Keeping the edge, preserving reality
Straight-talking and innovative choreographer Lloyd Newson talks to Michael Seaver about why dance is 'the Prozac of the artforms'
Lloyd Newson had come across my type lots of times before. The short walk from dance studio to the gin he craves after a day's teaching becomes an interrogation. But he is asking the questions, not me: How did I get involved in dance? What type of work do I like? And, with some bemusement, why on earth I wanted to be a dance critic? After recounting his own brushes with certain critics and writers in Britain, with their unethical and untrustworthy practices, comes the clincher.
"And of course, I'd never bother to read what anyone wrote about me."
Arriving at the bar, I'm fairly craving a gin myself.
This isn't just robust pre-interview one-upmanship, but rather Newson being honest about how he feels about the ritual dances he's forced to participate in as director of the consistently successful and popular company DV8.
It's a world we all tire of as interviews, press releases and media briefings spin hype about a latest production or film, and it's this very type of spin that's he is tackling in his latest work, Just for Show. As high-stool bonhomie sets in, it's clear that Newson hates this part of his job and prefers straight-talking to the filtered interview. He is neither coy nor elusive, but instead generous with the gossip and honest with the hard questions. A bit like his dances.
Born nearly 20 years ago, DV8's work was an aesthetic reaction to a stagnant dance scene and a political reaction to Thatcherite Britain. Sharp, tenacious and unforgiving, its early work is embodied in Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men from 1988. A reaction to the notorious Clause 28 legislation that prevented local councils from using public money to "promote homosexuality" it was based on the case of Dennis Nilsen, who killed 15 homosexual men at his home.
"But the interesting thing is that none of these men was reported missing by family or friends," says Newson. "That tells its own story. Imagine the coverage if 15 young women went missing."
Film has been as important to DV8 as performance (the name is not just a play on "deviate" but comes from Dance and Video 8) and it was the film version of Dead Dreams that brought the company's first notoriety.
"It was due to be shown on the South Bank Show late one Sunday night and that day the Sunday Mirror ran some Gay- Orgy-on-ITV type of story. Of course it meant that loads of people tuned in and it broke the South Bank Show's viewing- figure record."
Dead Dreams is no orgy, but it does have a directness that was missing from the arts at the time. Before MSM (1993) opened in West End, the company was warned that it couldn't show anything that was "illicit or obscene" in case they offended the audience. As an explicit interrogation of male sexuality and the practice of cottaging, a lawyer was required to sit through the dress rehearsals advising on what was "decent" and what was not.
DV8's movement vocabulary is equally direct, and reflects Newson's studies in psychology in his native Australia more than his experience as a dancer with Extemporary Dance Company. "Movement should have intent, purpose and a reason. It's not enough just to look good, but I need to know why you are moving in a particular way. It's like how a theatre director would work in terms of intention, focus and subtext."
Newson coined the term physical theatre to describe DV8's work but shuns the term these days, as it seems to be used for anything that isn't traditional dance or theatre.
Dubbing dance "the Prozac of the artforms" he abhors its self-limiting preoccupation with physical beauty and perfection. Instead he is drawn to work that has a more developed sense of theatricality.
"And that doesn't mean narrative," he adds. "Pina Bausch's work can seem really austere but it can connect to audiences really directly. I remember talking to this Australian woman after she had seen Pina Bausch piece. She would never go to a dance performance, and was expecting pretty shapes and moves, but afterwards she said, 'This dancer kept running and running and running. I was getting really bored because she was going nowhere. Then after a while I thought, jeez, she's a bit like me. That's what I'm like right now. I'm spending my life running and running and going nowhere. I should do something and get out of this rut I'm in.' I think it's great that she saw that and reflected it back on herself. You don't need to over-simplify how you communicate with your audience. Just make sure you are communicating all the time."
As DV8 has become more and more successful, it has gone to larger venues and traded up the demographics. "Halls get bigger, ticket prices go up, so you are now playing to a different audience [than the one] that came to your dingy studio work. I also think that there is a pressure to dumb-down as audiences get bigger. That's not just DV8. I think many dance companies feel this pressure."
After his experience with MSM at the West End, he realised DV8's values and politics will never be mainstream.
"I don't want them to be," he said at the time, "even if it means forgoing large amounts of money for the company and perhaps results in smaller audiences. I'm pleased our work has an edge to it: thought-provoking work will upset and create factions. Skill-display in dance too often overrides meaning, denying failure and, therefore, human-ness. I fight to preserve reality as I see it in the world around me and therefore the work could upset or offend people, among other reactions."
But he has maintained that edge while increasing the company's profile and is driven to getting his work seen by as many people as possible.
He enjoys success and is impatient with less than full houses. Ireland worries him. "I hope we get an audience here in Dublin. I heard that Mark Morris played here [ at last year's International Dance Festival Ireland] and it wasn't sold out. How can that be? Why don't people come to see dance in Ireland?"
Not enough gin in this bar to begin that lengthy explanation.
This success hasn't dulled his politics. If Dead Dreams was a reaction to Thatcherism then Just for Show is a reaction against Blairism. Along with The Cost of Living (his previous work) it looks at our changing values and what we are prepared to accept as truth. "We all lie. And we all accept lies from other people. So how much is too much? Theatre itself is a great lie. It's not for real."
Or is it? It's a grey area that Newson enjoys. Performers can hide on stage by only interacting with each other and ignoring the audience. In The Cost of Living there is a beauty contest parody where one of the performers addresses the audience directly and says, "My name's Paul and I want to work for charities that save endangered species." But then one comes forward and cheerfully says, "Hi, my name's Mike and I really like hurting people." Later another says, "Hi, my name's Yossi and I've got AIDS."
"Maybe he's telling the truth, maybe he's not," says Newson. "People always come up to me afterwards and ask, 'Was he telling the truth?' Another important point I want to question is this whole notion of the market value of bodies. There is one dancer with no legs, another who is old, and another who is overweight. How do we judge them? Do we view those bodies as failures to society?"
This thread of truth and pretence continues in Just for Show. In our superficial world, is looking good more important than being good? Just as he rails against a preoccupation with surface beauty in dance, he is uncomfortable with a society where hard news is light entertainment and entertainment is reality TV.
Like other works, it had a lengthy research period and extensive rehearsals where the performers developed moves that were honest to their bodies rather than imposed because they looked good. Onstage what you see is what you get, which can be draining to the performers.
"After Dead Dreams Nigel Charnock came tome and said, 'I need time out. I can't keep doing this all the time.' It wasn't the physical work but the emotional commitment night after night. This wasn't just faking a part, it was living it."
Just for Show incorporates technology that blurs virtual and real people, but for Newson real people matter, whether his own performers or the audience members that met him in Dublin recently after his talk as part of Coiscéim's Choreographic Manoeuvres series. Clearly star-struck, their shy gushing is quickly neutralised by Newson's genuine curiosity about them and what they do. Soon real conversation replaces stuttered accolades, just as easy banter replaced a formal press interview 24 hours previously. Honest engagements with people, in or out of the theatre, is what protects DV8 from getting caught up in its own polemic and losing sight of what is real in a world full of spin.
Just for Show is presented by International Dance Festival Ireland and British Council Ireland at the O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin, from tomorrow night. A special screening of the film The Cost of Living will take place at the UGC on Sat at noon