Juanjo Arqués
Juanjo Arqués | Photo: Altin Kaftira

Juanjo Arqués on Full Frontal: ‘A ballet about real people and actual feelings’

14 September 2023

The new creation by the Spaniard Juanjo Arqués had to be postponed twice due to corona restrictions. The first wave of corona put paid to the plans, as did the Omicron variant last year. This meant that Arqués’ sources of inspiration and ideas for his new work changed as well. Now the premiere is imminent at last, he has chosen a theme that many of us have had to deal with both during and since the corona pandemic: the impact of stress on our daily lives.

Yes, he’s also stress-sensitive himself, admits the 46-year-old Juanjo Arqués. “As an artist, you automatically have to contend with tension and nerves. Especially as I’m someone who always takes risks. If I’m asked to choreograph a work within a few weeks, I’m quick to say yes, but then you’re usually stressed for weeks afterwards. On top of that, I have a mild form of ‘urban phobia’, so I don’t feel very comfortable in big crowds of people or on those ultra-long metro escalators.”

However, he says, his new piece Full Frontal is absolutely not an autobiographical work. “What concerns me is the role stress plays in our society and the effects it has on us.” Recently, he has been delving into the subject in detail – both into stress caused by external factors, such as noise, crowds, bad news and disasters, and into mental, inner stress. “Of course stress also has its positive sides. For instance, it can boost your immune system and help you defend yourself and others against threats or danger. But how do we deal with chronic stress? If you want to be a well-balanced person, then you need to keep such stress under control.”

Urban adaptation of Michael Gordon’s Weather One

In search of a piece of music for his new creation, Arqués came across Michael Gordon’s Weather One, which has agitated, strident sounds that for him clearly represent the urgency of stress and the associated fear and uncertainty. “It’s a composition that’s often been used by choreographers – including Itzik Galili in the Netherlands – so it’s really suited to dance. Only I won’t be using the piece in its most familiar version. Originally, Weather One was written for string orchestra, and Gordon later added sounds and effects that relate to nature. But for Full Frontal, with Gordon’s agreement, sound designer Ian Dearden is replacing these with sounds we associate mainly with life in a big city. After all, the sound of thunder doesn’t usually lead directly to stress, unless your house is struck by lightning, of course. So Ian will replace the thunder with the sound of an explosion or car crash, and the sounds of an Aeolian harp, for example, will become those of a church bell in his arrangement.”


When the amygdala just keeps racing on

Arqués talked at length with dramaturge Fabienne Vegt, his regular set and costume designer Tatyana van Walsum and lighting designer Yaron Abulafia (for whom Full Frontal is the first collaboration with Arqués) on about how to transform his subject into a ballet. “We discussed the many external reasons for experiencing stress, from urban noise to aircraft flying overhead, and from bombardments to earthquakes. But also how stress can take over your state of mind, often subconsciously, when the part of your brain called the amygdala just keeps racing on and you can’t stop worrying – often about something totally insignificant.”

Riho Sakamoto en Davi Ramos − repetitie Full Frontal
Riho Sakamoto and Davi Ramos − rehearsal Full Frontal (2023) | Photo: Altin Kaftira

Arqués also spent a lot of time analysing Gordon’s composition. “The piece consists of diverse parts that are linked together, but like in many films there’s a sort of midpoint halfway through; the point at which the situation can’t actually get any worse, and from there it goes via other, smaller plot points towards a solution. That’s also the case in Gordon’s music. At the beginning, it’s very chaotic, then it builds up further and even further, and then suddenly there’s a sort of turning point.”


Raw movement idiom

At the time of the interview, Arqués had only just had the first few exploratory rehearsals with his cast of dancers – five men and four women. With them, too, he will explore the phenomenon of stress and its effects in more depth, which he says will influence the choreography. “What I can say about it at the moment is that the movement idiom will be reasonably raw. My piece is about urgency, so not about decoration or perfection. I’ll be discussing themes like fear, worry, resistance and human resilience with the dancers. What do you do, for example, if you lose everything, after an earthquake like those in Turkey and Syria? How do we help each other in a situation like that, and how do you manage to get over it?”

In the ballet, the dancers will be wearing street clothing (designed by Van Walsum). “So that there’s less distance from the audience and it’s easier for people to identify with them”, says Arqués. Van Walsum’s designs also include two big screens. “I’m going to use them not just for people to appear from and disappear behind, but also to create shadows and suggest a multiplicity of the nine dancers – like a throng of people, as it were.” Abulafia’s lighting designs will also contribute to the meaning and the tension of the piece. “By using moving straight lines, I can create walls and define the space.”


Not imposing a story

The last thing Arqués wants is for his new creation to impose a story on his audience. “A journalist wrote about one of my earlier works that although it had a narrative feel to it, there was no narrative. Full Frontal will be like that as well. I don’t want to refer to one specific event or situation. My ballet is about the condition humaine. It reflects an aspect of our society and is about real people and actual events and feelings.”

He laughingly dismisses the question of whether some of the audience might not come away even more stressed than before. “That’s not my call. A ballet can be light, or it can be weightier. People’s preference is a personal choice. In recent years, I’ve often choreographed for operas, and most opera directors aren’t afraid of provoking people – quite rightly so. Moreover, as a spectator you’re anyway primarily a voyeur, an observer, so I don’t think you could get stressed from a twenty-minute ballet.”

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen

  • Four Temperaments will be performed at Dutch National Ballet from 16 September to 30 September 2023