Lloyd Newsom’s DV8 Dances Out the Devil Within
Published in the Financial Times, 17.10.2014
“All art should be controversial. The problem with dance is that too much of it is happy to avoid controversy.”
Lloyd Newson is no stranger to controversy, so it’s hardly surprising that within minutes of our sitting down, Exhibit B should crop up in conversation. The Barbican had just cancelled Brett Bailey’s “human zoo” exhibition after protests on opening night. Newson, like many others, is dismayed by the decision but, with a new piece entitled JOHN about to open at the National Theatre, he is also slightly anxious: “Let’s hope we don’t have the same response.
Newson’s dance-theatre company DV8, formed in 1986, has sparked its share of anger over 28 years, and Newson himself has conceived and directed all its 18 major pieces. Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988), about the inherent brutality of sex and partly inspired by the necrophiliac serial killer Dennis Nilsen, prompted a rash of complaints when it was broadcast on television in 1990. Two years ago, the company was braced for a backlash over a verbatim piece about Islamic fundamentalism called Can We Talk About This? “We were expecting protests. Many of the people we interviewed had received death threats.”
Despite his firebrand tendencies, though, Newson has a natural serenity: he moves with dancerly grace, as you’d expect of a dancer and choreographer, and speaks with measured calm. All of which contrasts with the makeshift storeroom outside DV8’s offices, a kitchenette piled high with clutter. The man across the table is bald, half by choice, with eyes in a cool shade of blue-grey.
Born in Melbourne in 1957, Newson had a childhood on the move, following his father’s air force career around Australia. His schooling suffered (“I didn’t read my first book, an Agatha Christie, until 12 or 14”), but he took flight, intellectually, at university, majoring in psychology. It shows in DV8’s work. There’s a constant focus on group dynamics, conformity and outsidership.
Dance seemed an antidote to books – “I had to do something physical” – and gradually pushed other careers aside. He auditioned for the New Zealand ballet and, being the only male applicant, got the job – only to become increasingly bored. “The better my pirouettes got, the duller my mind became.” DV8 was born as a reaction to that, built to give performers creative autonomy and to make dance that spoke to audiences. Meaning over technique. Substance over style.
“There’s a huge market for high legs and pointed feet, and often that’s pretty empty – emphasis on the word ‘pretty’. A lot of dance is decoration. It’s nice to go into a room and see lovely wallpaper, but the fundamental thing is the room itself, the building. I don’t feel that many dance people build buildings.”
That’s partly why Newson turned to verbatim theatre in 2007. He wanted – needed – to work with text. “I don’t think you can talk about a complex world without words,” he says. “As I get older, I have to have language.”
Some critics contend that the words render Newson’s choreography redundant, that they do all the work. I disagree. In DV8’s work, dance becomes hypnotic. It distracts part of your brain and allows views you’d reject out of hand to sneak under the radar. Movement smuggles in meaning. In keeping with other recent work at the National, it elevates verbatim beyond vox pop.
It also demands a painstaking process. “You try hundreds of movements for three words,” says Newson, rolling his eyes slightly. DV8 rehearsals are abnormally long. Dancers listen to their texts via iPods and improvise movements around tasks set by Newson. “We video everything and may get two or three seconds from a two-hour improv; a kernel or a motif or a metaphor.”
The switch to verbatim resulted in two fiercely political pieces: To Be Straight With You (2007-09), about homophobia, particularly rooted in religion, and Can We Talk About This? (2011-12), on the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism. The latter was roundly dismissed as polemic but it held some hard-to-swallow home truths. JOHN is verbatim number three.
“I won’t use the word triptych,” says Newson. “It sounds pretentious.” Even so, JOHN seems to complete the set. Its focus is a troubled middle-aged man with a history of crime, drug-use and homelessness. He also had a secret life.
Newson is keen to keep it that way, so consider this your spoiler alert. All of Newson’s interviewees – John included – are regulars at a gay sauna. “He’s not the type you expect to find there, but that’s the question: who do you expect? It could be a judge or a thief, you’ve no idea.”
What this isn’t, he says, is “a gay ghetto piece”. JOHN is about men and sex, specifically about a masculine approach to sex that is, at some level, curtailed by society and superegos. So much so, in fact, that it has to go underground. “10,000 people go through this particular sauna a month.” Newson stresses that the impulse isn’t uniquely homosexual – look at straight men on a Saturday night, he says, look at open relationships that save marriages. “Why is it that sex is often so secretive?”
Again, there’s an eye on conformity and the pressure of social norms. The sauna offers a certain freedom from that. “All these men are searching for something,” says Newson; “be it escape or validation or gratification.”
Men – gay or straight – have been at the heart of Newson’s work. From the pent-up Monochrome Men to the promiscuous cottagers of MSM (1993); the macho groupthink of the drinkers in Enter Achilles (1995) dancing with their pints, to the misfits mates careering round a seaside town in The Cost of Living (2000); all dancing out their lust, their aggression and their loneliness.
What’s the fascination? Newson lets out a little laugh: “It’s better to stick with what you know.”
Photograph: Matt Nettheim