Interview: Dance & Dancers | Strange Fish

Lloyd Newson


Strange Fish
Lloyd Newson talks to Dance & Dancers about his new work
Introduction by Nadine Meisner
Dance & Dancers | Jul 1992

DV8 Physical Theatre, praised to the heavens for their two earlier pieces Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men and "if only ...", courted by television companies to show their work on the small screen, go from strength to strength. From the start they pursued a distinctive style, overwhelmingly emotional and physically daring, that went against the polite reserve prevailing in British dance. But they have never shown themselves to be rigid. With each new piece they have kept the best of their approach, while enlarging their language and introducing other facets. Their latest piece, Strange Fish, does exactly that.

Still profoundly serious in its subject matter, Strange Fish unmistakably communicates ideas about loneliness and conflict, longing and dissappointment, the need to believe in someone or something to fill the void. Yet it does this in a way that has none of the harsh directness of Dead Dreams; its style is humorous, entertaining, oblique, without in any way diluting its poignancy. It uses a diversity of means: dance, speech, singing (already present in "if only ..."), decor and music (by Jocelyn Pook and Adrian Johnston). It also uses eight intensely individual performers. There are Wendy Houstoun, the central character, darkly comedic and pugnacious; Lauren Potter and Jordi Cortes Molina, exquisite movers both; Nigel Charnock who displays his extraordinary verbal dexterity; and four newcomers — the singer Melanie Pappenheim, the dancers Kate Champion and Dale Tanner, and 64-year-old Diana Payne-Myers.

The set, designed by Peter J. Davison, exists as an active participant. It includes water and a brown back wall covered in windows, doors and ledges to produce startling visual surprises. Strange Fish is as close to total theatre as you will get, a satisfying and unforgettable fusion of sight and sound. It is perhaps DV8's best piece yet.

Nadine Meisner

[ Dance & Dancers ] You have said that your new work is about belief and desire, and whether through anticipation and expectation we create disatisfaction with what life has to offer. And you have this Buddhist quotation in the programme — 'Be as ignorant of what you catch, as the fisherman is of what is at the end of his fishing line'. It is very difficult not to build expectations, though, isn't it?

Newson ... The danger is that in having faith and expectations you create things that are not real. In this piece, Wendy Houstoun asks Nigel Charnock to fly; she wants Dale Tanner to be able to stand in a handstand for longer than is possible; she expects things, and there is a large sense of control and manipulation of people to get her desired reactions. And often it's disguised friendship. Nigel at the party is really looking for friendship, even if he is alienating a lot of people.

You seem to be using the individual qualities of the performers very strongly. For example, you use the verbal ability Nigel displayed in his one man show, that amazing speed of speech; and also Wendy's humour ...

But also a black element; she has a wonderful duality between being funny and tragic at the same time. I like that about her a lot. Also Jordi Cortes Molina and Lauren Potter in their duet, only those two could be so fluid and rubbery. And Dale, you use Dale for Dale's body, for his chunky, strong powerful look. Diana Payne-Myers, we use for her fragility and her age; Melanie Pappenheim for her extraordinary vocal range.

I am very frustrated by the lack of individuality and character that is being presented in dance. I am so bored with work where everybody has to be the same person, which is often the choreographer. I want to see individuality, I want to see characters on stage, I want to see people experience things. Well, hopefully our process facilitates and draws out individual qualities and characteristics, both in terms of the way they move as dancers and how they think on stage. I want to see thinking individuals and interactive dancers.

But Diana is sixty-four?

She is. I use her because — even now, with the company in their mid-thirties, I still find them very young. It is a very young company for me, although for most companies it is probably very old. I am very eager, as I get older, to work with my peers. I don't want to talk too much about life in one's fifties, because I don't know that yet. But I find it a bit arrogant when I go to performances and see eighteen or nineteen year-olds trying to tell me about life — and most of the audience is double their age! So I'm very eager to take movement, maybe not pure movement, but I want to be able to look at how older people's lives are revealed through their movement. And that, I think, offers a really exciting future and new areas of development. So when most people start getting frightened about their careers coming to an end when they are only in their mid-thirties, I feel mine is only just beginning.

The danger you often have is with older dancers, some who are in their fifties and you say, "My god, aren't they incredible" — and they are still trying to imitate younger people! I'm not interested in that. I want to explore their qualities as people in their fifties, find out how they really move, how their bodies act, not make them look like they're thirteen or nineteen or twentyfive. I remember Fonteyn and Alicia Alonso and Nureyev as they were, and don't want to see them imitate a younger person. But audiences demand it, they expect certain things, and there is a preconception about dance. I think some people walked out last night because for them what we were doing wasn't dance. They have so many preconceptions about what they want and we don't always give it to them. But I have to have fantastic dancers. The people I've got are wonderful, extraordinary dancers.

Somebody came the other day and said oh, you obviously don't use very technical dancers. And I said, What! But I audition all over the world to find these dancers. I have to have people who are highly technical, but also highly individual, and just because you don't see a high leg kick doesn't mean they can't do it. Don't be fooled. For these people to do what they are doing, they have to have that control of their body. It's almost like display. But again, there are people who want just virtuosity on stage, rather than meaning.

How do you evolve your vocabulary, is this a process through rehearsal and collaboration with your dancers?

The material comes from many different ways, there is no set rule. Sometimes I will come in and I will have a vague idea — it might be one little sentence and you improvise on that for three hours. It might be that one day I was on a bus, waiting to get off, and I noticed people watching me and I started getting anxious and twitching a little bit, and I had to try and pretend I wasn't and they kept looking at me. Other times, it might be as simple as that I woke up one day with someone's arm across me, and I panicked because I thought is this trapped, or is this embraced? And I liked the ambiguity or duality. So the duet with Lauren and Jordi, which is very sexual, starts with the idea that someone would have their hands clasped, and they did the whole dance clasped — so there is a sense of intimacy, but also entrapment, and perhaps dependency as well. I asked them to improvise on that theme, and that is how the duet came about. So you find a metaphor for the emotional or psychological state you're trying to achieve

Other times we had been doing a lot of yoga every morning for two months, and as a consequence everybody had become extremely flexible. Jordi is very loose anyway, and I asked him to create a knot dance which then we played as humour, because that is very suited to a knot dance and also he is slightly amusing as a character. Or sometimes the material comes watching people play around, improvise, often at the end of class. Often you watch them having coffee, because their movements reveal something about themselves.

But all the subject matter and all the things I ask for are very carefully worked around the theme. Wendy and I spent months in the original research around the themes of faith and belief. We are interested in avoiding the trademarks which are currently running through contemporary dance, which is an enormous amount of unison work, an enormous amount of flinging yourself about, angst or this semi-serious, petulant, "I am an artist, I don't have to smile, I don't have to be ridiculous". We are trying to work against all those qualities.

I met a director in France working on a five-part TV dance series, who said, "I've seen hundreds of videos, but no-one ever does funny dances". And I thought, well there's a strong possibility there. It's also interesting to explore why don't we do that.
I know why dancers do a lot of unison, because the form conveys power — but I think very few people question, really, the idea of unison. If in real life I did exactly the same movements as you were doing, it would proabably freak you out. There is a section in the piece where I make reference to this, where Dale is copying Nigel, and Nigel can't bear it that someone wants to be like him. And I wonder about those dancers who are always trying to be like some aesthetic or classical ideal, or trying to imitate the choreographer or one another: why are they surrendering their individuality, their personality? That is part of the reason why I left mainstream dance, because I got to a point where so many choreographers denied who I was, my ideas, my thought, and I was nothing more than a bit of pigment for them to paint with; and the reality is dancers are not pigment. They are living and feeling, and you can't deny, no matter how you try, the humanity on stage.

You mentioned angst — but surely angst has been very much a part of your work. But what I did find — you are quite right — was also an extraordinary amount of humour. Your previous pieces had some humour, particularly "if only ...", but his one far more, which I thought was a very clever way of treating a serious and profound subject.

I think you are right, because with Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men there was such a direct line between what we felt and what we showed: we felt angry, we showed anger immediately. And it got to a point where we burned ourselves out with that directness. We were always very much ourselves, what you saw on stage was always exactly who we were. But there is a toll in doing work like that, and you get to a point that you have to decide, do I keep going on or do I blow myself out? Performing and creating become unhealthy to a degree.

So what we wanted to do this time was perhaps create characters outside ourselves. The way we'd done things was so personal and direct that we needed to find a more stylistic approach that could make us enjoy creating again and also give us another perspective on a lot of things that I believe at heart. And Samual Beckett's death was quite influential (and also in "if only ..." — I used a quote from Beckett in that: "I can't go on, I must go on", which is what the piece is about). Beckett was able to use humour and absurdism to say the same things we were saying so earnestly, and it was not that his work was any less powerful; in fact I found that through humour and style he could find different ways to talk about the same issues.
So I think that this piece has many more layerings. I think I am saying just the same things about loneliness, about desire, need, feelings of emptiness that many of us try to disguise or deny or can't face or accept. But this time, as soon as it gets a little heavy, we divert it and we go somewhere else; and there is much more absurdism and surrealism which we've never used before. Previously, it has always been highly naturalistic — as naturalistic as you can be within the dance medium. This time, Nigel's character, for example, is completely over the top in many ways, yet it still makes a very powerful point, and I find it no less emotional than I might find someone standing on stage saying, "I want, I want".

I found the important message got across and yet it was also supremely entertaining — if I can use that word without offending.

Absolutely, I am glad you think that.

You have a singer in Strange Fish, Melanie Pappenheim, who is seen hanging on a crucifix like Christ. Why do you have a woman for this?

We auditioned singers, men and women, black and white, and took the best voice. It happened to be a woman; it could as easily have been a man.

But you must be aware that some people are going to find that image quite shocking, especially at the end, when she slithers down and crumples up.

That doesn't bother me. Dance audiences are easily offended by anything to do with nudity or imagistic ideas, and I'm sure there will be people who are horrified at seeing a naked woman as Christ and will think this is an anti-religion piece. But you could actually argue the other way; you could read this piece as an argument for faith, because at the end I think Wendy has lost faith, she's lost friendship, she's lost one of the people she wants as a friend, Nigel, largely through her own actions, she has isolated herself. In her desperate need for friendship she has actually alienated herself to the point that she has lost all sense of belief and faith, which is represented by her going up and sucking the breath out of Christ. She no longer believes in anything, so what happens is that this figure literally collapses, it no longer exists, she's left totally alone. So you could argue that this says it is better to have some faith and some belief than none at all.

Two people I know committed suicide in the last 18 months, and that was another spur to this piece. Why is it that someone kills themself? That they completely lose faith in themselves and everything around them?

Also, for Diana, initially I was quite influenced by some of Bacon's paintings. And I like the issue of the inevitability of death as well, and whether one fights it or accepts it. I see parallels between that and loneliness and also religion. Do we look at friendship as an insurance policy against loneliness and old age, or do some people use faith as insurance against the inevitability and fear of death and loneliness and isolation? So there are parallels between faith and friendship and insurance policies! Spiritual and practical.

How did the set evolve? Did you come to it collaboratively in the same way that you collaborated on the movement?

Because of the large scale of the piece, and because I wanted the set to be done well in advance so that the dancers could be integrated into it and use it well, I had to work on it before we actually worked on the movement. I had strong ideas about what I wanted, and I worked with Peter Davidson to achieve them. I was quite clear that I wanted water under the floorboards; that I wanted side doors, and the hatches in the floor; that I wanted a tank of water. I've been interested in using water for about four years, we wanted to use some in Dead Dreams — we actually used some initially when we filmed it, but because of the time constraints they didn't use that actual footage in the final cut.

And the openings in the wall, they were there right form the start?

I was interested in the idea of people being in their little isolated rooms, and that the rooms had a sense of sparseness, so again between Peter and myself we worked those out.

You say you've always wanted water under the floorboards, you've always wanted a tank — why is this?

I've always wanted to play in water anyway. It is an element that I think is interesting to explore. I like the idea of water under floorboards as a metaphor for the subconscious and for those things that are below the surface. I also like the idea about subterranean activity, things that happen underneath.

I like the feeling of deterioration, and I very definitely wanted the set to fall apart. One of the things I also wanted in was water running down the walls, but the water damages the walls too much. Maybe in London we'll finally have the water running down the walls, so the whole thing should be as the floorboards and stones and the emptiness at the end, like a barren landscape.

I wondered too, whether the use of water was in a way a going back to the miasma — because several of the cast disappear into it. I had an idea of it being human life going back to this morass that we perhaps all come from.

You can look at it on many levels. Virtually everybody who dies goes into the ground, apart from Diana who at the end is caught floating in the tank, but it's water again. Every time everyone dies they go down into the ground, they return to the earth. On top of that you can also bring in the idea of the whole evolution of man; Jordi's limbs you see coming out, we wanted to make him a creature just emerging. There is a lot of animal improvisation, even Melanie on the cross is like a snake, so there is a lot of man's animal instincts, of man returning back to being an animal.

And when we were looking for a title — we went through hundreds — I just felt that because of the first animal coming out of the sea, and because of our animal instincts, with all the animal imagery it was nice to use the word fish. But the title is also related to the Buddhist saying, with the idea that maybe when we started creating this piece we didn't have too many expectations — we'd done a lot of preparatory work, and had to let go of a lot of things — so what came out on th end of our fishing rod was a very strange fish. Also, there's the thing about 'something odd'; the day the title actually came to mind, someone was was talking about Nigel and saying, "He's a strange fish". So there seemed to me a very appropriate title which fitted with a lot of things, yet at the same time also sounded a bit odd, which I feel the piece is really.

Can you tell us about your future plans?

We're going to film this piece, hopefully for the BBC, with David Hinton, the film-maker who did Dead Dreams. We have a very good relationship with him. We're still trying to raise the last bit of funding for that, so it hasn't been totally confirmed, but we hope it will happen. One of the ironies is that even though we've won numerous awards for our film work, it still seems that with dance programmes, people are not convinced that the audience's attention will be held for the length of a drama, which is what we're looking for — an hour. And also there's worry, particularly in the United States, about our work being too controversial. But Dead Dreams sold all through Europe apart from France and Germany, who both admitted it was largely subject matter deterring them. They have most money of all the countries and with the money comes conservatism. Australia showed it too, and in Britain we were on the front page of the Sunday Mirror on the day — which was good for ratings.

And now I'm becoming more and more interested in the exploration of words and sounds. Using language helps facilitate certain types of movement which would otherwise be unacceptable. If Nigel did all the movement at the party in Strange Fish without using language it would be mimetic, it would be so absurd that you wouldn't accept it. But sometimes the literalness of words is very limiting, so I feel that we might move towards a form of music theatre where there is sound without specific words. In Strange Fish we wanted Melanie to have a language of her own that people couldn't understand, so a lot of the words are English sung backwards, or Latin — yet at the same time I think it is very clear what she is saying.

Most of the opera I've seen doesn't work for me — largely because of the way it's structured, the short rehearsals and lack of cohesion in the cast, the stars fly in and belt out their numbers from artificial positions, because that's what's expected. But I feel I would like to work with actors, because they're very physical. At the same time I'd also like to find whether the performers I've been using could not be pushed into the same areas. Mostly when I hear dancers speak, on stage, it's embarrassing, they can't do it, but not in this piece. Nigel trained as an actor and Wendy is good vocally. But I feel that there is more potential in the whole company, it's just that those two have had options to bring out those skills. We've been doing vocal classes with Melanie: we may find hidden talent among a lot of the movers, and I feel that for them it can also be exciting. So there are a lot of openings and possibilities to explore and expand into.


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