Lloyd Newson .... Dance About Something
Original interview David Tushingham
Enter Achilles programme | DV8 Physical Theatre | 1995
Adapted from an interview that first appeared in 'Live' (Methuen)
One of the things which distinguishes DV8's work for me is that it's dance about something.
Newson ... One of my concerns in forming DV8 was to broaden the perspective of dance and try to make it more relevant to people's lives. I prefer the term 'movement' to 'dance' because I feel that dance is only one type of movement. That's another reason we call ourselves Physical Theatre, not a dance company: because I think the word dance has many limiting associations.
Too often I see dance companies who are more interested in the aesthetic and the visual than they are in content. Ironically enough, I think any aesthetic is political, but unfortunately a lot of people don't take that on board. People refer to DV8 dealing with sexual politics: the Royal Ballet deals with sexual politics, it's just conservative rather than radical or questioning. What are the politics of an arabesque, tutu and point shoe? An arabesque does have politics attached to it. It's about perfection, idealism, beauty — an acquired notion — and in many case uniformity.
I would hope that dance is more than acrobatics. Yet to a large extent it ends up being about what you can do with your body alone - that becomes its preoccupation. DV8's preoccupation is: if the leg is thrown up beside the ear, why is it there? There must be a reason for it, not just "Look at what we're able to do: look how high I can kick my leg".
Physical tricks and virtuosity often interfere with the idea or intention being conveyed. To validate the form — because it is one that is constantly trampled upon — we seem to have to show what we can do and other people can't. This is happening more and more in schools. In order to get funding and bcause of their affiliation with universities, a lot of the dance schools are having to find something they can give marks to — it's almost as if the height you can get your leg is equivalent to an academic qualification. What the schools should be doing is placing much greater emphasis on choreography, creativity and individuality.
Art is highly subjective, highly personal and it's about opinions, it's about diversity. This, to me has been lost, and what we are actually producing, on the whole, are clones. Dance, more than any other art form is training everyone towards the same visual ideal. Imagine if every actor were the same size, spoke the same lines at the same time, wore the same style costumes, moved in the same manner, didn't analyse what they were saying and retired by the time they were forty!
I like to think that the physical language we explore, while coming from the individuals I work with, is something everybody knows about. All the movement that we develop is stylised naturalistic movement. That is, its origins are imbued with meaning — as were most dance forms until they were abstracted ad infinitum. If someone walks into a cafe, we have an immediate reaction to the way they look, how they hold their body, what their body's telling us. As a creator you become aware of that information and you find ways to reveal that formally, stylistically. But its source must always be clear.
There are some people in the dance world who believe audiences need to be educated about dance. I feel exactly the opposite. Most dance people need to be educated in the ways of normal living and learn what body movements mean to other people, both consciously and unconsciously. When the average person in the street watches a dance performance in which women fling their legs wide open, for the dancer it's just a technical event, but for the person watching it, it can have immense emotional, sexual and psychological implications. We shouldn't deny this — nor should we pander to their values alone: art is about challenging. However, we should be aware of the divide and understand what we do and what that difference in perception means.
One of the great things about your work for me is the quality of the acting and I think that comes from your attention to movement. Is movement less arbitary than speech?
Historically, our first forms of communications were with the body and what we retained were images, long before language was evolved. It is something I think we retain at a profound level. Images and sensations are still the things we remember. How often do you leave a play that you don't know and remember verbal passages?
The visceral aspect of dance precedes conscious thought: that's its power. But that's also where many new choreographers end their discoveries. If one can build images, the mind will retain them. Support them with movement and sensation and the body will remember them.
Although I'm primarily interested in theatre that deals with images and movement, these have their limitations and more recently I've become interested in combining them with language and human sound. Language has a specificity which is very difficult to match in movement and images alone. On the other hand, sometimes ambiguity is important to maintain and specificity can kill the power of what has been achieved without language. Language feels like just another tool that I want to have access to. I don't want to lose the power of movement so I'm trying to find that balance — too often I see direction where the words try to do all the work.
There's been a lot of talk about me getting 'into' people with screwdrivers, sort of trying to prise open their lives. I've found a lot of our work ends up being based around people who come along on their first day and say "Here's my life!" These people are prepared to reveal everything about themselves in the rehearsal process. It becomes their existence, it's their life, everything about them becomes apparent. To find such people is very difficult. A lot of performers I know are not prepared to go through the process of improvisation and self-revelation. They want to be told what to do constantly. Our process requires vulnerability, initiative and commitment from the performer. It's as much about self discovery and self confrontation as it is about the arrangement of steps. Sometimes I'm accused of not giving the 'key' to release or reveal a performer's talent. Few people take the responsibility to discover their own talents, and expect someone else to do it. The process must be shared, where all parties become responsible and accountable to one another. It's difficult, and it's no coincidence that I do one piece every 18 months, not two or three a year. What you get on stage with our performers is what they give in life.
DV8 have done a lot of pioneering work in making film versions of dance pieces, and Strange Fish has just won a thrid international award, the Prix Italia. Are these films a substitute for not having a repertoire, preserving them in an ultimate performance?
I only create when I feel the need to create and it's usually about an issue that's pertinent to my life or those close to me at the time. It's a way of exorcising these concerns and once it's done, it's finished for me. To go back would be like going back over old therapy sessions. They were necessary and important for me at the time, but I can't see the benefit in regurgitating them now. In fact it could be counterproductive to re-do them.
All my work is a personal journey. In the past (and everything could change tomorrow) it was very much based on the individuals who were involved in the production. The pieces were built around them: their improvisations, their personalities, the way they looked, how they spoke ..... For me, an analogy would be having, say, five or six different chemicals and putting them together. You can't push everyone to be, you know, magnesium sulphate. There will never be two of the same element — so the fusion is always unique. (Laughs). Sometimes you get explosions! Sometimes it backfires in your face because you haven't quite worked out that some chemicals jar with others or that you're allergic to certain substances — but even this is interesting to explore. Our work is about individuals, their lives, interactions and personalities. It's not about: here's the role, the play, the words, the movement — learn it. It's devised work. The work is only ever as good as the people in it.
As someone who comes from the theatre, I've found it attractive about your work that even when you are dealing with a theme, there's very little telling the audience what to think: you avoid conclusions.
In MSM, for example, one of my primary concerns — and I only discovered this after doing the fifty interviews — was that each man who cottaged had different reasons, and had differnet histories. There was no simple set rule. I try to avoid generalising. However, there is a truth and a lie in every generalisation and sometimes it's valuable to find the individual in the stereotype and the stereotype in the individual. I've come to the conclusion that rather than try and have a little sentence that can be handed round at the end of the piece to say, "This is what it's really about. This is my premise and conclusion", I prefer to represent people's life experiences along with their contradictions and complexities. Obviously I have opinions but sometimes it's more worthwhile to try and understand a situation than to judge it.
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- A silent figure is the dancer, true
yet words become dance,
and all things there express'd.
Huge are the rhythms,
which through us are press'd
to shape that ancient language of man.
(André Bjerke: The Dancer)