Sharing the Process: Lloyd Newson Discusses Complexity and Controversy with Jondi Keane
In reply to Nicholas Rowe's article 'Points of Difference', Dance Australia, Issue 159
Nicolas Rowe “took issue with Lloyd Newson” in the article ‘Points of Difference’ that appeared in the Dec 08/Jan 09 issue of Dance Australia, in which he stated Newson had ‘overlooked the complexity of Islam’ with regards to homosexuality in an open forum discussion at the 2008 World Dance Alliance conference. Despite Dr Rowe’s attempts to frame the article in terms of scholarly engagement many of his comments are unfounded, unsubstantiated and potentially damaging. As a scholar and practitioner he should have stuck to identifying the issues. I was present at the forum and feel compelled to respond to Rowe’s article because, in part, I had such a different reaction to what was said and to what Rowe inferred. As a result I have been in correspondence with Newson and would like to offer an alternative reading that takes into account what was actually said at the forum and identify a different set of issues for public discussion. Before the discussion can take a constructive turn Rowe’s more problematic assertions – regarding Newson’s “superficial understandings” and research process, his “interrogation” of Boi and the audience’s ”revulsion” to the forum – should be addressed. For me the issues that come to the fore as a consequence of the WDA forum are related to the increasing pressure in society to account for how the “personal is the political”, literally through our thoughts and feelings, words and actions at the dinner table, in the studio or on the global stage.
Rowe seems to conflate Newson’s research on the experience of being gay under conditions of intolerance with an “agenda to blame religion for the difficulties faced by homosexuals” (Rowe 44). At the forum and in our subsequent correspondence Newson was clear that his research concentrated on the countries from which the majority of British Muslims originate and, amongst other research, cited the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, a non-partisan academic fact tank regarding global trends whose country by country survey of attitudes towards homosexuality. One of the conclusions of the report was that “Across Africa, and in most predominantly Muslim nations such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, lopsided majorities believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society”. Newson states:
Rowe, in defense of Islam’s ‘tolerant’ attitude towards homosexuality cites Indonesia, “in Indonesia ...homosexuality is not in fact illegal but is both celebrated and contested within popular culture”. His statement is misleading, unsubstantiated and confused. Firstly I had never said homosexuality was illegal in Indonesia. Secondly only 5% of Indonesians think homosexuality should be allowed in society compared to other South East Asian, non-Muslim countries like Japan (54%) and the Philippines (64%). Because of the sensitivities and complexities in discussing the inter-related themes of religion, culture and in/tolerance towards homosexuality, I opted for a methodology, verbatim theatre, to discuss the issues on stage. Hence every word spoken by the performers belongs to the interviewees, it is their first-hand stories and voices (many of them Muslim), not mine. Unlike Rowe suggests I have never said at any time that my findings or the stories represent those of every Muslim or every Christian. Nonetheless an overwhelming consensus/pattern did emerge amongst our UK Muslim interviewees consistent with other, respected, independent research; some of which I cited at the conference. I am not prepared to skew the results of our findings nor silence the voice of gay UK Muslims, to appease Rowe’s sensibilities. Whatever the exceptions worldwide, as I said at the conference; it is not a coincidence that the only (6) countries in the world that hold the death penalty for homosexuality justify it using Sharia law. (Newson to Keane email correspondence 16/03/09)
By far, the critical moment in the WDA forum that reverberates back through Rowe’s objections and brings the domains of the academic and the practitioner, the personal and the political, the public and the private into tension, peaked when Newson publicly confronted Sakti regarding his views on homosexuality. Rowe comments “by subjecting Sakti to an unexpected interrogation onstage, Newson overstretched his role as perpetual victim of social oppression and stirred the audience into revulsion” (Rowe 44). Rowe’s article omitted Newson’s account of the events in preparation for and during the Choreolab and the discussion that transpired before the issue of homosexuality and Islam were raised in public. At the forum Newson recounted the events around the Choreolab, telling of his efforts to accommodate Sakti’s religious observance, but it was Sakti’s answer to Newson’s question regarding homosexuality that prompted the public retelling. Newson’s recollection of the initial exchange is consistent with my memory of the forum:
Sakti confirmed on two separate occasions, in the work place, with at least one other course participant present that he thought “homosexuality was a sickness” and I replied “In that case do you realise you are working with someone who is sick?” On another occasion Sakti said: “homosexuals need to change.” When I asked him what he would do if one of his dancers were gay, he said that he would talk to them with the intention of asking them to change” - presumably to heterosexuality or a life of abstinence. (Newson email 09/02/09)
When Newson decided to publicly confront Sakti and politically illustrate intolerance proposing, –“what if I [Newson] had said that Islam was a disease/sickness and that he (Sakti) as a Muslim, needed to change, how would he have felt?” –I do not think he anticipated Sakti’s silence or the audience’s willingness to perceive Sakti in need of assistance. It is the nature of the audiences’ complex and varied response that I would propose requires further investigation. There is no doubt that Lloyd Newson is a provocateur willing to stir up controversy. This is evident in his work and in his public persona. His careful and considered discussion, often punctuated with pauses in which one could see Newson collecting and phrasing his thoughts, confirmed to me that there is nothing casual about the way he engages. He does not shy away from difficult issues or situations. I would suggest that some of the reactions to Newson in the public forum stem from his willingness to push the issues regardless of the etiquette that often holds historical judgments in-place. In our correspondence Newson reflected:
Should I have made Boi’s comments public? I could have challenged Boi more privately, but it was clear, from his comments to me, he held deep beliefs about homosexuality and was not about to change – even at the public forum he never retracted or denied his comments when confronted. I could have let the matter pass and not drawn it to the attention of the delegates/public. However I felt the issues were important for the whole conference – how can people work together in the arts (particularly dance) across different cultures if homophobia is allowed to go unaddressed? One audience member said to me “thank goodness someone addressed the elephant in the room”. (Newson email correspondence 08/02/09)
As Newson rightly observes, the WDA was “specifically aimed at cross-cultural understanding and work practices why would it not be relevant to raise the fundamental question, of religious and cultural in/tolerance towards homosexuality” (Newson email 09/02/09). A global summit is the place for a community (a dance alliance) to talk about the complex experience of being torn and conflicted as a consequence of multiple belongings and loyalties. Perhaps the next question must be addressed to Sakti regarding his views and the meaning of his silence.
Jondi Keane, PhD is a practicing artist, critical thinker and Senior Lecturer at Griffith University.
Newson cites two years of extensive research; including 85 interviews and hundred of vox pops with residents of the UK limited to matters of religious intolerance/tolerance towards homosexuality (email correspondence 08/02/09).
http://www.mcb.org.uk/library/statistics.php (These statistical sources were supplied by Newson and attest to a thoroughness and rigour which has been ignored by Rowe.)
See also statistics on some Jamaican Dance hall artists.
The Pew report can be accessed here
 Some of the Pew Research Centre statistics from the report include that “93 % of the Indonesian population disapprove of homosexuality, only 5% think homosexuality is acceptable”.
ILGA Report, State Sponsored Homophobia 2007; German Government Report, Dec 2006
Newson comments: ‘Rowe patronises Sakti as incapable of defending himself. I saw Sakti as an equal. Boi is 42 years of age (i), has over 100 dance creations to his credit and his work has been staged by companies in more than 20 countries throughout Europe, the US, Asia and Australasia (ii). Boi chose to conduct all his conversations with me in English, despite having an interpreter present’ (email 08/02/09).