's eyes that tried to put their job down.
When you go and have to ask for money, fundraising and you see the various questions that are referring to the business of the company and you have the most extraordinary artists with the most fleeting of careers, the shortest career in the arts, and if you don't see them now they may not be here tomorrow, so I feel very protective about that.
Those things I could do without.
But I think it has to do as well with the audience in general, [they] are still ill-educated about dance and I'm still trying to figure how and when that happened. When dance was still an exciting and acceptable thing in the arts, when choreographers and painters and writers were constantly in touch with one another and at some point they all got segregated and I would love to know at what time in history that happened, it's an interesting subject.
Phoenix will be touring their new works during this year.