Interview: Ballett International | The Silence Of The Man

Lloyd Newson


The Silence of the Man

An Essay on Lloyd Newson's Physical Theatre
by Josephine Leask
Ballett International / Tanz Actuell | Aug/Sept 1995

British choreographer / director Lloyd Newson created a new form of dance theatre with his DV8 company: Physical Theatre. By radically politicising the body, DV8 staged the repressed issues of male-dominated society. In their latest production, Enter Achilles, the group enquire into and call into question the unwritten laws of the 'male continent'. Josephine Leask profiles here one of the most political and innovative companies of this decade.

"Men become depressed because of loss of status and power in the world of men ... A man despairs when he has ceased being a man among men."
Willard Gaylin | Theorizing Masculinities | p.133

"Shame leads to silence — the silence that keeps other people believing that we actually approve of the things that are done to women, to minorities, to gays and lesbians in our culture."
ibid p.131

"For a man to be a man's man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being 'interested in men'."
Eve K. Sedgewick | Male Impersonators | p.27

The above quotations illustrate different opinions on men, and the problematic conditions of being 'a man' which is the subject of Lloyd Newson's new work Enter Achilles, recently premièred in Vienna. Although it is not surprising that the cast of this new DV8 work consists of eight men of different sexual orientations, what may be more remarkable (and a departure from a previous homosexual focus) is that Newson has chosen to portray certain aspects of masculinity which focus on how straight men relate to each other. Newson did not intend Enter Achilles to be about straight men per se, but rather hoped it would question traditional conditions of masculinity and 'manhood'.

As yet there are few choreographers who have explored the subject of masculinity, partly because it is a subject that has only recently begun to be looked at in gender studies, thanks to the preparatory work done by feminists and queer theorists, and partly because dance, if it deals with sexual politics at all, is still intent on showing the battle of the sexes. Newson, however, is always the ground-breaker who pushed dance theatre through territory previously unexplored by dance and it seems he has done it again with this new work.

DV8 built up its reputation as an issue-based dance group which produced hard pessimistic work related to sexual politics and specifically to 'queer' sexuality in response to homophobia and the AIDS crisis in the 80s. Since then the work has developed and grown to reflect more optimism in a gradually-changing, more acceptable society, but still the confusion of attitudes towards sexuality in the 90s and the complexity of relationships both hetero and homosexual are areas of tireless subject matter for this issue-based company.

Newson works out his anxieties about human behaviour through his work, only creating when there is something serious on his mind and when there is "a need that is artistically motivated rather than commercially or administratively driven". (DV8 is in the lucky position of being a project based company that does not have to make on demand.) In Enter Achilles his mission is to unwrap the reasons which lie behind men's silence and the inability of many to communicate emotionally. As with all his work it is a personal journey of discovery which doesn't necessarily provide answers.

To understand more about why these aspects of masculinity are concerns for Newson right now, it is illuminating to place Enter Achilles in the context of the previous work of DV8. The key works of DV8 which seem to embody the development, both in form and content, of Newson's concerns and which reflect most clearly on the tensions and anxieties of society towards sexuality and relationships are My Sex, Our Dance (1986), Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1989), Strange Fish (1992) and MSM (1994).

Body Politics

"DV8 was a gale force wind across the becalmed sea of dance abstraction that dance was paddling in."
Keith Watson, critic, about the company

DV8 was formed in 1986 by Newson and an independent collective of dancers who had become disillusioned with the direction of most western dance. Newson had come over to London on a scholarship from Australia where he had performed repertoire with the New Zealand Ballet, had left the London Contemporary Dance School to choreograph with Extemporary Dance Theatre, but rapidly became concerned about the lack of meaning in western mainstream dance and its irrelevance to society and culture for the sake of virtuoso technique. After performing with these companies, he felt frustrated with the fact that "so many choreographers denied who I was, my ideas, my thought. I was nothing more than a bit of pigment for them to paint with" and that they denied the dancers' humanity and individuality on stage (from Dance and Dancers, summer 1992). Newson's training in psychology prior to his dance career and his work with children and families had given him an investigative interest in people that was certainly not satisfied by the lightweight aesthetic concerns of the dance he saw around him.

His curiosity in people, his observation skills, and his desire to delve deeper into areas where dance had previously not dared to go were to be used in developing his form of dance / physical theatre. This name implied a departure from accepted contemporary dance styles, did not rely on traditional dance vocabulary, but on a more athletic physicality, contact and improvisation skills and body language. The research for each new work has always been rigorous and the performers have taken almost as much of that responsibility as Newson himself. It is important for Newson to share the working process with his performers so that the work becomes collaborative, although ultimately he makes the decisions, sets exercises or edits material. As well as being strong dancers, his performers need to be open to improvising and challenging themselves both emotionally and physically. Often they are asked to show sides of themselves in performance that most humans would never reveal and sometimes will fail on stage as a result, but failure, which is the possible outcome of risk-taking, is part of DV8's working process.

My Sex, Our Dance

The first work that DV8 produced was My Sex, Our Dance which put sexuality on stage in a way that dance had never seen before and sent asexual, abstract dance and unitards flying. Newson himself was joined by Nigel Charnock in a gruelling gymnastic duet which mapped out the intensity of two lovers, the mutual trust and intimacy as well as the violence and frustration of gay love in a society that was hostile. By 1986, the threat of AIDS was running through public consciousness but little positive action was being taken: the health authorities seemed paralysed, the public confused. The movement was raw and didn't wrap up Newson's pessimism in aesthetic paper. What seemed like a series of workshop exercises and improvisations were developed by repetition and pauses, necessary respites from the onslaught of blood, sweat and tears. At times real distress through fear and exhaustion flickered across the dancers' faces; there was no time to act or fake it.

The level of commitment in this work was outstanding and established a quality of performance that is inherent in the work of DV8. While the unashamed visualisation of sexual politics of DV8's work was to influence some choreographers, more were influenced by the high level of burnout physicality, the dangerous jumps and catches which tested the dancers' mutual trust, and the grueling repetitions. While elements of this kind of physical / dance theatre had been demonstrated by Pina Bausch before, this was a far more direct, fast and 'modern' form, which required more of a 'gym' than a 'ballet studio' physicality. The excitement and adrenalin-pumping thrill of DV8's movement style attracted many choreographers, some of whom imitated it on a superficial level, divorcing it from content and integrity. Although the form has developed throughout Europe into the popular 'Euro-crash', much of what is seen today is a display of empty gymnastics and meaningless circus skills.

Although My Sex, Our Dance carried an essentially homosexual message and set the political tone of Newson's work, the next works, Deep End and My Body, Your Body (1987) explored male-female relationships and female to female. These works expanded on Newson's interest in other relationships and emphasised his concern with sexual equality. In both works, the women were joining in the same physical battles as the men and Newson's process allowed them to explore their identity and relationships from their own creative space.

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men was a consolidation of the homosexual focus, and built on the male relationships explored in Newson's first piece. The work based on the life of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen who lured his male victims back to his flat before murdering them, plunged into a very dark and sadistic side of homoeroticism and one that was threatened by death.

Going way beyond political statements about homosexuality into extremes, Dead Dreams was a depiction of the utter despair and gloomy consequences of repressed love. The first half was set in a club where Nilsen often picked up his victims. The whole process of the hunter seeking out his victim was played out through convincing body language, gestures and glances by the cast of four men including Newson. (Newson performed in most of the earlier works as he felt that by participating he could get a better sense of the quality of the work.) Scenes from a hard-core gay club and the darkroom were played out. The performers struck bodybuilder poses on top of pedestals, while a couple clutched and dragged one another, one active, the other passive, struggling, suffering, enacting the sordid penalties paid for the price of love.

The second half moved to a gloomy bedsit, the site of Nilsen's carnage. Two naked lifeless bodies were dragged around, then one was suspended upside down from the rafters while the other was laid out on bathroom tiles. Both bodies were like carcasses, passive slabs of meat, victims of the male meat market whose sex has to be practised illicitly underground away form the public eye. Scenes of drowning a lover in the bath, which was one of the murder methods Nilsen used, or abusing another, blindfolded, clocked up the disturbing images, variations of which have appeared in later works. For example, the sex scene where one man is crawling or pumping against another body and doesn't notice when that body moves away, or bodies either emerging out of water, or falling form a huge height into an empty void, suggesting betrayed trust. Or the action of kissing a victim on the mouth and using the kiss to drag the body along the ground or to suck out its life force, painting a double-edged picture of sexual violence and abuse.

The source material for Dead Dreams was taken from the book by Brian Masters entitled Killing For Company and images from the book were carefully woven with images from Newson's own powerful image repertoire. Subtle movement and frozen poses were juxtaposed with fast and dangerous contact work, furious outbursts which showed sensitive awareness of pace and timing. Newson's outstanding skill in crafting movement and form to match the content was revealed at its best. Even in his other work, where content has been more flakey or the focus less intense, the choreography has always provided a sound backup, both in terms of structure and form, showing his innate understanding of how to create theatre.

The work was made into a film for London Weekend Television's South Bank Show directed by frequent DV8 collaborator, film director David Hinton. As a result of this coverage (the South Bank Show is a mainstream arts documentary programme with a large viewing audience), Newson made front page tabloid news and was the subject of much controversy because of his blatant depiction of sex and death.

Considered to be DV8's most powerful epic to date, Dead Dreams proved that physical theatre could tackle complex issues without simplifying or sensationalising its subject. Both choreographer and performers worked into such emotional and physical depths and into such dangerous territory that they had to change their direction after making the film. As one of the dancers said about being in Dead Dreams: "... it is like cutting yourself with a knife. How long do you keep cutting yourself? And while people are amazed that you cut yourself on stage publicly — how much do you keep doing it, repeating the same action? I won't continue to cut myself, I now need to find another that goes beyond that."

Long-standing performer with DV8, Nigel Charnock went off to pursue his own comedy work for some light relief while Newson made a film for Channel 4 called Never Again (1989) which used the location of an empty warehouse, included a large cast of male and female performers and dealt with relationships on a more general level. Never Again was less intense, powerful or focused than Dead Dreams or indeed previous DV8 works but was more an exploration of the medium of film. Film has always been an important part of Newson's process (reflected in the title DV8 — the Video 8 camera) and extensive video documentation has been made of most of the works.

Strange Fish

Strange Fish marked a departure and development on several levels. Newson actively avoided using physical risk and danger in Strange Fish as he felt he had exhausted it and was tired of the fact that it had become the big cliché in European dance. This time the risk Newson was taking was in questioning whether dance could deal with complex emotional narrative. Could it be funny? Could one create tragi-comic theatre through movement alone?

Strange Fish was more of a mixed media performance which combined dance, theatre and conceptual art, text, music, costumes and comedy. An elaborate set was created by Peter Davidson, built prior to rehearsals, which included a water tank under the floorboards, a huge wall with openings resembling rooms and a gigantic cross. The subject matter dealt with relationships both heterosexual and platonic, loneliness and loss of faith. A narrative, developed through dance, was textured with loaded symbols such as the crucifix, red wine, candles, a subterranean water tank and music sung in Latin. Here was an example of Newson working with different formulae and the result was a complex maze of evocative and disjointed Freudian images. Watching Strange Fish was like being taken on a journey around another human's psyche and being allowed to roam around freely but getting lost continuously in spite of the signposts.

Newson drew on the individual characteristics and qualities of the performers, a cast of four men and four women plus a singer / narrator and material was developed from their improvisations and idiosyncrasies. Newson and long-term DV8 performer Wendy Houston had researched into people being funny and making fools of themselves as well as into showing pleasure in performance, something that was missing from their previous works. After Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in which the company had "burned themselves out with [the] directness" of being themselves, of showing inferiority, Newson and the performers were keen to try and create characters outside of themselves. He also wanted to add humour to say some of the things that DV8 has said before so earnestly and mix absurdism with humour as Samuel Beckett had done in his work (Newson admired Beckett's ability to take about nihilistic issues using humour and style).

Some of the movement verges on slapstick clowning when the dancers imitate each other or play teasing games in their desperate attempts to win approval and be part of the group. The two misfits are played by Houston and Charnock. While Houston loses her best friend to a man, Charnock alienates the group by trying too hard to be loved. In a scene set at a party, Charnock performs an hysterical gibbering monologue after having failed to make conversation with the other guests. He is both the comic and the sad outsider, alienating himself from the others as he invades their physical space, chasing after them until they are forced to jump into each others arms to avoid him.

Houston, after being rejected by her friend, is further traumatised by having sex with a man who pumps on top of her like a machine. A shower of grey pebbles which falls between them when they first meet heralds the cold, hard sensation of one-night stands. When the group of friends walk in on her thrashing around on the pebbles naked, she throws herself into the water tank in her humiliation and despair, dragging Charnock with her. The final scene, after she has re-emerged from the water is a countdown to complete loss of faith in humankind. After looking for Charnock, who has disappeared, she climbs the crucifix and kisses the female Christ, sucking the breath out until this great symbol of faith collapses. It makes no difference to Houston in her hollow despair. As in "if only ..." (1990) Houston features as the main character in Strange Fish leading us through her journey of loneliness, lost in an alien world, rejected by the paternal, heterosexual-ruled world of cruel power systems.

Another reference that Newson makes in Strange Fish is to old age and its connection with loneliness and religion. One of the performers, who is in her sixties, embodies Newson's commitment to working with more mature performers, and his interest in how their lives are shown through movement and how their bodies contain histories that say much more than technical ability. Newson believes that with older performers there is a reassurance that a performance career does not have to finish early, which is a refreshingly non-western attitude. "When most people start getting frightened about their careers coming to an end when they're only in their mid-thirties, I feel mine is only just beginning." Newson is not the kind of person who is going to be stopped by socially constructed life anxieties; he is too determined an artist.

Lavatory sex

MSM (1993) marked another development for DV8, this time into theatre, with actors and substantial amounts of text. Content matter returned to male sexuality, and dealt specifically with 'cottaging', the activity of men picking up men for sex in public lavatories. Newson researched the work carefully, recording conversations he had with men who were not only gay and bisexual but often married and fathers. The text was culled from more than 50 conversations with men and was mixed with a soundtrack by Jocelyn Pook (long-standing composer-collaborator with DV8). MSM took place in an interactive revolving set which contained washbasins, cubicles and stalls through which bodies and body-parts would appear and disappear. As in most of the recent works, an environment was created which textured both hard realism with a murky surrealism. Evoking powerful atmospheres is another strength of Newson and his collaborators and in this case, it was one of dirty, illicit and predatory ruthlessness from the closeted unspoken areas of male sexuality.

One message that came from MSM was that homosexuality and heterosexuality seemed to be names that described acts rather than people. Respectable married men could perform either when hungry for sex. Newson highlighted the loneliness of being a 'cottager', of being a man who could share 'intimacy' with a person to whom he didn't need to disclose any personal information or could just 'enjoy' quick functional sex through a hole in the wall during his lunch break. One scene, which hinted at the excitement of encountering other 'cottagers', showed two men drinking a pint of beer, before 'swapping' their body fluids in the toilet five minutes later.

MSM questioned why some men (more than you would think) need to 'cottage'. The gloomy conclusion that came from it was that such men are inadequate and can only connect with each other as strangers, anonymously and wordlessly.

Although MSM received enthusiastic reviews and launched Newson as a theatre director, the work was not filmed or even documented and Newson was left feeling doubtful as to whether his audience had understood the text or responded sincerely. He does not necessarily believe that even when his work is popular with audiences it is good or successful and claims that he had learnt most from works that have been public failures. His mixed feelings about MSM could have been to do with his wariness of using text as the main medium. Newson is also careful about using text with dance because "the physicality truth of movement is much more complicated and cannot often be captured by words" — often, an awkward relationship between the two media ensues.

Enter Achilles

Whatever Newson thought about MSM, it opened up a whole area of interest for him, presenting problems and questioning around the "performance / behaviour" of men. Due to an accident in 1994 in which he snapped a hamstring which subsequently became infected, he was hospitalised for a long time, unable to move. This provided him with time in which to research his next piece, aptly entitled Enter Achilles. The devious behaviour of men exposed in MSM — their inadequacy, their desire for anonymity, their silence, their complex communication with other men — were areas which intrigued Newson. While in hospital he read his way through a list of books and plays which focused on demystifying the myth of masculinity (which are, as yet, pretty scarce to find) and wrote a lengthy plot. Newson takes long written plots, which serve as a kind of backup framework, into rehearsal although material is usually developed through working physically with his dancers or chatting through ideas with them.

In Enter Achilles, Newson is looking beyond issues of sexuality to what constitutes masculinity. Newson was intrigued by how men compensate when they deny their feelings, and how they act when actions deemed to 'unmanly' manifest themselves in other ways. Also he was curious about how 'unmanly' behaviour is considered threatening by those who have rigid concepts about what a man should be or who feel insecure about their 'masculinity'. Newson questions why non-conformity should produce abhorrence and fear, a hint of the fragility of masculine identity when faced with the rise of queer identity and power of women. He interrogates how oppressive men have been to themselves as well as to women and homosexuals. One programme quotation pertinent to this theme is: "In men's silence there is always the possibility of violence, infecting men's social relationships with an element of wariness. Under such conditions what men will not allow in themselves they must deny in others." (Men's Silences — Rutherford). Perhaps this 'silence' explains why the incidence of suicide is so much higher amongst men than women, another area about which Newson is confused.

Newson decided to return to his more familiar medium of dance for this work which he intended to "present itself as a poetical (movement) response, embracing the complexities and contradictions of the above ideas rather than reflecting didactic theories" (from his working brief). Although he cited certain theoretical books as being very useful and influential in the making of the piece, most of the material came from observation and experience. "I'm not an expert on gender — not on a big theoretical level". Hopefully what he has produced can show how masculinity operates on an experiential day-to-day level.

In the rehearsal process each man in the cast of eight brought their own experience and ideas on the subject to rehearsals. They each held a day-long workshop on masculinity and carried out field research, going out as a group to pubs, to clubs, sex shops and city strip joints wearing city suits. In the sex shops Newson was intrigued by the inflatable sex doll, one of the most popular items, and noticed that men would prefer to buy the whole doll rather than just the cheaper individual replica of female genitalia. Newson took one of the programme quotations from a book called Absent Fathers, Lost Sons (Guy Corneau) which he found particularly resonant on this matter: "... we are all prisoners of the myth of the inflatable doll; the sex doll that can be blown up, used, deflated, repaired, stored away or replaced .... We do not want to see on our lover's bodies the marks of their lives. We want our mirrors forever perfect and unblemished so they will hide our own flaws as well." This doll plays a large part in Enter Achilles as the prized object of one of the men, a passive substitute for a loved partner which doesn't talk back or undermine his power.

Newson questions the activity of male bonding from his observations and how it usually centres around sport or drinking, actions of doing rather than just being together as women can; there always has to be a reason for these men to get together. An edge of aggression is very likely to be felt among such groups of men in which the only safety valve is in their reference to women. With women as their point of their sexual reference, these men can fool around with each other as much as they like and enjoy physical contact. Woman is another commodity like the inflatable doll, or a car, or property: "The trade that organises patriarchal societies takes place exclusively among men. Women, signs, goods, currency, all pass from one man to another." (Irigary in Male Impersonators, p.45).

A scene in Enter Achilles which portrays this male bonding takes place in a pub where the group of men meet, drink beer and crowd around a TV which is showing sport footage. The atmosphere is light and jovial, there is much physical contact (a series of dance solos and duets) but with a certain degree of tension that could turn into violence at any moment if one of them steps out of line. There are strict ground rules. According to Newson, there are a variety of ways in which one man can threaten the group and one of them is by wearing different clothes or bright, flamboyant colours. He claims that there is more pressure to conform to dress code amongst men than there is with women, a code which is more restrictive in that it allows less variety of style and colour. From his experience, a man walking into a British 'masculine' pub (which is usually painted in dark, dingy colours) wearing orange trousers will be accused of being queer. During this edgy pub scene, a stranger who is smaller and noticeable appears and dances while the other men crowd round and gradually become aggressive. The stranger throws off his clothes and reveals a Superman suit, which is like holding out a red rag to a bull. Violence breaks out. The final scene of male bonding takes place at a party. The men put on their favourite tapes and fool around. They get drunk and again tension mounts up and jovial atmosphere is cut with an edge of violence. The inflatable rubber doll is produced, chaos follows and the doll is destroyed. Finally the owner of the doll is left, confused and lonely, clutching the deflated rubber amidst the debris of cans and broken beer glasses.

Newson has an honest answer when asked why his work has developed from a gay sensibility into the more general realms of straight masculinity, saying "I'm working to improve my relationships with men." He has also talked about trying to understand why he has been personally let down by men and why it is difficult to talk about friendship and intimacy with men whom he meets when there is a latent threat of violence if certain unspoken parameters are crossed. Many of these problems apply to relationships with gay men as well. Newson's investigation into masculinity has undoubtably produced much more material than he thought it would a the beginning, too much for one project.

The whole process for Enter Achilles has been as taxing and complex as the subject with which it deals. Newson admits that finding straight male performers who were prepared to talk about these dangerous emotional issues and talk freely about their own experience, or who would not "parade their chests" in trying to prove their manliness was a hard job. On the other hand, he felt that working with straight men brought a different energy which was vital for the work to that of the gay performers.

For Newson, Enter Achilles is just the first step into this daunting subject which implies that he will follow it up in several more stages. On the strength of its opening in Vienna there has already been much demand for Newson to give lectures and workshops on masculinity. While this is a positive response, Newson does not want it to be too theorised or intellectualised. Rather he wants men (and women) to question why men (that is, straight men) are more scared than anyone in society to come out of their tight little boxes.


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