by Zoe Boden
Apparently, most of it is pretty dull, the Europeans do it better, it is snobbish, elitist, and has a very limited notion of beauty. Lloyd Newson, artistic director of DV8 Physical Theatre, talks about the problems of dance, the “Prozac of the artforms” and brings us up to date with his current show, ‘The Cost of Living’.
Can you tell us something about The Cost of Living?
One of the things about DV8’s work is it is about subject matter, for a lot of people who go and see dance it is not about anything and DV8 is about something. I think the other thing that is important is the notion of humour and pathos, of tragedy, of multiple emotions and responses to my work –I’ve been so tired over the years of watching so much dance on one level, it may be very pretty, but it just goes on and on, it’s pretty nice, pretty much the same and pretty dull really, a lot of it.
So my big concern is to try and present images through movement and to talk about the whole range of social and psychological situations.
The Cost of Living is very much about those people who don’t fulfil the market value, in the sense of playing on the words the cost of living in terms of the financial issue and looking at what happens through experience as you live do you lose your naiveté? As you live do you lose a lot? Or does experience assist you?
What I’m interested in [with] this piece is: do you become cynical and bitter as the cost of living, or do you not? So we’ve got lots of different characters; those who play the more embittered ones, we have the notion of Stepford [Wives] the idea that it’s important for all of us to join the club, whether it be dressing well, being attractive, being successful, and if we can’t be really successful financially or in terms of fame or celebrity, at least we can be normal.
But what happens to those people who don’t fit into any of those categories?
So there are lots of different parallels – dance is a beautiful parallel. So much of dance is about the youthful, beautiful, slender, able-bodied performers. Dance I think is a great form to talk about these issues. It’s a bit like a beauty contest, in fact we have a beauty contest or a physical contest, so underneath all the smiles and attractive bodies on front covers of magazines we want to know what else is going on; who has had the tucks, who is hiding their faults.
Some people can’t hide them as much as others, we have a disabled performer in the company, we have a very large, fat dancer, and on a very obvious visual level they look very different to us.
So what about those people on a psychological level who may be able to hide their physical imperfections, but [cannot hide] their psychological imperfections and why is it so important that we have this ‘Prozac face’? I used to refer to dance as being the Prozac of the art forms. So that is what the piece is about – it’s about those who aren’t perfect and who can’t pretend, those who don’t fit in because they don’t play the game.
There is also the notion throughout the piece about rules. We have a big LED board that has displays about certain rules. The whole set is made of what appears to be fake grass and the board reads like a sign in a park, or a traffic sign “keep off the grass”, also at times it tells the audience and the performers what to do. Do they obey those rules? They’re some of the ideas we’re playing with really, who sets the rules who follows the rules.
So it’s pretty epic in what it’s dealing with.
You deal a lot with the idea of pretence, and with truth, but theatre is pretence - isn’t that a difficult contradiction?
One of the things in theatre, and with the issue of pretence is that you hide behind the proscenium arch, like the proscenium arch is an invisible veil or the equivalent of a film screen that no one ever crosses. No one ever speaks from behind the TV set to you directly, or if they do it’s a very rare and unusual conceit. The dialogue usually happens between the characters.
How do you know when my performers come forward in a beauty contest and smile, and when often the real contestants come forward and say, you know “my names Paul and I want to work for charities that save endangered species”, what happens when one comes forward and smiling really brightly says “ hi my mike and I really like hurting people”?
Another line is “hi, my name is Karena and I’ve had tattoos and was not allowed in the swimming pool of a five star hotel, two of these tattoos I regret” and she’s smiling very broadly, and she has the tattoos over her body; you can see them very clearly. How do you know the person who says he likes hurting people doesn’t? One of my performers comes forward smiling broadly and says “ hi my name’s Yossi and I’ve got AIDS” – maybe he’s telling the truth, maybe he’s not.
So the audience really question what to believe?
Totally. The number of people who come up after the show and say was this true, was this not true? Already suggests that if you’re just true, and you fight for truth and clarity on stage, then the notion of what is real and what is fake becomes very blurred for an audience, so I think it depends on the style and the way you present something, and the integrity of the performers, and what I as a director fight for.
[Referring to his own press] …What was amazing was how many of the quotes… mentioned the word ‘truth’ in terms of DV8’s work. So we talk about pretence, but they are talking about truth. They see works about pretence or pretending or illusion. It’s interesting how many people, how many critics, are confusing the two, or maybe not, maybe we truly are.
I tend to think the truth is the one which you believe in!
Totally. Well I think honesty, and when you’re moved, it’s an honest reaction isn’t it?
If someone can make you be moved, or make you gasp, or if they… can make you angry, for you to have those emotions– the trouble is quite often I get the feeling that I don’t have those emotions, I sit quite apathetically and I feel very little. I mean how many times do you laugh in a dance show because it was the intention of the maker, not just because you thought it was a load of crap?
Is that what you think art is; something that evokes a reaction?
No, I think art is something that makes us look at our lives and to think about them in a way that is more rich. I think there’s a big argument for poetry and for the construction of elements. When somebody writes a great essay, they have taken the words and placed them in a certain way to make you think more deeply about that subject. That is for me the very function of art.
You get together, you get a group of people, you place things very carefully in order, and the placement is artificial, but if the integrity and the focus is clear, then hopefully it makes people see their roles more clearly. And think about them. And that’s what I would like to do. I love the idea that people come to see our work and if they laugh I know they’ve had a gut reaction, they’ve actually understood something.
To get a laugh through movement is a fantastically hard thing to do, because most dance you can be as vague as you want and you just expect the audience to sit there po-faced, there’s no expectation that you have to achieve anything. But if I’m setting out to make somebody laugh, I have to be really clear… or if I want someone to be touched I have to find out how I find movement that will truly touch someone, as opposed to just doing pretty movement. And I’m afraid that’s what dance for me often is.
Do you not see any value in movement that is just beautiful?
I’m not against some abstraction or some beauty, but for me actually often fallibility, vulnerability is beautiful and unfortunately most dance is often about a very limited notion of beauty, a limited notion of aesthetic. Can’t something that comes across the stage twisted and contorted be beautiful?
Most dance in this country presents us with a very limited range of what is beautiful, and a very limited range of body – it may be very flexible, but it’s not very representative of the greater world. So I think my big concern is that dance has an over abundance of beautiful wallpaper, what I often refer to as using ‘wallpaper’. But dance like other art forms need some solid foundations – we shouldn’t be wallpapering, we should be building walls or roofs.
I think there’s not a lot of very substantial stuff around. There is, but a lot of it is happening in Europe. They’re more profound and less obsessed with doing beautiful patterns for the sake of it, and movement that doesn’t really relate to anything other than movement construction really. It’s like mathematical phrase manipulation – I could make hours of movement for you just using mathematical formula. It isn’t going to do anything.
Do you think that is why contemporary dance isn’t so popular in Britain? Do you think the general public see it as just “floating around a bit”? (Newson quoted in an interview with Donald Hutera for Dance Umbrella newsletter)
There was a big study in America where they asked questions about various art forms, theatre, films, music and dance, and one of the questions was ‘if a programme had theatre / film / dance etc in it, would you consider seeing it?’ and dance had the worst rating – over 50% of people said they wouldn’t even contemplate seeing something if it had the word dance in it.
Now that goes to show that people have huge prejudices as to what they see as ‘dance’. That’s why we don’t call ourselves DV8 dance company, we call ourselves DV8 Physical Theatre because we are doing theatre. I have an absolute commitment to the body, I don’t want to do ‘Talking Head’ pieces, I believe that if you get people to move honestly with their body and if they want to talk, [they can] talk.
I can’t say everything in movement. It’s very hard to say in movement this is this guy’s sister in movement terms. Sometimes if you want to be specific on stage, you have to be specific. There is a quite elitist, purist mentality that I actually find quite snobbish and, if I’m truthful, very negative.
Are you and DV8 one and the same? Would you ever leave and let them exist without you?
Well, I am DV8. Who knows though, if I decide to stop working I suppose technically the board of directors could go on, but I have been here from the beginning, I founded the company, I’ve been the constant peg through it all. I’ve been the absolute conceiver and director of the work. I’ve had great people work with me, and I don’t want to sound overly arrogant as my work can only be as good as the artists who work with me.
I’ve worked with some incredible artists –not just their bodies, not just dance steps, but incredible emotionally, because they have been frustrated with the status quo in dance and they have wanted to speak about their lives and try to relate that to the lives of the audience. And I think that is ultimately why I keep making this work; somehow I want to talk about the world around me that I find so maddening at times that if I didn’t have theatre I’m sure I would be insane.