Breaking Boundaries

Feature in Issue 9-2 | Summer 1997

DV8 Physical Theatre’s new work Bound to Please opened this spring and reaches London in July. Currently in their 10th anniversary year, Ana Sanchez-Colberg looks back at the career of one of the UK’s premiere physical theatre companies and catches up with artistic director Lloyd Newson.

It is extraordinary to think that DV8, Britain’s leading physical theatre company is more than ten years old. It seems not so long ago that they came to refresh and enliven the contemporary dance scene in England. During this time, DV8 has continued to challenge the complacency which settled in the dance world after the 1970s boom and the conservatism of the populist arts infrastructure which supported it. To encounter DV8 is to encounter difference.

The company’s name signalled their identity from the start. The term ‘physical theatre’ defined their work in two ways. ‘Theatre’ implied a connection with narrative development via action – distinct from conventional choreographic structures from which the company wished to be disassociated. It was also a reminder of the commitment to a full exploration of the theatrical medium and the use of alternative methods of performance. These principles were already embraced within avant-garde theatre (and indeed within the European tanztheater, precedent to physical theatre) but met great resistance in the general British dance scene. The term ‘physical’ implied a particular approach to movement, and began to identify a style noted for its use of energy, speed and physical risk. What was first considered an idiosyncratic movement style was soon recognised to be a particular strategy of performance which – as tanztheater had done previously in the 1970s – existed within the intersection between dance and theatre.

Within two years of its establishment, DV8 was hailed as a ‘fresh and radical presence on the ailing British dance scene’ (Constanti, 1989). Like Pina Bausch, Lloyd Newson is not interested in movement for movement’s sake. He is not only against the formalism of ballet, but extends his criticism to the hidden virtuoso of a great majority of release-based dance forms. His criticism of these forms stems from what he sees as their attempts to ‘homogenise the individual experience’. He comments that this becomes ‘subsumed by the aesthetics of form at the expense of content… it reduces meaning and obscures the fact that every style has a politic’. It is this personal body-politic, its links to dance and from dance to ‘real life’, which has always been a major concern.

The titles of DV8’s works are an indication of Newson’s concern with human emotion – from the early My Sex, Our Dance (1986), which explored the extremes of love and hate in a male duet, to Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1989), loosely based on the life of convicted murderer Dennis Nilsen. These performances were haunting studies of the darker side of ‘loneliness, desire and [the] emotional death of men’ (Constanti, ibid). Themes which were again explored in the more recent Enter Achilles and Strange Fish (1992). DV8 has explored the nature of human bonds – emotional, sexual and physical – and their interrelation to the process of becoming both an embodied subject and an object of others’ perception.

The desire to infuse dance with content inevitably meant re-assessing the way in which that content emerges within a theatre performance. DV8’s style evolved from the themes explored during rehearsal – a process which frequently included the ‘unlearning’ of previously acquired movement patterns and skills through a process of transgression and personal risk. The body of the performer became the tabula rasa in which the performance would be etched. This approach allowed for the exploration of verbal text within performance. According to Newson there are things which cannot be danced and only said (a symmetrical inversion of Bauschian ‘choses indescribles’). He has asked of himself, his company and the audience, over and over again whether dance is enough to portray the complexity of human experience? He seems to be more and more convinced that it isn’t.

However, this denial of the exclusivity of dance needs to be contextualised within what remains a constant alertness to change as a way of resisting categorisation. Newson regards the desire to categorise to be the product of a complacent dance scene which continues to emphasise tradition without looking afresh at the changing world in which we live. In spite of having become one of the more established companies in England, DV8 remain fiercely anti-establishment. For a decade Newson has resisted pressure to go from one piece into the next – a creative cul-de-sac which denies the opportunity to challenge stylistically worn-out formulas. The work has been produced at a consistent pace of every two years (give or take). DV8 has also resisted the pressure to become bogged down in administration, reducing its running costs to a mere 14% in great contrast to other major companies whose costs can reach a staggering 45% of their total budget.

Being part of the ‘establishment’ has meant that Newson has been faced with the pressure to create a ‘popular piece’ (he places Enter Achilles in this category). Being on the edge all the time does not secure funding. Newson feels there is a price to be paid for having ‘made it’, the risk of becoming a puppet for larger agendas which have nothing to do with the integrity of the artistic vision which he insists should rule the making and presenting of work. The question of how the company is to operate has consequently become as significant as what they want to say. Newson still sees an irony in the fact that, although part of the dance establishment, he has worked mostly outside of England. In his view, Germany (in spite of the present cut-backs the country is facing) remains a model. He has enjoyed being entrusted with funding for work in which (in his own words) he has been invited to do literally ‘whatever I wanted’. He goes on to admit that this just wouldn’t happen in England, ‘without having to categorise my work as being dance, or film, or theatre and apply to the “right” department… the funding for combined arts in England remains so limited. It remains a minority proportion of funding.’ In continental Europe such rigid funding categorisation seems to be, at least from Newson’s experience, unnecessary – artist’s projects receive funding not ‘types’ of arts.

Newson describes DV8’s new piece Bound to Please as marking the end of a cycle of works in which he has tried to constantly define and re-define the boundaries of theatre making. In many ways this piece revisits many of DV8’s previous concerns – What is the dancer? Where is the pleasure in dance? All of the works remain related to the very basic questions that prompted the formation of the group over ten years ago. Questions are repeated, images and situations from previous works re-emerge. But the company is now older and the answers inevitably reflect the process of growth and development undergone. Bound to Please is still transforming. By the time it reaches London, Newson hopes it will be a very different piece and he wants the process of evolution which has occurred during the process of performance to be acknowledged as being as significant as the process of rehearsal which led to the first formulation. As he says, ‘all the pieces are part of a process, they are not a product. The problem arises when, because as a non-repertory company, you are only known according to the piece which is currently playing. The sense of a “body of work” of which all pieces are a part is sometimes forgotten. You live or die by the success of your last piece…’

When asked about the significant points in this process he directed the question back to me. I think we agreed that Dead Dreams and Strange Fish stand out as milestones. Newson then responded, ‘Dead Dreams was the shift into accepting a full theatricality beyond the crash-bang experiments of the earlier days. But it was so dark. After the production, I met a German artist who said “what about the humour…” and that somehow stuck with me. The first attempt to explore that other dimension was If Only…, this incorporated dream like images and a sense of play… but as a piece it was still quite fragmented. It all came together in Strange FishMSM was itself an attempt at a more verbal mode of production… but the text dominated in a way that strangled the piece… Enter Achilles deals with text even if just the non-linguistic grunts and humphs of a bloke’s night out in the pub.’

So what do the next ten years hold? Lloyd Newson hesitates before admitting that he would like to ‘go small’, to focus on film, a medium which he is wanting to explore further. ‘It’s a medium that has greater scope for telling stories through images. It allows for a detail that I want.’ In thinking about this he knows that it will demand a shift of the perception of himself as an artist. Perhaps for Lloyd Newson and DV8 the greatest challenges still await.

Referenced Artists

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Issue 9-2
p. 10 - 11