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How far can a choreographer go in expressing ideas?


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#1 Mashinka

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 04:48 AM

How far can a choreographer go in expressing ideas and should there be limits? I ask this after viewing a ballet last night which I felt should never have made it to the stage.

The work that leaves me asking the question is Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez by Javier de Frutos and I am in something of a quandary here as I don’t think the moderators would allow me to describe in exact detail what I actually saw. Without going into graphic detail; a Pope with grotesque prosthetic belly and buttocks sexually violates two male acolytes and three pregnant women and encourages them to perform further acts of physical and sexual violence on one another whilst everyone chants prayers in Spanish interspersed with the screaming of obscenities. The whole thing culminates with the beating to death and garrotting of one of the women. It was danced to Ravel's La Valse, a piece I shall have difficulty ever listening to again

The dance element is minimal and includes a parody of the ‘sunburst pose’ from Balanchine’s Apollo, justified no doubt by the women being described as Muses. The ballet is supposed to be a satire inspired by Jean Cocteau, though whether that fastidious aesthete would have approved of this realization of his ideas, I don’t know.

Some people walked out before the end. Many, myself included, booed (the first time in my life I have ever booed dancers). The people to my left and right and those in front simply sat speechless without clapping, but those behind cheered enthusiastically and those same people had laughed hysterically at the sight of a pregnant woman having her face repeatedly smashed against the Pope’s throne. I appreciate that on a first night the audience is made up of a significant number of artists’ friends and relatives, but to respond to such a scene with laughter made what was acutely uncomfortable viewing even worse.

Up until now I’ve always been a great admirer of Javier de Frutos’s work and would concur with Simon G’s description of him on another thread as ‘A class act’. This new work however makes me really worry about his future direction in choreography. The programme on the whole was good, in fact it seemed to get better as the evening progressed but then this vile piece came on and a good night out was ruined. As the programme was of works inspired by Diaghilev I suppose de Frutos may have been aiming for a ‘Rite of Spring’ moment, but whether ED to S&S goes down in history or not remains to be seen. The reviews should be interesting and I will post them as they appear.

Usually when I see acts of simulated sex on stage, I assume the choreographer has run out of ideas and had the acts I witnessed yesterday been of consensual sex I wouldn’t have cared over much; but it was the sexual and physical violence that unsettled me particularly that towards the pregnant women. I am against censorship of any kind but believe serious artists should be able to self-censor and am disappointed that Javier de Frutos in this instance did not.

I appreciate that most of the readers of this post aren’t based in London and may be reluctant to comment on a work they are unable to see for themselves, but based on my description I would be very grateful for as many responses as possible to my original question: How far can a choreographer go in expressing ideas and should there be limits?

#2 Cygnet

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 07:31 AM

The work that leaves me asking the question is Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez by Javier de Frutos and I am in something of a quandary here as I don’t think the moderators would allow me to describe in exact detail what I actually saw. Without going into graphic detail; a Pope with grotesque prosthetic belly and buttocks sexually violates two male acolytes and three pregnant women and encourages them to perform further acts of physical and sexual violence on one another whilst everyone chants prayers in Spanish interspersed with the screaming of obscenities. The whole thing culminates with the beating to death and garrotting of one of the women. It was danced to Ravel's La Valse, a piece I shall have difficulty ever listening to again . . .

What?! Unbelievable :wink:.

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 09:04 AM

I appreciate that most of the readers of this post aren’t based in London and may be reluctant to comment on a work they are unable to see for themselves, but based on my description I would be very grateful for as many responses as possible to my original question: How far can a choreographer go in expressing ideas and should there be limits?


I don't think there should be limits, if only it's been proved that there obviously aren't, given what you've described. Such grotesqueries are probably something some artists need to do as some kind of therapy or self-purging, although a little deleuzian auto-critique wouldn't have hurt. Of course, it's not at all ill-advised that they might have done this for some lower venues, I'll agree with you there. I'd have to have seen it, but what it reminded me of was various pieces by Paul McCarthy, the totally crazed sculptor since way back in the 70s, I believe. There were all these sculpted figures and battery-powered to make the figures engage in various illicit acts. They're so elaborate (take up whole gallery rooms) it's hard to tell they're really pretty peanut-brained at first, but some of your descriptions I have only seen in McCarthy's big piese. I haven't even seen what you're talking about in modern dance, never would have imagined that it could be done in a ballet (is there pointe?). Sounds awful, but I don't think it's a bad thing to happen, because there's no way it could become at all influential, or even just trendy, for that matter. The title is amusing, is that really it 'Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez'. So graceless, no wonder what follows is some kind of crude burlesque. Now that I think of it, I would have liked to see it for the wrong reasons: It sounds hilarious in its idiocy. But I don't think you have to worry about it setting any woods on fire, becoming a sensation, etc. Just a curio, don't you think? and will evaporate after this seasion, won't it?

#4 bart

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 09:39 AM

On the whole, I agree with Patrick.

I don't think there should be limits.

But then I add my own limits to that. People's imagination should be free, but there are limits as to what I am personally willing to look at, pay for, think about, and respect.

As someone unfamiliar with the London dance scene, my feeling is that I need some context. I don't know the work of Javier de Frutos. Is this piece at all typical? Were people misled by the advertising? Does the piece have a coherent, consistent point of view, or one of those half-parodies which actually panders to the lower instincts while claiming to be subversive?

Is it even "dance"? (You mention that the dance elements are "minimal".) A parody of the Apollo sunburst might work for me. But without putting it in context -- for example, a parody the ballet itself, or of Balanchine -- it just seems as obvious and clumsy as, for example, inserting the image of Washington Cross the Delaware. I don't like works that strain to dumb-down their own allusions. Similarly, using "La Valse" seems like a bit of heavy-handed irony that would turn me off, no matter what the Pope was doing onstage.

It sounds like the audience reactiion was quite varied. Was de Frutos possibly aiming at provking a scandal (in the sense of "epater le bourgeois")? Was he hoping for a public condemnation from the Archbishop of Westminster or picketing by the Legion of Decency? If so, it doesn't seem to have worked.

It doesn't sound like this piece will NOT gain a place in the permanent repertoire -- or even in the history of outrageous events.

#5 papeetepatrick

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 10:10 AM

People's imagination should be free, but there are limits as to what I am personally willing to look at, pay for, think about, and respect.


Oh, good heavens, yes, i sure wouldn't pay for this thing, and it sounds as if you couldn't actually 'think about' it if you tried :flowers: I'd look at it, but probably not respect it, but I'm just guessing.

#6 dirac

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 11:27 AM

How far can a choreographer go in expressing ideas and should there be limits? I ask this after viewing a ballet last night which I felt should never have made it to the stage.


Thanks for starting the topic, Mashinka. You vividly evoke the performance. :flowers: Without having seen the work in question, I would say that it's the audience who has to determine the limits, by walking out or booing or asking for their money back. If a company hires a choreographer and gives him carte blanche, they have to live with the results.

As the programme was of works inspired by Diaghilev I suppose de Frutos may have been aiming for a ‘Rite of Spring’ moment, but whether ED to S&S goes down in history or not remains to be seen. The reviews should be interesting and I will post them as they appear.


You are probably right about that. Unfortunately, the bar for shocking people is very high these days.

(By all means post a few reviews if the comments are interesting, but please bear in mind we try to avoid posting too many such links in discussion threads. Thanks. :))

Simon, did you see this?

#7 Jane Simpson

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 12:47 PM

De Frutos said in an interview a few days ago:

“Diaghilev always really liked a succès de scandale. He wanted them to happen. Nothing you can do today would be scandalous any more except for annoying the Catholic Church. So that is my target.”

(I haven't seen the piece.)

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 October 2009 - 08:19 PM

Choreographers CAN put onstage whatever they want, as long as they realize that the audience is also free to throw cabbages, tomatoes, the odd piece of offal....

#9 Mashinka

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 03:04 AM

De Frutos said in an interview a few days ago:

“Diaghilev always really liked a succès de scandale. He wanted them to happen. Nothing you can do today would be scandalous any more except for annoying the Catholic Church. So that is my target.”

(I haven't seen the piece.)


Thanks for the quote Jane, in that context the whole thing starts to make more sense. Although the religiously minded always take offence at the first whiff of 'blasphemy', he may not get that succès de scandale after all due to the short run of this piece as I seem to remember that the protests against The Satanic Verses and Jerry Springer: the Opera, were incredibly slow off the mark, probably due the religious rarely reading contemporary literature or visiting theatres.

As someone unfamiliar with the London dance scene, my feeling is that I need some context. I don't know the work of Javier de Frutos. Is this piece at all typical? Were people misled by the advertising?


In his earlier years de Frutos was in the habit of dancing naked. He is now engaged in what I would call mainstream choreography and I would rate him as one of the finest working in the UK. He doesn't have a discernible style as his works are quite varied from a Hollywood musical homage for Rambert Dance to a superb Rite of Spring for the New Zealand Ballet. He has worked with a number of companies including the Royal Ballet (though not in the main house). I count myself very much a fan and silly though it sounds, I feel personally let down by him on this occasion.

#10 Nanarina

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 10:06 AM

:) How is it that Ballet and choreography seems to escape the censor. In other fields such as films, TV or even books, the genre is accompanied by a clearly defined code stating content, violence level
and recommended age of viewer. Although I have not seen this piece, after what I have read, I would not want to. It seems to neglect the deflines of moral and ethical decency.
There should be a limit to the lengths to which a choreographer stoops in prodicing what is techanaly classed as an Art. Personally I think it sounds as if it is sick and degrading. What is more it also could be seem to promote violence. Something all told not appreciated by me myself in my interest in Ballet. I realise there are other Ballets that contain elements of sex. drugs, murder and violence, but which are portrayed in an acceptable manner. I am not old fashioned or blinkered, but I would like to see "Limits" established for this kind of production.even if it restricts the creaters artistic freedom. After all do we not all enjoy our interest for the pleasure it gives us?

#11 Mel Johnson

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 11:48 AM

But then, where does it stop? I disagree that print media like books have a censor or rating program, at least in the US. Once you decide to disallow one form of speech, what's to stop whatever authority from disallowing all sorts of licit expression?

#12 papeetepatrick

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 12:09 PM

Yes, censorship is over. And it should be. I can't think of anything more implausible than pretending we could even do it, as if we could return to pre-porno days--at least not in Western democracies; there's plenty of it in the Arab world and others. The public either accepts or not, and underage people are kept out of things. Legal censorship is for the birds. Of course, there are 'snuff films'. That's definitely out in my book, but just vile behaviours onstage, with people acting like idiots, has to be allowed.

#13 kfw

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 04:53 PM

Yes, censroship is over. And it should be. I can't think of anything more implausible than pretending we could even do it, as if we could return to pre-porno days--at least not in Western democracies; there's plenty of it in the Arab world and others. The public either accepts or not, and underage people are kept out of things. Legal censorship is for the birds. Of course, there are 'snuff films'. That's definitely out in my book, but just vile behaviours onstage, with people acting like idiots, has to be allowed.

I wonder if underage folks really weren't allowed in the theater in this case. I'm opposed to legal censorship unless the vile behaviour involves children, but not to setting age limits for viewing the stuff.

#14 Helene

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 05:01 PM

What kfw said.

#15 bart

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Posted 15 October 2009 - 05:46 PM

From the Sadler's Wells website:

Javier De Frutos: Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez

Olivier Award-winner Javier De Frutos's Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez is a cautionary fable inspired by Cocteau's scenarios and designs for Les Ballets Russes and set to Maurice Ravel's La Valse. De Frutos joins forces with theatre designer Katrina Lindsay and lighting designer Michael Hulls.

Eternal Damnation to Sancho & Sanchez contains scenes of an adult nature and some violence.

Nothing in the first paragraph prepares one for the second paragraph, which was in any case printed in much smaller type.


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