First Night: Naked aggression

Javier de Frutos is famous for dancing with his kit off, but that's only funny once. As his latest piece, `Grass', shows, he still has a lot more to reveal
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Javier de Frutos. Crazy name, crazy guy. Born in Venezuela, trained in London and finished in New York, de Frutos is suddenly flavour of the month at London's Dance Umbrella festival. His two-night stand at the tiny Place Theatre in King's Cross was sold out four weeks ago and the queue for returns stretched through the foyer and down into the basement. Why? Well, Mr de Frutos usually performs naked, and although this is hardly a Modern Dance First, there is nothing like male genitalia to stiffen up the box office. A cynic might argue that de Frutos's gimmick has earned him publicity that a dancemaker with a more generous costume budget might envy, but there is a lot more to Javier de Frutos than his little stick of Blackpool rock.

His latest work, Grass, was originally conceived for three men, but this plan was changed; the final line-up is two men and a woman: de Frutos, Jamie Watton and Pary Naderi. And another uncredited performer plays a large part: Grass is danced to random extracts from Puccini's Madam Butterfly in a recording made by Maria Callas. Callas was not a fan of the droopier operatic heroines but the recording captures The Voice in all its early purity and she all but steals the show.

Terry Warner's set consists of a gauze backcloth behind which a grid of white cushions hangs like a half-eaten bar of white chocolate. Individual pillows can be made to glow or disappear in Michael Mannion's extraordinary lighting which is more "darkness visible" than a light source. Centre- stage in the gloom, Watton and Naderi stand on the edges of a white ring roughly 10 feet in diameter. De Frutos, dead casual in vest and pyjama bottoms, steps into this arena and begins a typically intense and charismatic solo in which his flexible shoulders shimmy and shrug to the strains of "Un Bel Di" (One Fine Day). He flaps his boneless arms with the grace of a swan queen but intercuts such conventional beauties with snatches of vernacular gesture, repeatedly wiping his nose on the back of his hand. He selects Jamie Watton for an embrace, flinging the other man's arm about his body in a compulsory cuddle before falling backward so that Watton lies between his legs and accedes to a few half-hearted thrusts. Their uneasy relationship begins to deteriorate when Watton starts slapping Frutos's (slap)head with one hand while caressing him with the other. This unnerving gestural crossed line is ingeniously simple and deeply disturbing. The slapping escalates into a full-scale going-over, with de Frutos brilliantly miming a sustained and vicious attack, grunting and stamping his foot while his victim's body thrashes about in a painful pantomime of agony. Meanwhile, Pary Naderi tugs inadequately at the men's pyjamas, distressingly incidental to their relationship.

This violence clearly continues offstage, for when the pair return (stark naked) in the second half, both are covered in grisly bloodstains that stretch from nose to chest and from anus to ankle as if the two men were inhabiting a lost Greek tragedy. At first they console each other and enact a sort of conga around the perimeter of the circle, hips wiggling, willies waggling, but inevitably, the violence resumes. Behind them, Pary Naderi hides behind the scrim, enacting a fluid solo in which her arms take up de Frutos's motifs from the first act - Swan Lake in semaphore.

The Puccini appears (quite legitimately) to have been chosen to adorn rather than illuminate the passions of the piece. De Frutos's own designer, Terry Warner, has gone on the record as saying: "I do not attempt to understand Grass but rather commit myself to being an integral part of the enigma." I confess that I haven't yet reached this level of oneness with the work. Who are these people? Why Puccini? What has grass got to do with it? Maybe it all clears up on second viewing - I certainly wouldn't mind another look.

`Grass' returns to The Place early next year as part of the 1998 Spring Loaded Festival