by Lloyd Newson
Dance Europe | Feb/Mar 1996
The right of any dancer, choreographer or director to contest a damning review of their work is one that should perhaps be more frequently exercised. To remedy this Dance Europe will, from time to time, be featuring Talkback articles .... Here Lloyd Newson, director of DV8 Physical Theatre, gives his response to Judith Mackrell's review of his latest work, Enter Achilles.
'I left mainstream dance 10 years ago, having worked with 28 choreographers, many of international standing, because I felt most dance forms were incapable of dealing with detailed scenarios and complex personal issues. After avoiding reading reviews for eight years, I recently read Judith Mackrell's review of my latest work, Enter Achilles [The Guardian 22/9/95]. I am disappointed to find it critiqued with precisely the same lack of specifity that my work as been a reaction against.
Mackrell's penchant for generalisation and reinforcing stereotypes is clearly demonstrated when she describes one of the characters in Enter Achilles as "the token vulnerable gay man". Why gay? Because he, in contrast to the other characters, dances lyrically and wears bright colours. At no point in the piece is it ever suggested that this man is sexually attracted to other men. Her assumption, that men are gay if they behave outside the realm of acceptable "male" behaviour, is precisely the tragedy explored in Enter Achilles. By taking her own opinion as fact and dismissing the character so readily, Mackrell indicates that she may have more in common with the other men in Enter Achilles than she would like to imagine.
Elsewhere in her review, Mackrell suggests that an inflatable sex doll used in the piece represents women and its destruction is therfore represenattive of "the hatred of women". I find this reading remarkable from a critic because of its simplicity: it takes the whole incident of the doll's destruction out of context. One man destroys the doll in order to get at another man, who adores it, and the ultimate object of the attack is the other man, not the doll or women. At one point, early in the piece, a man listening to a (real) woman's voice on an answering machine makes a very clear decision to interact with the doll rather than engage with a (real) woman. Unlike Mackrell, he is able to distinguish between the two.
Why does Mackrell think we chose a doll for this role rather than a real woman? Finances? The tender manner in which he handles the doll, when alone, could represent the delicate and vulnerable side of his personality which he is afraid to reveal publicly. The doll would also represent his secrets and fantasies, as he hides his relationship with it from other men.
Some of the characters see the doll like a football, a plastic vessel full of air, an object to be kicked and played with which bonds men as many sports games do. To them — and to many of the audience, judging by their reactions — it becomes the object of fun, which could be an inflatable woman, man or kangaroo.
That Mackrell does not see these possible readings, nor differentiate between different chracters' reactions to the doll at different times in the piece is worrying. To do this, Mackrell has projected her belief — that the doll can only represent women — onto all men. She assumes that the doll must mean the same thing to all of them, and to me, as it does to her.
It is Mackrell who reduces the characters in Enter Achilles to stereotypes, denying their/my experiences — this behaviour, she states, is "too bad to be true". It is clear that my personal experiences of men together (along with those of my male performers) will be different from Mackrell's — particularly when no women are present — but it is a little hard to have them dismissed altogether. She writes that I "can cite countless episodes... of physical intimidation of outsiders" but she does not choose to quote even one of them. Let me then, in support of the reality of the behaviour depicted on stage quote a real life incident in which a man was raped with a broken bottle by three supposedly heterosexual men who assumed he was gay. These things do happen, whether Mackrell chooses to believe them or not.
As an artist, I tell extreme and specific stories to illustrate certain conditions in our society. Because they may not be universal, it does not mean that they are false. Nor, because they are true, does it mean they are universal. I do not think that just because three men raped another man, all men are vicious rapists, nor that because the mass-murderer, Dennis Nielson (who was an inspiration for my previous work, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men) was gay, all gay men are mass-murderers! But through exploring these extremes, I have found connections and truths in myself instead of denying them.
By stating that the characters in Enter Achilles are "stereotypes", Mackrell implies that they too simplistic, yet she has demonstrated many of the same simplistic generalisations and reductive patterns of thinking as the men on stage. She is disappointed that the work did not take her "into some hidden areas of the male psyche" as in Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men. Is she missing the point of the piece? Could it not be that this is precisely what Enter Achilles is about? These men do not look into their own psyches; they live with their conditioning; they are not going to let it be torn apart by someone else. These themes of denial, repression and projection are at the heart of the work and if Mackrell wants a glimpse of something else when (some) men are together, without women present, she might have to accept that what she wants may not be what is. My hope is that her own refusal to connect with what she saw on stage in Enter Achilles may be the beginning of her understanding of the work, not the end of it.
I have spent time to write this article because I believe that critics, like choreographers and directors, are responsible for what they produce. Too often critics' views go unchallenged by choreographers for a multitude of reasons too numerous to state here. I hope, however, that this article may prompt other people in the dance world who have disagreed with a critic's review to state their arguments publicly rather than privately. Open debate and discussion can only benefit our profession.