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'Theatre has an obligation to explore sexuality': Javier De Frutos on Les Enfants Terribles

The choreographer and director talks Cocteau, Glass and the power of great art in his dance-theatre production.

By Gerard Davis (Journalist)

27 January 2017 at 2.01pm | Comment on this article

Philip Glass’s dance-opera Les Enfants Terrible is originally inspired by Cocteau’s novel and film of the same title. What’s your relationship to Cocteau?

I like Cocteau, but I think Cocteau likes himself too much. I adore his work as an artist, especially his scenarios for the Ballets Russes, and I always thought it strange that Diaghilev never asked him to design a show. I find the written language of Les Enfants Terribles difficult but I like the idea that you’re as dirty as the secrets you keep, something Cocteau does very well. When those secrets are revealed it’s like opening a container and not putting it back in the fridge; it’s exposed to the elements.

How do you think that gets expressed in the music?

This is one of those works in which Philip Glass really lets the sung text take prominence. By this time, I think he’d learned a lot from scoring for films where he’d let the music be a surface on which things could happen. It’s written as a dance-opera and not much more information than that is given. The spine is there, and it’s a very fine spine, but it is entirely up to me which themes are emphasized.

The narrative has a strong emotional core. Is that something you’ve enjoyed trying to express through choreography?

I do death really well! I was taught that if you want to put yourself in your work you need to experience things first so people don’t think you’re being self-indulgent, even if you are. I did some marvellous deaths on stage myself – operatic, covered in blood – which was very satisfying, so I can now provide very good deaths for my performers. The great thing with this story is that the journey to death is inevitable – it’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ and you can only hope it’s not going to be horrible. But, of course, it is.

Are the two main characters, Lise and Paul, really that bad?

Yes, they are. They’re fascinating to play because you have to work really hard to find any redeeming qualities in them. Whatever they learned up until the death of their mother is how they’ve remained; their bodies have aged but their behaviour hasn’t. I think their mother may have put them in the bathtub together when they were younger, when sexuality wasn’t an issue. They probably had a great deal of fun, and that intimacy became their norm. The question then becomes a matter of what’s acceptable and what’s not; I, for example, can’t be naked in the same room as my brother but I know others who have no such problem with their siblings. For me, you can either direct this show by reading between the lines or you can just tell it like it is. I’m going for the latter because the minute we take the incest and put it in big bright letters then we can move on to the real issue which is the morality.

You’ve been called an enfant terrible yourself a few times. Are you?

No, I’m not, and anyway, I’m at an age where I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me. I won an Olivier Award for a West End musical – how much of an enfant terrible can I be? I think theatre has an obligation to explore things like sexuality and it’s a very safe environment in which to do so. I like the fact I can resolve a lot of my personal questions on stage rather than in the street.

This is an extract from Gerard Davis’s interview with Javier De Frutos, available to read in full in The Royal Ballet’s programme book for Les Enfants Terribles.

Les Enfants Terribles runs at the Barbican from 27–29 January 2017. Tickets are currently sold out on the Royal Opera House website, but more tickets have been released on the Barbican website.

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