Lloyd Newson in Conversation with Jo Butterworth
Adapted from a 1998 interview published by Bretton Hall
7th July 2004 | as yet unpublished
Lloyd Newson studied Psychology at the University of Melbourne before starting his performance career. After dancing with companies in Australia and New Zealand, he came to Britain and gained a one-year scholarship to study at the London Contemporary Dance School, before joining Extemporary Dance Theatre. In 1986 he co-founded DV8 Physical Theatre.
Can you give some insights into the points of departure for your choreography, about the artistic motivation for your work?
Newson ... I only create when I have something to say, and the work is generally about issues that concern or affect my life at a given time. I'm interested in provoking myself, questioning my own and the performers' thoughts, motivations and assumptions. Many of the themes I dealt with in the early works — as in My Sex, Our Dance (1986), My Body, Your Body (1987) and Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988) — have been controversial. At the time I chose to examine these themes through physically challenging movement. However when we made Strange Fish (1992), the risk was not so much about physical danger, but whether dance can deal with complex emotional narrative, and whether tragi-comic theatre can in fact be created through dance alone. You can take risks without always being physical.
I have regularly challenged what is traditionally defined as dance, i.e., who can dance in terms of shape, size, age, and what dance can talk about. In order to keep my interest in dance it has to personally resonate with issues I experience directly in my life. I am not interested in making work that does not focus clearly on content. Content, rather than style drives DV8's work, which distinguishes it from a lot of other contemporary dance. Issues, rather than 'prettiness' or aesthetics, are important. Our work delves into how individuals relate to one another, emotionally and intellectually, rather than being about movement or design patterns per se; exploring the individual's actions, and looking at how these in turn reflect political and social issues.
And what methods do you utilise to engage dancers in your choreographic process?
My process involves making performers question how they engage in making work. I seek movement with intention and purpose. What are they/we trying to communicate? It is not that I am necessarily against using an arabesque, but you must know why you do it. Why is at the heart of DV8's work. It is closer in terms of intention, focus and subtext to the ways in which a theatre director works with a text.
DV8 is known as a company that fights hard for funding to engage in research and development processes in order to gain periods of experimentation. Can you give some insights into your approach?
Time for research and experimentation is our chance for rejuvenation. The climate has changed radically since the mid-eighties when we were first making work, when there was much more openness about experimentation. Therefore I have come to a point where I feel I can only really take risks and face possible failure in my research periods. Without this I would be fearful to try new ideas and work with new people. I invite new dancers/performers to participate in research periods to try and alter my approach to making work. For example, when I researched Bound To Please (1997) we explored the performers' psychological experiences as professional 'dancers'. This brought up an unexpected issue. What is their perceived value as people in relation to their value as dancers; were they only as good as the height of their leg?
Another research project centred on taking the performers into, and working in, a 'greasy spoon' café. The performers were asked to observe normal café users to see what information was conveyed through their body language. When they returned to the studio, I asked them to extrapolate what they had seen so that they could abstract it and use the principles of the movement patterns they had observed to make movement phrases. Most choreography is made in the rehearsal studio, yet this can be a sterile environment. My concern is for dance to connect with and talk about the real world, so it seemed logical to send the performers out of the dance environment, in order to observe and interact with it.
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.
It is obvious from the examples you have cited that the very different circumstances of the research periods lead to very different types of dance pieces. Is it challenging to make or find an appropriate vocabulary for each work?
Yes. Another example from the Glasgow R&D period exemplifies this. A situation was reported in the paper about a policeman who refused to hold the hand of a car accident victim because he feared being perceived as a homosexual. In exploring how I might represent something like that physically, I talked to some of the heterosexual guys from my company, asking them to walk hand in hand down Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. They said no problem, but only managed to walk three blocks — they couldn't bear the tension and reaction from the locals. So I questioned how this tension might be shown in the piece. When is it acceptable for men to hold hands? In searching for a metaphor to explore these notions of acceptability, I started investigating trapeze work and we engaged a specialist to train our dancers. In the piece two men hold on to a suspended rope and dance a duet where they must hold hands in order not to fall. When they get down on the ground, and are still holding hands, it's extremely uncomfortable for them. One performer becomes very nervous and anxious because of the social stigma attached to men holding hands.
Also, with regard to DV8's physical vocabulary, in the company training DV8 bring in different people to develop new skills, if appropriate, for a new piece: in My Body, Your Body we did aerobics and long distance running to build up stamina, and in Strange Fish we brought in yoga teachers. Voice teachers have been employed at times to work on different pieces that use text; specialist trainers are brought in according to the subject matter. When we were looking at football, we questioned why it is considered acceptable for men to do footwork around a football, but not to do footwork around Irish dancing or ballet. So we brought in an Irish dancing teacher because I wanted to explore the difference between those two forms in relation to what is 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' masculine movement.
If I cannot find appropriate movement, I will also use words. I am not a purist, and don't wish to limit my breadth of expression or to trade complex scenarios for purism. The fundamental principle in the work is to make it clear, to be specific and detailed. Throughout, my interest is in conveying stories or ideas through movement. The research and development periods are all videoed, and documented, so that I can go back and refer to them in preparation for the actual piece. Much will be rejected and not used at all.
What form does the actual rehearsal process take?
The form of the preparation for the rehearsal period rarely follows one set approach. For example, for Enter Achilles (1995), I made five or six particular choices from the five-week workshop and took these ideas into the rehearsal period. Another exploratory idea was that we should start experimenting with the idea of the men using one another as furniture; another, that we should look at fluids, play with the idea of men sharing fluids together and of intoxication, and the connotations of that. Or how a pint glass can represent beauty or danger, community or isolation. We looked at videos of documentary programmes about binge drinking in Wales on Friday and Saturday nights and the ensuing violence that occurs after drinking 8 or 9 pints in one evening. Essentially, we attempted to look out at the world and our experiences of men amongst men, and to reflect this back on our work. It must be added that by the time we came to rehearsals after the workshop, I had written a storyline, and we'd already designed and built a complicated set.
Since DV8 is not a permanent company you have the opportunity to choose new cast for each work. What do you look for in a performer?
I choose people who are appropriate to the needs of the subject matter being explored, and with whom I can collaborate; people who can bring an openness of attitude and thoughtfulness to the process. They have to be interested in the subject matter. I cast like a film director, according to what the script requires, so for example, in looking at the relationship between an older woman and a younger man the cast choices have to give some authenticity. So we chose Diana Payne-Myers — a woman and dancer who has worked on many different projects with us over the years — who is in her mid-seventies.
When making Enter Achilles, I was concerned to find guys who looked like regular guys in the street. When we made MSM (1993) about cottaging, I asked two things of those auditioning; they had to be prepared to be naked on the stage, and to go to places known for cottaging to observe the situation, to know how tense, or frightening, or funny it can be. It is the principle here that is relevant; without that openness of mind and vulnerability, I knew we would experience blocks in other areas during rehearsal.
Some of the most interesting people chosen to work with DV8 have generally done something else in their lives before they came to dance. Through working in computers, tiling ceramics, acting, or something as mundane as working in a supermarket, they brought other significant experience of the real world into dance. I find it frustrating that many dancers train from such an early age and lack exposure to other life experiences. Having Diana Payne-Myers naked on stage in Bound To Please for me was infinitely more beautiful than seeing a gorgeous woman doing a perfect arabesque, because it is the context and meaning that makes something beautiful and touching.
Do you have particular methods of structuring your work?
Since 1990, after DV8 finished Dead Dreams and made the film, I made a deliberate choice to leave behind that very intense, dark and exhausting physicality of the earlier pieces. I decided to try and create more image driven, humorous theatre, the traces of which can be first seen in "if only ..." (1990). I soon discovered that it was too frightening to go into a studio without having a pre-written story and structure. I needed some structure — though you also need to be free to throw that structure out. So from then on, for all the pieces, Strange Fish, Enter Achilles, Bound To Please, I wrote a scenario prior to starting rehearsals, not that I always ended up sticking to it.
Having research and development periods, becoming my own dramaturg and writing a loose structure before the rehearsals provides the company with the opportunity to build sets in advance. The performers can then work with the set and ensure it becomes embedded into the performance. The environment needs to be lived in, and the set explored before the production week(s). A script provides a guide in helping me structure the rehearsal period, both day to day and overall. For example, in Enter Achilles we did a whole range of improvisations based on what is acceptable male physical contact, about what is considered an acceptable way for a man to walk and talk. We played with the simple ideas of straight and bent movements, how these affect how we feel and how they were perceived externally. We looked at the pressures on men to play certain roles, particular sports; we talked about relationships with our fathers, our mothers, our best male friends, what we expect from them, and how that differs from our relationships with our female friends. Then we would get to specifics, because we can generalise and make all these theories, but it's the specific individual stories that are interesting.
In the end, the interest lies not so much in how we do it, but in how he or she does it. Specifics can often contradict convenient social theories, and are often very conflicting, which is more human, complex and revealing.
In order for really interesting, deep material to come up, like in analysis, the performer has to let go of his subconscious. That sometimes poses a problem for dancers. If somebody truly lets go in improvisation it is impossible for him to remember exactly what he did, as that is a conscious process. That is why we use a video camera. Obviously there are endless means of constructing work — task setting, observation and translations, working directly from text, occasionally I even come in with set steps. These methods combined with structured improvisation are my way of discovering new and appropriate dance content and of finding individual voices within the company, thus distinguishing how each performer moves differently, and how interesting and unique their differences are. Generally DV8's works are about seeing particular individuals on stage, therefore it is important to nurture the individual vocabulary, while providing a focus and boundaries for the improvisations and tasks.
Do you join in with these tasks and improvisations?
In the past when I was performing, yes, but generally I stand out to be the 'eye'. Once we had more than four people in our company I felt it was impossible to be on stage personally, and keep an eye on other people's performances, so I removed myself, and now I sit through almost every performance our company does, give notes and make changes. It continues throughout the tour. Without constant change and development, I feel that a work becomes dead for both performers and audience.
This became particularly evident when reworking and touring Enter Achilles. It was the first time that DV8 had remounted a past work, and some dancers had to learn previous roles. This became a particular challenge. Because the work is devised with a particular group of people in the first instance, introducing new cast members can result in quite radical changes to the piece. New performers have not experienced all the intense research, whereas someone who has, and who made movement unique to himself, generated the material. Thus getting somebody else to do exactly the same part does not work — I find myself working with the qualities of the new individuals and having to adapt material to suit them in order to sustain some truth. This process made me more aware of just how exactly every movement is built on an individual, consistent with their thoughts, intention, way of moving, etc. There are thirty different ways to pick up a glass, and each one says something different. Basically, I try to impart that realisation to the people that I work with ... and once they start understanding that, we're half way there.
The other thing about dance making is that a lot of people I work with are really committed to new work, therefore they are not interested in being part of a repertory company, and the only reason we remounted Enter Achilles was to pay for the next research period. We want to keep making new work that is intricately linked to personal development. It is important now, for me at least, not to get stuck in remounting and touring old works, and the commercialisation that can go with this.
It seems that your role in the company is different to that of a traditional choreographer, in that the work is devised and collectively made.
Let me be clear, whatever ends up on stage, the subject matter, each individual step, I decide on. I see my role as stimulator, facilitator, editor and constructor, but equally I want to learn from my performers. I find it dull, boring and reductive bringing in steps for my dancers to learn — which is what I did in my early choreographic days. I have a responsibility to keep finding ways to open up and creatively stimulate performers in the company. Most people are capable of producing incredible performances, however some are reluctant to enter new territory. I can open gates, but at a certain point, unless they are prepared to let go of their psychological blocks, I can't do anything. DV8 have produced some exceptional performers who, prior to joining the company, hadn't fulfilled their potential. Of course, this also means that DV8 might then lose their most capable collaborators, but its great when the people I've worked with go off and create something of their own, empowered through their association with DV8.