The Happiest Day Of My Life
How To Make A Bigger Splash
by Ismene Brown
The Daily Telegraph | Thursday Sep 9 1999
Lloyd Newson is not easy to shock, but even he got a surprise when he visited the Yorkshire town of Halifax. What he found became the inspiration for his new dance work for DV8 Physical Theatre, The Happiest Day of My Life.
"On a Friday night, the town came alive. Married couples separated for the evening, and sex was on the agenda in a very overt way. One young wife of 25 told me she'd have maybe 15 partners a month. I thought maybe it was bravado," says Newson, failing to hide his relish, "but it's not. I went to a pub and all these women came on to me, older ones, mid-thirties to sixties. Normally they know in London from the way I look that I'm gay, but there were these women giving me the eye. What was this about?"
"So the first half is full of this Friday/Saturday sexual energy — lots of pick-ups and excitement. Then for the second half, the top of the floor is removed and there is an island in the middle of a swimming pool."
X-rated sex and a swimming pool — two of Newson's favourite themes. The Happiest Day of My Life (which opens at the Newcastle Playhouse tonight before going on to London) will be the third of Newson's pieces to use water ambitiously on stage: "It's a metaphor for love: too much and you drown, too little and you dehydrate."
He used water — a bath — with macabre brilliance in his first major piece for DV8, in 1986. Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men reflected his fears as a homosexual living in the London of the serial killer Dennis Nilson and Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1986 — widely construed as anti-homosexual.
The astonishing thing is how right Newson got it, almost first time. He started dancing at 20 when he was studying psychology in Melbourne, came to London in 1980 to train, then launched DV8 in 1986. He issued a printed manifesto to break all dance moulds (Are You Tired of Contemporary Dance?), but Dead Dreams proved that he had the extraordinary talent to back it up. And he did it again and again, in a string of bold psychosexual works — lots of shouting, bruised bodies and exciting scenery — until DV8 and 'physical theatre' were compulsory subjects on theatre courses and arts agendas, up with Peter Brook and Pina Bausch.
Now 41, Newson has become the Julie Burchill of modern dance, adamantine in opinion, provokingly entertaining whether you buy his argument or not. Name a bourgeois convention, and this smiling articulate Aussie will smugly sniff out the navel fluff. His last piece, Bound To Please, aimed the hammer at ballet (conformist, ageist, elitist). The brilliant Enter Achilles laid into British pubs (macho, oikish, bigoted), MSM, at the Royal Court in 1993, was about the right to have sex in public lavatories. Strange Fish (1992) was about religion and belief (with a pool under the floor).
The Happiest Day of My Life is, naturally, about a wedding day that goes wrong. "This performer's brother, a bodybuilder," Newson tells me, his shaved head gleaming under the lights, "was marrying this woman. She wanted the new house and the white goods; they got the designs from Barratt's. She wanted the best dress, and spent a year dieting down for it. She wanted the best church, so they hired the cathedral."
"I saw her on her wedding day. She was too thin for the dress. She lived with him for seven months, then said, 'I'm leaving you.' She felt empty. So this piece is about our aspirations; how what we think will make us happy in reality turns into boredom and mundaneness. And people have affairs to fill in the time, just like they turn on the TV. There's nothing to talk about, so let's have sex. And I think that's interesting."
Influenced by Pina Bausch, the seminal German choreographer, DV8 was in many ways the breakthrough British dance group of the Eighties. Modern dance was largely abstract and academic in approach. Newson and Michael Clark brought gay choreography, so long disguised in heterosexual imagery or cabaret camp, out of the closet. But while Clark drew on his ballet training, Newson was determined to reject all givens — including the modern gurus, Graham and Cunningham — and start again from basics.
Newson's workshops are famous: he puts potential performers (dancers, actors, singers) through a sort of physical and emotional therapy for weeks, to 'liberate' them from the mannerisms of their training. He says one woman whom he rejected complained, "Lloyd doesn't want me because I'm not ******-up." It's a myth, he says; he wants people who interest him and have something to express. DV8 works are more like jam sessions than symphonic concerts.
The ballerina Syvie Guillem told me she had been keen to work with Newson, but couldn't accept the need for such long preparation. Newson answers, "Look, she is amazing. This body can do anything and everything. But the way I work is very intense and very personal. All the things that make them phenomenal classical dancers are so in-built in their bodies that it is very difficult for them to find their individual way of moving, as opposed to a stylistic way of moving. People need to have a fantastic technique and then throw it away."
Many viewers would find it hard to identify the Newson dance style (some think he has none). He sees this as proof of his victory. "I've done all the theories, retrograde inversion, mathematical formulae applied to the body ... I could give you an hour's choregraphy within a week just generating from Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, etc. But that doesn't give me what I want. I've got to use those elements and theories, but take them one step further to find metaphors for relationships, for human predicaments."
Newson has never ceased putting Britain on the couch. He is fascinated by "the poles to English society: its gentleness at one end, the whole Northern macho cliché at the other, and in the middle this great cloak of reserve."
The British obsession with ballet, he reckons, reflects its class-consciousness and hypocrisy. He pointlessly accuses classical ballet, or any formalistic dance style (Graham and Cunningham too), of excluding people who don't fit a physical template. Yet he regularly does ballet class and watches it a lot.
He has been accused of being a polemicist, proclaiming the truth about people, rather than an artist, showing a truth. He admits that he worries about that: "But I believe that I am not a polemicist. I talk about individuals' real stories." He saw his future, he says, after a vacuous job in 1985, choregraphing four girl singers, glamorous but superficial. He walked crossly into the café opposite and found it full of ordinary people, fat, disabled, old, unskilled.
"I thought, this is life. How can I put this life, which I find more beautiful, more fascinating, than anything I've done so far, how can I challenge that beauty that most choreographers, including myself, have believed in? And that was the beginning for me."