Interview: The Sunday Telegraphy | First Person
by Louise Levene
The Sunday Telegraph | 1st May 2005
Lloyd Newson's new dance piece is about people in denial and out of control. He talks to Louise Levene.
Lloyd Newson has been making his distinctive brand of edgy, uncompromising dance theatre for nearly 20 years, but despite countless awards and a major international reputation, Newson is still not a household name — nor likely to become one, given his almost pathological aversion to personal publicity. The picture on the right [ a photo of Lloyd facing away from the camera ] is the photographer's ingenious response to the choreographer's outright refusal to pose for a regular snap. Newson would rather we photographed the dancers — and besides, if he became too much of a dance "face", he would no longer be able to indulge his hobby of wandering unnoticed through theatre foyers wherever DV8 Physical Theatre is performing, listening in on his audience and observing its habits. Newson has a post-graduate degree in psychology and he's not afraid to use it.
The faceless figure is tall, fit, casually-dressed, fashionably bald and, camera shyness notwithstanding, he is a joy to interview. He talks with fluency and wit about the company he founded 19 years ago and the powerful works he has made for it.
Newson was born in Melbourne in 1957. He worked briefly with New Zealand Ballet (he was the only man to turn up for the audition) then journeyed to London where he spent a year at London School of Contemporary Dance. After four years dancing and making dance for the (now defunct) Extemporary Dance Theatre, he founded DV8 and began the first in an impressive series of choreographic explorations of human behaviour.
The troupe enjoyed (if that's the word) a flurry of notoriety in 1990 when the Sunday Mirror's rabid headline "Gay Sex Orgy on TV" gave an unexpected boost to the South Bank Show's screening of Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, a piece inspired by the career of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
Newson's work is regularly adapted for the small screen, but the films are never just a record of the live performance.
"It's interesting what translates well into film. Quite often you see pieces that are just dead." He has enormous respect for his collaborators but he has learned to be wary of yielding control in the editing room.
The film of The Cost of Living, an unsettling celebration of social and physical inadequacy, which will be shown on Channel 4 later this month, was shot on location in Cromer in Norfolk. Its various stage versions have been distilled down to the relationship between mouthy Glaswegian Eddie Kay and his enigmatic sidekick David Toole, who between them create a miniature buddy movie.
Though 35 minutes is far too short a time in Kay's and Toole's company — you want to see them hot-wire a car, rob a bank, dance on to the next adventure — neither Kay nor Toole feature in Newson's latest piece, Just for Show. It had its premiere in Korea last month and is touring throughout the year, including a 10-day run in November at the National Theatre, which is co-producer of the piece. "Nicholas Hytner asked me initially to come and direct a play but there's very little that I find in plays and books that sees the world the way I see it. And he just went, 'OK, fine, you do it then and we'll find you space here.'"
Newson has never wanted for invitations. "I've been offered a lot of commercial things. I was approached by Stanley Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut ... Cirque du Soleil wanted me to do something in America, New York agents approached us about doing commercial runs of our pieces. But, if you bite that apple, you have to take on that taste and I'm not prepared to do those things: you have to please punters; there are producers; and I'm not prepared to take the easy line for the pot of gold at the end."
Just for Show takes as its starting point a line from Ibsen's Wild Duck — "Deprive the average man of his vital lies and you've robbed him of happiness" — and explores the human need for comforting everyday pretences — a familiar DV8 theme.
The nine performers create a series of characters: a woman in denial about her husband's affair; a clubber whose image management masks a disintegrating personality; a woman who sprays a vase of flowers with cologne.
"I myself have been known to spray aftershave on flowers that don't smell," confesses Newson. "My mother used to tie fake roses to the bushes outside our house." And I wondered what drew him to psychology ...
Newson realised long ago that dance alone was inadequate for exploring the issues that obsessed him. Just for Show, like most of his work, contains a lot of spoken text: "Words can't say everything, but neither can movement say everything: how do you say 'This is my sister' in dance?"
But his attitude to the spoken word can be slightly ambivalent. No sooner has he nailed the limitations of "pure" dance than he admits to not translating the text he uses for each country they visit: audiences, he feels, should be able get by on body language and intonation.
Newson never stops watching his own work. He shares the entire tour with the company and as a result the material is constantly evolving. "The great thing about a live piece is that it's a living thing. We just opened in Korea. By the time we got to Taipei [a week later], I had re-arranged several scenes that I knew rhythmically couldn't quite get there."
Is this fixing process ever prompted by outside feedback? "I used to invite a very close friend but then I began to find his taste was going somewhere else ..."
What about critics? Not a chance. Newson, like every other direclor and dancer I have ever met (or ever will meet), never reads reviews.
Newson's uncompromising standards leave no doubt who's in charge. The trend in modern dancemaking — William Forsythe; Siobhan Davies — is to stress the caring, sharing nature of the creative process, but Newson's verbs are almost exclusively first-person singular.
"In the past I used to use 'we' a lot; I used to be embarrassed about saying 'I' ... I'm only as good as the ingredients and the performers I've got, but everything, every gesture, every word, is touched by me. Nothing comes out without me interfering. But in the same breath I spend a long time looking for hugely individual performers and I am nothing without them."