Les Enfants Terribles: Cocteau's scandalous siblings dance on the edge

Ahead of the Royal Ballet’s new production of Philip Glass’s dance opera, based on the poetic French novel, choreographer Javier De Frutos and his principal dancers talk incest, jealousy and revenge

Javier de Frutos has a strong connection with Jean Cocteau, having long revered his brilliance as a writer, artist, ballet librettist and cultural provocateur. A gay man raised in Catholic Venezuela, De Frutos has also taken courage from Cocteau’s fearless tilting at sexual and religious taboos. And back in 2009 bravery was required when the priapic priests and pregnant nuns in his Cocteau-inspired Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez provoked boos in the theatre, was pulled from a planned BBC transmission and the choreographer received death threats.

Yet even that traumatic experience hasn’t put De Frutos off returning to Cocteau for his latest project. Les Enfants Terribles is a new Royal Ballet production of Philip Glass’s 1996 dance opera adapted from Cocteau’s novel written in 1929, during one of the author’s attempts to wean himself off opium. When director Jean-Pierre Melville made it into a film in 1950 it acquired cult status in its portrayal of two adolescent siblings who mysteriously end up living alone on the margins of conventional society.

Elisabeth and Paul spend most of their time in their bedroom where they act out “the game”, a private fantasy of secret rituals and psychological power play. The heated, poetic style of Cocteau’s prose lends a magical quality to the siblings’ imaginative world. But when two other characters, Agathe and Gérard, are drawn into their lives, and fantasy collides with reality, the game turns dangerous and the intense incestuous bond between brother and sister explodes into a Greek tragedy of jealousy and revenge. (“Thistledown spirits, tragic, heartrending in their evanescence,” Cocteau writes, “they must go blowing headlong to perdition.”)

De Frutos has nothing but admiration for the boldness of Cocteau’s material. “His themes were so ahead of his time, he was dealing with emotions and ideas that couldn’t be named back then.” However, when he reread Les Enfants in preparation for the new production, he also became aware of the limitations of its narrative. “It’s a beautiful novel, but it reminds me of the ballets that Cocteau used to create, like Le Jeune Homme et La Mort or Le Train Bleu, where he would just come up with this big vague idea and leave it for others to fill in.” He says Cocteau “doesn’t tell us how Elisabeth and Paul have got to where they are, and he makes use of all these ridiculous ploys – a letter, a ball of poison – to move the game on to its next phase and to get the story to its final resolution. It’s like: ‘Once upon a time there was a boy and girl.’ He was really writing a fable or a fairytale.”

Nicole Stéphane and Edouard Dermithe in the 1950 film adaptation of Cocteau’s novel. Photograph: Alamy
Nicole Stéphane and Edouard Dermithe in the 1950 film adaptation of Cocteau’s novel. Photograph: Alamy Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

A choreographer who initially planned on becoming a writer, De Frutos has been drawn to filling in some of those narrative gaps. In order to stage certain key scenes he has created a backstory, explaining the circumstances in which the siblings became effectively orphaned, and the origins of their incestuous dynamic. “I think the bathtub is where it all began. The mother bathed them together when they were little and they played with rubber ducks and their bodies rubbed together and it was fun, and eventually the hormones came in. I’m not trying to excuse their behaviour, to say that it’s sexy or appropriate, but I have to show how Paul and Elisabeth became the way they are.”

If De Frutos is reworking, or replenishing, Cocteau’s narrative, Glass has given him the freedom to do so. Written in collaboration with Susan Marshall, the dance opera strips the narrative back to four main roles, each of which are cast for one singer and one dancer working in tandem on stage. And because the music (scored for just three pianos) is written in Glass’s characteristically spare minimalist style, there is a spaciousness that has allowed De Frutos and his cast to add emotional colour.

Leading the dance component are Royal Ballet principals Edward Watson and Zenaida Yanowsky. De Frutos spotted a chemistry between them that immediately suggested “they could be borderline brother and sister”. In the production’s publicity shot they are lean, elegant and pale: with Yanowsky’s long plait of hair coiled around Watson’s neck like a snake, they easily pass for a pair of dangerous twins.

Jean Cocteau in Paris, 1950.
Fearless tilting at taboos … Jean Cocteau in Paris, 1950. Photograph: Jane Bown

Watson and Yanowsky are present when I’m interviewing De Frutos, and while it’s the choreographer who dominates the conversation, it’s clear from the dancers’ measured contributions how involved they have been in the project. I’m assuming it hasn’t been the most comfortable experience for them, given the physical and emotional challenges to which De Frutos has subjected performers in the past. In Grass, a harrowing distillation of Madam Butterfly he choreographed in 1997, the three dancers ended up flayed, shaking, covered in blood. Yanowsky however looks unruffled when she declares: “I always like to be pushed outside my comfort zone.” Watson jokes: “I’m not even sure I have a comfort zone any more.” And both dancers insist that it’s not the darkness of the work’s material that has challenged them, but the complicated way in which De Frutos has staged it.

Elaborating on Glass and Marshall’s original device of doubling a singer and a dancer in each of the four roles, De Frutos made an early decision to add extra bodies to his cast. The production features two other Royal Ballet company members as well as four dancers from a contemporary background. This mix of styles has allowed De Frutos to experiment with a wide palette of movement. “I’m using everything that’s needed,” he says, from classical pointe work to raw physical gesture to the more naturalistic body language with which he has choreographed his four singers. More importantly, though, his expanded cast has also allowed him to present his two main characters from multiple perspectives.

In some scenes De Frutos has Elisabeth and Paul portrayed by up to four performers, all simultaneously dovetailed into the action. His rationale is that their personalities are so much of a puzzle, so jarringly odd, that while a simple, straightforward character like Agathe needs only one dancer and one singer to represent her, there are moments when the two siblings need several. “They live in this invented world and it has made them into seriously fractured people. When they say something it can mean four different things, and at times I need four different people to express that.”

Conveying the erotic moment … Javier de Frutos rehearses with Edward Watson.
Conveying the erotic moment … Javier de Frutos rehearses with Edward Watson. Photograph: Bill Cooper

By way of example De Frutos takes an early scene in which Elisabeth is ordering Paul to undress. Her behaviour here is simultaneously flirtatious and cruel, and to make that vividly clear, the choreographer has one of his contemporary dancers, Gemma Nixon, embodying Elisabeth’s warmth, while Yanowsky portrays her callousness. Paul’s response to his sister’s command is equally split, with Watson conveying his complicity in the erotic moment, and Jonathan Goddard his guilt. Watson says the evolution of ideas has been fascinating: “Javier gives us a situation in the studio and it’s amazing how differently we all react.” With a slightly malicious grin, De Frutos concurs: “Jonathan can do angst like nobody else, while Ed is so obviously the slaggy one.”

As the work nears completion, Yanowsky admits it can be difficult staying in character while sharing a scene with so many others. “Although Ed is always Paul, and I’m always Elisabeth, we’re mixing and matching with everyone else. We have to be constantly aware of each other, we all have to be in the same vibe.” De Frutos, however, is convinced that as complicated as the stage action sounds, his audiences won’t have any trouble following it: “I loved that film [I’m Not There] in which Bob Dylan was played by six actors. I had no problem believing they were all him.”

It has been a Herculean task to navigate the logistics of this production, keeping multiple voices in play, and moving the performers around the space, but De Frutos remains convinced that this has been the only possible way for him to deal with the material. “Cocteau’s writing is so beautiful, I would have loved to just make a beautiful dance. But I couldn’t do it. I had to get at the reality of what’s there, to find a language to talk about the incest, which is never actually named. Discovering all this stuff in the studio with these dancers and singers: that has been a beautiful thing.”

• Les Enfants Terribles is at the Barbican, London EC2Y, from 27 to 29 January. barbican.org.uk


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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