DV8 ... Ten Years on The Edge
Based on an interview with Mary Luckhurst (unpublished)
Bound To Please programme | DV8 Physical Theatre | 1997
For more than 10 years, DV8 Physical Theatre, led by Lloyd Newson, has consistently produced work that forces us to look beyond our preconceptions about dance and theatre. With the new production, Bound To Please, starting its long European tour, the time seems right to look back over that decade of work and ask the choreographer who made it happen to explain himself a little.
The company has tackled many different themes over the years. In My Sex, Our Dance (1986), soon after the emergence of AIDS as a social issue, Newson and Nigel Charnock used an analogy of physical risk-taking to explore how far two men can trust each other. How far can a body, somebody, the 'body', be pushed before it becomes dangerous? In My Body, Your Body (1987), the company explored the psychology of women who seek relationships with abusive men, an idea inspired by the book, Women Who Love Too Much.
Newson made connections between the debates taking place in Parliament on Clause 28 (legislation to prevent local councils from using public money to 'promote homosexuality') and Brian Masters' book, Killing For Company, on mass-murderer Dennis Nielson, for Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988), although the finished piece probably had more to do with the lives of the four dancers than with Nielson. After "if only ..." (1990), which was based loosely on the idea of faith and the need to believe in someone or something, Newson turned to writing storylines in advance for new pieces as a way of guiding himself and the performers through the often nebulous process of group devising.
The first piece to have a pre-written scenario was Strange Fish (1992), for which Wendy Houstoun helped with the redrafting. Improvisation was still used but became more focused and precise. The company's most recent production, Enter Achilles (1995), also had a scenario. Newson has said of this process that, while it helps him to know where he is heading before beginning a project, the performers' individual contributions often reshape the initial concepts.
How would you describe your work?
Newson ... DV8 was the first company in Britain to call their work physical theatre, which is a Grotowski-based term. Now it's a term I'm hesitant to use because of its current overuse in describing almost anything that isn't traditional dance or theatre. My physical work requires trained dancers, although many dancers have difficulty adapting to my approach because they've had the connection between meaning and movement trained out of them.
How would you differentiate your work from that of other practitioners?
I am committed to making new work, not returning to old forms - even to the extent of not maintaining a repertoire. We make work from scratch — writing new stories, which requires commisioning musical scores and set designs.
Set design has become integral to our invention of movement. I am interested in understanding movement in different spatial contexts. Similarly, Jack Thompson's work as lighting designer is crucial in creating strong atmospheres and highlighting meaning within scenes.
With regard to our physical language, I constantly try to encourage the performers to find ways of moving that are personal to them - their own unique movement vocabulary. Obviously I've been influenced by other dance forms but I'm not a purist — or stylist. We find movement to express the meaning or idea we're presenting moment by moment, and if movement can't do it and words or song can, then we'll use those. Most dance companies, I feel, have restricted what they can speak about because they have accepted a limited definition of what movement constitutes 'dance'.
The research and development period for Enter Achilles (1995) occurred almost two years prior to the piece being completed. This gap suggests that sometimes there can be quite a significant delay between ideas being initiated and the work that emerges a few years later.
During a five-week R&D period in Glasgow in 1994, I found myself struggling creatively while investigating the distinction between subtleties of the spoken word and the equivalent subtleties in movement. The improvisations were quite frustrating and quite tough. Yet suddenly, I found a new direction for the experimentation. One day I went down for a drink with the performers after we had finished rehearsals; we were all sitting around rather tired, and I noticed that everybody was drinking pints of beer. Seeing the potential for both initiating and limiting movement exploration, I suggested bringing pint glasses to the studio the following day. As work progressed the glass became a metaphor for all sorts of things in the piece to do with masculinity and British culture.
Is there anything in particular that has helped you develop your work?
My background in psychology has provoked me constantly to ask "why?" Why do an arabesque? What does an arabesque mean? Ironically, for the first time in 11 years, we actually have an arabesque on stage in Bound To Please. I left traditional dance because of its lack of specificity, its lack of questioning and its lack of rigour beyond technique. Psychology training has helped me to see patterns of behaviour and language and think of physical ways to interpret these.
What are your thoughts on audience?
With Enter Achilles and Strange Fish, I made a decision to keep the audience entertained, and what that really meant was keeping myself entertained. But I need to alternate these types of pieces and my need to please with work that is challenging and 'enduring'.
I have felt over the last few years that many dance companies, including ourselves, have been coerced into doing easier pieces for audiences. There are lots of reasons for this. The pressure is often subtly implied, though, rather than overtly stated. As the company plays to larger audiences, you are forced to consider mass appeal.
When we presented MSM in the West End, I was told that we couldn't do anything "illicit or obscene" — their words not mine — in case we offended the audience. So we had to have a lawyer present in the dress rehearsals advising us on what was 'decent' and what was not. That experience made me realize that DV8's values and politics will never be mainstream and I don't want them to be, even if it means foregoing 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.
How do you see yourself developing with dance?
Why do older performers decide not to stay in dance? It's not only about the deterioration of the body. Too many of those working in dance are concerned with youth and beauty, with making pretty pictures and shapes. Rarely does dance address the complexities of the real world. At times dance feels very juvenile to me: until we re-define our notions of what dance is, what a dancer looks like and how a dancer moves; until older, fat and disabled dancers can be encouraged to keep performing and to talk about their lives, the form will remain young and immature. We must encourage dancers to use more than just their bodies.
How do you hope to develop?
With a lot of work.