Once upon a time in the West...

The choreographer Javier De Frutos, most famous for performing naked, has teamed up with the artist/film-maker Isaac Julien. Judith Palmer hears about their homoerotic Western fairytale
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The Independent Culture

A long desert road, the colour of amber, spills out from the horizon, under a blue Texas sky. The faintest crunch of a boot on the dirt track, as a lone man approaches, lean and taut, from the distance; striding slowly down the road, into the camera and through. The hum of flies. The low hiss of a rattlesnake. The grand sweep of the heat-languored landscape yawns out across a triptych of screens, then fractures into three, as a snake loops drowsily past. Now there are two silent figures flanking the screens: each walking his own road, the same road, out of the mesquite and sagebrush and into each other's story.

A long desert road, the colour of amber, spills out from the horizon, under a blue Texas sky. The faintest crunch of a boot on the dirt track, as a lone man approaches, lean and taut, from the distance; striding slowly down the road, into the camera and through. The hum of flies. The low hiss of a rattlesnake. The grand sweep of the heat-languored landscape yawns out across a triptych of screens, then fractures into three, as a snake loops drowsily past. Now there are two silent figures flanking the screens: each walking his own road, the same road, out of the mesquite and sagebrush and into each other's story.

Their stories of yearning are played out in shifting perspectives in The Long Road to Mazatlan, a new film work by choreographer Javier De Frutos and artist-filmmaker Isaac Julien, which opens at the South London Gallery on Thursday. Together with Vagabondia, a piece of baroque Cocteauesque theatricality that was filmed amid the antiquities and curiosities of the Sir John Soane Museum in London, the pair of sumptuous film-installations form the exhibition, Cinerama.

Cinerama, the 1950s panoscopic film system in which The Long Road to Mazatlan is shot, melds the footage from three aligned cameras into one heroic widescreen picture. Traditionally used to make galloping patriotic epics of monumental proportions such as How the West was Won or Big Country, Cinerama has here been subverted to explore a different side of American mythology: the iconic status of the cowboy within gay subculture. The vehicle of epic now conveys a fragile fantasy world of homoerotic desire.

Where Fifties projectionists battled to hide the seams between the film-strips, Mazatlan divides its images across separate screens, enjoying all the permutations offered to show a fugue of viewpoints. A cattle-gate swings to, and across the full width of the frame, the black-shirted cowboy (dancer Phillippe Riera) enters a livestock auction. The white-shirted cowboy (Javier De Frutos) turns to look, his head turns; we see his face, his throat, his hand clutching his hat to his knee. His quarry seems to look back - on a second screen, the Narcissus is now regarding himself in mirror image. Did he return the glance? Who is observer, who the observed? We can no longer tell.

Cinerama technology was invented out of the belief that you could only obtain an accurate perception of reality by bringing into play peripheral vision, and including those things only visible out of the corner of the eye. It's the ideal format to portray characters on the margins, slightly out of place, in border country. In the macho world of the stockyard, only the most furtive of glances are possible, as the cowboys strain to interpret the merest flicker of a gesture.

The Long Road to Mazatlan was filmed in the Texan cattletown of San Antonio and in the surrounding Mexican borderlands. A brave undertaking. I've spent a bit of time with cowboys, and if I've learned one thing, it's that men with handlebar moustaches and gleaming silver belt buckles don't want to be reminded that their dresscode was appropriated by the Village People.

"The film is more a nod to Andy Warhol than John Wayne," De Frutos says of his collaboration with Julien. "The imagery and preoccupations are very personal to both of us, but in completely different ways."

Isaac Julien (the black British auteur of Looking for Langston and Cannes Film Festival Prizewinner Young Soul Rebels) has peppered the 13-minute film with a dense layer of cinematic quotations, from Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys to Scorcese's Taxi Driver: a dovetailing of Paris, Texas, My Own Private Idaho, Midnight Cowboy, Scorpio Rising and The Swimmer. But perhaps the over-riding reference is to David Hockney, as the Mazatlan cowboys forsake highway and bar-room for a fantasy dip in the motel swimming pool. The screens fill with blue light as the men bathe and gaze, in a fleeting dreamlike encounter punctuated by the sound of water splashing against their bodies, thundering like gunfire.

The title of the piece stems from De Frutos's long-term preoccupation with Tennessee Williams. It's drawn from the opening of The Glass Menagerie, and the explanation of the missing father's absence. "He was a telephone man who fell in love with long distances; he gave up his job with the telephone company and skipped the light fantastic out of town - the last we heard of him was a picture postcard from Mazatlan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, containing a message of two words, 'Hello - Goodbye!' and no address."

The cowboy is a recurrent figure in De Frutos's repertoire, dating back to a fleeting but beautiful winter liaison in the homophobic town of Helena, Montana, while on tour in the mid-Eighties with the Laura Dean dance company. "It was during the eight-hour drive through the snow to our next stop in Billings, Montana, that it first became clear to me how big this land was, and how insignificant me," he says. "That perspective of the vastness of nature in contrast with the emotions has stayed with my work."

De Frutos, who was born in Caracas (the name is real - San Frutos is the patron saint of Segovia, the Spanish home of De Frutos's father's family), was always exasperated by the life of a touring dancer, even with his own company. "I love travelling but I hate touring," he grimaces. "There's nothing more ghastly than performing one-night stands in theatres in the middle of God knows where.

"Dance is so ephemeral," he worries. "Memories exist just by word of mouth, via the couple of hundred people who actually saw it. What's going to happen if someone wants to reassess my work in 50 years' time? Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso - they are all part of the establishment now, but it took us years to understand. Word of mouth is not good enough.

"Art relishes the avant-garde in a way the stage doesn't," De Frutos acknowledges. "The Royal Ballet's first performance for the new millennium was Coppelia, whereas the artworld has Tracey Emin's bed. Whether we jump on her bed or not, we have to reassess what art is. But Coppelia?" He winces. "Dance audiences are so limited."

De Frutos's filmic collaboration with Julien is a move away from the pigeonhole of choreographer, towards that avant-garde art audience. "For years I've been nothing more than the guy who dances naked on stage," tuts De Frutos. "I started realising my work was getting smaller, as in more detailed, and was kind of inviting the camera in. There were ideas and concepts there that deserved to be treated more intimately, but then explored in a larger context.

"People have said it was a pairing waiting to happen," says De Frutos. "Though ironically, Isaac has been recognised for the obliqueness of his work, and I've been recognised for the directness of it. Our film has turned out to be not as elusive as Isaac's, and doesn't shout as loud as most of my work."

"Javier is an exceptional force," Julien laughs warmly. "His work has a real visceral quality, which I love." Now a visiting lecturer at Harvard, Julien himself has a background in dance, and was part of the London Youth Dance Theatre from 1976-79. "Another time, another life, another body," he's quick to insist, "but it was really useful training, understanding rhythm, structure, music, and how to choreograph a shot."

"There are things in the film I wouldn't normally do, but I've really enjoyed the risk of the collaborative process," says Julien. Like the trio of high-stepping Las Vegas showgirls, who escort the cowboys out of town, waving their ostrich plumes, perhaps?

"Oh, yes," exclaims Julien, "they were very Javier!"

* Cinerama is at the South London Gallery, 65 Peckham Road, London SE5 (020-7703 6120), 22 Sept- 22 Oct. Isaac Julien's photogravures After Mazatlan are at the Victoria Miro Gallery, 21 Cork St, London W1(020-7734 5082) until 29 Sept

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