DV8: At The Theatre of Blood and Bruises

THE INDEPENDENT       6 November 1993

At the theatre of blood and bruises

DV8 tread a fine line between athleticism and masochism.  Their new work, MSM, goes one step further.  Michael Arditti reports

It is given to few modern dance companies to feature on the front page of the Sunday Mirror, but, on March 11 1990, Lloyd Newson found the television version of his award-winning Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men anatomised under the headline ‘Gay Sex Orgy  On  TV’.     Angry  viewers  jammed  the  London  Weekend switchboard;  Rent-a-Quote Tory MPs demanded action from the Home Secretary…  and the South Bank show, which commissioned it, secured its largest ever London ratings.

A  searing  portrait  of  sexual  violence,  loneliness  and despair,  loosely modelled on the career and crimes of Dennis Nilsen,  the  piece  was  calculated  to  cause  controversy. Nevertheless,  Newson recalls the brouhaha with  astonishment. ‘You had that headline and underneath “Men cavort naked – except for underwear”.  Then on Page Three, there was a picture of Tina Turner on a beach with all these boys in swimming trunks.  Why didn’t it have “Tina Turner cavorts naked – except for swimwear”?

The juxtaposition was strange.’  It  was  precisely  to  expose  such attitudes that Newson founded DV8 in 1986;   its name, halfway between a pun and an acronym, was an immediate statement of intent.  His aim was to challenge  both  the  moribund  ideas  in  dance  and  the  moral standards in society that he found oppressive.  This was no place for swains in tights and swans in tutus, any more than for the courtly creed that underlay them.  It was to be a radical theatre in which meaning, movement, product and aesthetic were one.

Newson’s challenge to the British mainstream was born of a triple  alienation  as  a  gay,  working-class Australian.    His interest in dance was sparked off at Melbourne University, where he  studied  psychology  and  performed  with  the  Modern  Dance Ensemble.  ‘It was a very political, very feminist company, with lots of graduates, which is rare.’  Indeed, it was so far removed from the cliché of the brainless ballet dancer that one of his colleagues has since become a brain surgeon,  ‘He left to pursue his  medical  studies.    Dance  was  just  one  element of  life alongside families and careers.’

Just as the political complexion of the company inspired his later work, so did its age range.   ‘It was very mixed, between eighteen and fifty.  Everyone danced… not only character roles, which I find condescending.’  His own most recent piece. Strange Fish, was immeasurably enhanced by the presence of the 64 year old former Variety dancer, Diana Payne Myers, who allowed herself to be tossed to and fro by the younger performers… a most vivid image of the way we disregard – and discard – old age.  ‘But it’s very difficult to find older people to work with.   They’re trained to think they’re no use after thirty-five.’

After  dancing with  the  New  Zealand Ballet Company  and Impulse Dance company, he came to England in 1980 with a year’s scholarship to the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and was then asked to join Extempore, where he remained for four and a half years.  There he began to experiment with choreography.  ‘I had choreographed in Australia, but it was just something I did as part of my dancing;   it wasn’t a major passion for me.   At Extempore, we held choreographic workshops at the Laban Theatre which gave me a chance to push ideas and make blunders.’

He became increasingly frustrated with the conditions both of interpreting other peoples’ choreography and creating his own. In  the  first  case,  the  constraints  of  time  proved  to  be crippling.  ‘We had three hours a day for three weeks to make a major work.  It was absurd;  like asking someone to write a major novel in three weeks.’  In the second, ‘when I wanted to create a work, the dancers were chosen by the Artistic Director.   They didn’t have the  same political  ideas  as me;   they weren’t interested in exploring new vocabularies.   I wanted to find people who thought as I did, who weren’t trapped by the gloss of dance.’

The first person he found was Nigel Charnock.  ‘He’d trained as an actor and was therefore interested in the meaning of dance and not just the look of it.’  DV8 was formed;  and its debut piece, My Sex Our Dance, was a passionate and desperate duet for the two men, in which the very physical danger of the leaps and bounds  and  flips  and hurls  that they aimed at one anotherparalleled the emotional danger of lovers attempting to make contact.  The intensity and integrity of the dance was itself a vital affirmation in the age of Clause 28 and AIDS… indeed, at the stellar gala against the Clause at the Piccadilly Theatre, DV8’s direct interaction spoke louder than any number of speeches from the great and the good and the knights and the dames.

While  My  Sex  Our  Dance  established  Newson’s  political agenda, it also introduced his trademark vocabulary.   His work has been described as ‘the theatre of blood and bruises';  and, as his dancers throw themselves from ladders and ledges, through space and at each other, they occupy the area where athleticism and masochism meet.   Unlike most dancers who strive to project perfection,   Newson’s   are   liable  to  drop  one   another, deliberately.   They give physical expression to the pain and confusion of the 80s and 90s… life is not secure;  nothing is fixed or certain.  They fall;  we fail.

Newson’s vision may be bleak,  but its sheer physicality makes it exhilarating;  his willingness to go out on a limb with his subjects has been matched by dancers who have been willing to risk their limbs in realising them.  And yet he is adamant that there is no inherent virtue in virtuosity;  the most acrobatic movement must have meaning.   He dismisses the aesthetic of classical ballet:   ‘What is the point of an arabesque in the middle of Romeo and Juliet?  Why keep sticking your leg up?’, while applying equally rigorous criteria to himself.

He understands the limitations of his medium:   ‘What dance does best is personal politics;   what it can’t do is discuss existential politics because we don’t open our mouths.’ So his two most recent pieces, the Beckett-inspired If Only and the Buddhist-titled Strange Fish (“Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as a fisherman of what is at the end of his rod”), have introduced speech.  With their mixed male and female casts and more prevalent humour, they appeared to move away from the stark sexual politics of his earlier work.   There was even a sense that that seam of study was exhausted.   But, with his current project, MSM, he has discovered a rich new field.

MSM (Men who have Sex with Men)  is a comprehensive term devised by sociologists who discovered that a lot of men who have sex with men do not identify as gay or bisexual.   The piece centres on encounters in public lavatories (colloquially – and quaintly – known as ‘cottages’), a topic which is largely taboo, even within the gay world.  Newson relates that ‘what attracted me to cottaging is the scope of sexuality that is revealed.  It’s a world where people go to discover themselves, to get in touch with that part of themselves which society doesn’t allow them publicly to show.’

Unlike his previous work which was created from company improvisations, MSM is based on detailed research.   The piece sprang from a project at the National Theatre Studio in which Newson and six hand-picked actors conducted formal interviews with men who cottaged.   They were given two days technical training by a consultant and worked to a very specific brief, with guideline questions including personal background, age, job, how  they  defined  themselves  sexually  and  first  cottaging experience.

Peter Darling, one of the actors involved, who had recently returned from the National’s world tour of Richard III, explains: ‘The formality was necessary because it’s very important to have clear definitions.   We weren’t there as therapists, which we could easily have turned into, as some people were talking about things they’d never talked about before.  When you’re conducting interviews, you cut yourself off.   But, on reading them, you realise how interesting people can be.  Just letting them speak can be a wonder.’

Newson was determined to obtain a cross-section of age and background, black and white, regions and metropolis.  So, as well as putting adverts  in the gay press and Time Out,  he sent researchers into the field.  ‘We got people we knew who cottaged to hand out information and to slip notes under cubicle walls.  Someone also went out of London;  in one area, a council worker interviewed 84 men and discovered that 85% of them were married.’  His one disappointment was the racial imbalance.   ‘The stigma attached to men who have sex with men in black culture made it impossible for them to respond.  We couldn’t even get any black actors to join the project.’

He insists that the research method is valid.  Every word spoken in MSM – and the piece will be predominantly verbal – will be derived from the scripted interviews,  ‘It will give it authenticity.  It won’t allow people to say “I disagree with the morality of the play”.  I want to use all the contradictions… all the confusions.  There are a lot of things that I don’t want to hear in these interviews, a lot of things that don’t fit my framework.  But I want to put them in.  I don’t want to reduce people, to make them serve my argument.  The thing is to listen, not to condone or condemn.’

All the performers extol the honesty of the men who confided in them.  Liam Steel, whose previous work includes both dance and drama, claims:  ‘Because the people who’ve been interviewed have given us so much, we feel responsible to them.  We’re not just doing Harold Pinter.’  And David Foxe, lately of both Cheek by Jowl and the National, does not feel the lack. of a playwright:  ‘The people who spoke to us were their own best writers.   We found such riches in the words that they used.   I remember one man talking of how the lights and the sounds in the lavatory reminded him of being by the sea.’

Foxe describes how his own attitudes to cottaging have undergone a sea-change.   ‘I’m not particularly attracted to it, but I couldn’t condemn anyone for doing it as I might have done six months ago.  Then I thought it all sad and pathetic;  but it can be enormous fun.   A lot of the men talk of the beauty of cottages,  especially  the  older  Victorian  sort,  with  their porcelain and copper pipes;   one was so beautiful that it had glass cisterns with goldfish in.  And besides, who said that sex was meant to take place in perfumed sheets with Herb Albert on the stereo?’

The National Theatre workshop took place in November and December 1992 and involved an arduous process of transcription and selection, first by the company and then by Newson alone.  Foxe explains, ‘Lloyd went through every interview and decided on the characters he wanted to use.  So, on the first day of rehearsals (in July), from the original sixty, we were left with nineteen.  As well as this, we had twenty-five headings, such as Hands, Fetishes, Clothes, Sayings and Addictions, and under them were different characteristics.  We started work on presenting them, some with words and some purely physically.’

For both Foxe and Darling, this was a novel mode of work.  Darling admits that ‘I was very frightened of the physical thing.  I’m used to plays with the structure being there.  But here I am exploring something much more with my body than my mouth… which is not what English theatre’s about.’  And yet, however daunting, the process can be exhilarating, as Foxe has discovered.  ‘It’s so powerful to have all these contradictions.   So often in a play, I miss that;  I’d like to say at the end of a speech “or not”.   But, of course you can’t;   you have to be true to the playwright.  Here, it’s all there.’

It also marks a new departure for Newson.   ‘You won’t see people flinging themselves around and doing dangerous things on stage;  that’s become a cliché.  And people are blinded by their fears on a gut level to the deeper meaning.’  His prime concerns, as ever,  are reason and rhythm;   but now ‘the rhythm, which before has been dictated by music, is dictated by words’.  He constantly reassesses the relationship between movement and text.   ‘So much physical theatre falls down in that it only works when it’s physical.  I don’t sit there thinking “Oh my God, this is physical theatre, I have to keep giving them things to do”.   Physical theatre can be about being still;   which is something that the dance world, with its philosophy of “keep them excited, keep it moving”, doesn’t understand enough.’

MSM  is  high  risk  theatre.     The  subject  matter  is controversial and destined to offend both those who wish it to be presented in a certain way and those who do not wish it to be presented at all… as Foxe says, ‘I’m very glad we’ve only got four dates out of London;  I can just hear the sound of chairs flapping.’

It is a risk for the actors in terms of both exposure and commitment.   While some, such as Steel, are veterans of stage nudity and claim that ‘it’s the build-up that’s hard, not the nudity’,  others,  of  a more classical background – and less classical build – such as Foxe, have to confront their fears.  There is also the stigma attached to the stigma, in the danger that identification with the subject will damage their careers.  Although Foxe dismisses the possibility,  ‘it’s made too big a deal of;   actors get very worried that they’re going to be identified as gay.  If they play Nazis, they’re not worried that they’ll be seen as Nazis’, several agents did warn their clients not to participate.  To which Darling replies:  ‘if it means that people in theatre and television don’t want to employ me, then I’m better off doing another job.’

Above  all,  it  is  a  risk  for  Newson  himself.    As  a choreographer garlanded with awards, whose works were recently described in the Sunday Times as ‘by far the most inventive that the contemporary dance world has seen in years’, the piece risks alienating DVS’s devoted dance audience who come for the thrills and the spills and will instead find a ‘physical play’ motored by documentary research.  Nevertheless, it is entirely fitting that in pursuit of his ideal of ‘theatre that dances’, this iconoclast of the movement world should find himself in the bastion of the writer’s theatre, occupying the main stage of the Royal Court.