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DV8's latest piece, 'John', tackles male sexuality head on

DV8 John
© Blandine Soulage-Rocca Ian Garside and Andi Xhuma

Choreographer Lloyd Newson talks to Time Out Manchester about dance, society and being controversial.

Choreographers find inspiration from all manner of sources and, of late, you seem to be more influenced by the spoken or written word.  Was that a natural or intended thing?
'Aren’t we all influenced by the spoken word? This Q&A interview is purely conveyed by the written word. We do judge people physically, visually. But words are fundamental to how we gain huge amounts of information and communicate, be it through phone calls, emails, conversation, books, newspapers. Even television and video where moving images dominate – it’s a very limited format, because without accompanying commentary, words, we generally lose interest and meaning. Meaning creates engagement and vitality. Laws and religions, things that govern our daily life, for better or worse, are recorded and laid down in words. In retrospect it seems insane that I limited myself to trying to communicate about complex social, religious and personal issues in movement alone, without resorting to words. That’s why I find most, not all, but most dance incomprehensible when it’s trying to ‘talk’, talk being the operative word, without using words. The performers say nothing. Pun intended. Admittedly, regardless of what words come out of someone’s mouth, you’d probably learn as much or more by following them and seeing what they do rather than just what they say. But as MI5 rejected my last application, I’m serious, I’m going to have to make a living based, at least to some extent, on what people tell me they do or have done. Of course I will look for evidence to substantiate what our interviewees say. For example I’ve seen police and psychiatric records and newspaper articles that verify what John, the main protagonist in our current show, has told me. So answering your question, was it a natural or an intended thing, to be influenced by words; surely it would be unnatural, uneducated and imbalance not to be. But, I also believe the body can be a great source of information and expression which is why all my performers are trained dancers. What DV8 have done over the past 8 years is take words, drawn from real life interviews, and combine them with highly choreographed movement. Along with some other wonderful artists equally frustrated with the pretentions and obfuscations of contemporary dance, I’ve spent the last 30 years developing a form of movement that is drawn from the principles of body language, a language that everyone understands, either consciously or unconsciously. We’ve rejected dance styles and moves which are highly codified and abstract. For example what does an arabesque mean? What does a fox trot say about the world we live in; fast, fast, slow. Yes I know… it’s about 2 people working gracefully in perfect harmony, some people would even argue it’s fun, and might even lead to a sexual liaison. But would 'Strictly Come Dancing' have the following it has if between each 3 minute dance section the program wasn’t full of words, from the judges, contestants and presenters? At least the BBC got humiliation, failure and competition into their format which most contemporary dance wouldn’t, couldn’t contemplate. The whole premise behind most contemporary dance is nice bodies doing nice things to nice tunes. Success, beauty, youth, athleticism and loveliness dominate the form – and as for the real world, the difficult, ugly, complicated and for those of us who struggle and fail every day repeatedly, how does dance address our lives? Most of the time it doesn’t which is why I make the work I do.'

Social issues have always been an underlying or sometimes overlying focus for DV8 - disability, sexuality, age, immigration, they've all been a part of the stories which the company has told. Often these are accompanied by controversy. Is this something which you actively seek or do you see it as natural response to the work, or do they go hand in hand?
'My last work, 'Can We Talk About This', was about Islam and freedom of speech, it’s worthwhile noting it wasn’t called 'Can We Dance About This'… anyway, one of our interviewees who worked for Amnesty International on Gender issues, said; “If you speak about anything important you will offend someone somewhere”. Whether it’s nuclear power, abortion, religion, politics, climate change, women rights, gay rights, euthanasia, child abuse, discussing and scrutinizing anything that really matters will evoke controversy. Which is why art, when it confronts these issues and I wish it would do so more often, can be more powerful than anything I hear from a politician because politicians generally do everything they can to avoid offending people in case they lose votes. Consequently they regularly do double speak, they dodge difficult, complicated issues until a crisis occurs. Look at the failure of Rotherham, and many other councils, to protect young people from sexual and physical abuse, because a group of local politicians avoided addressing difficult questions about race, religion and culture. Why is there so much head-in-sand discussion about HIV transmission amongst gay men, and I say this as a gay man. Clearly thoughtful people are mindful about avoiding stigmatizing and stereotyping minorities but let’s not use this as an excuse to ignore uncomfortable truths or facts. So no, I don’t actively seek controversy but inevitably it will emerge if you address life issues frankly and honestly; you will elicit extreme reactions. This work has received both 5 star reviews and a no star review.'

Your performers are more than dancers - they talk, act, recite as well as dance. It's a wide skill set. Is it hard to find people with the right mix to become part of the company? 

'We were looking to find 6 male performers to compliment our already existing company. They had to be able to deliver text and act, as well as they could dance. To date we’ve auditioned 762 dancers, but only 4 were up to the job. Work the maths out on that one, then ask how much money the 3 main contemporary dance schools in the UK are getting from the government to train dancers. Finding dancers of caliber is a ongoing concern of mine, shared by many other leading UK choreographers.'

For many people of my generation, physical theatre companies like LaLaLa Human Steps, CandoCo and DV8 were our introduction to the world of contemporary dance. Who were the people influencing you and which companies or experiences drew you to it?
'Early in my career, Pina Bausch’s courage to challenge dance and narrative conventions was a revelation. Nowadays life, politics and world events probably influence me more that individual choreographers or artists. The performers I work with inspire me hugely, as do many of the individuals we interview. Be they John, who was at the heart of this current production or people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who made the film Submission, about Islam’s subjectification of women, with Theo van Gogh. She continues to fight and speak out against Islamism despite the continued threats to her life.'

You clearly care a great deal about important moral issues, some of which can be overwhelming forces in peoples' lives. Does your art help you to wrestle with these big issues and make them easier to cope with in your daily life?

'It helps to some extent. The privilege of making and writing your own work means you are able to tackle whatever subject intrigues or obsesses you at any one time. In making the preceding 2 works, I spent five years scrutinizing Christianity, Judaism and Islam in relation to human rights issues and abuses. Intensive research lets you go to the heart of a subject, work out more clearly where you stand on it, but it rarely solves the problem, it just makes my position more informed. Of course you hope that the work will in some small way influence those who see it and challenge their ways of thinking. One hopes it will open up dialogue, and it does regularly; for example two members of the Lords, who were working to oppose Sharia Councils operating in the UK, contacted me after seeing ‘Can We Talk About This?’. Because the work is verbatim and therefore rooted in reality has other consequences, the current work ‘John’ has impacted on the real John’s life, and helped him reconnect with estranged family members. But the issues still remain, Sharia laws still continue to oppress women and gay men, John’s life isn’t sorted neatly after our work, but at least I’ve done something more than random step arranging and spoken about things of substance, importance and that at least offers me some consolation in my darker hours.'

DV8 perform 'John' at The Lowry on Thu Feb 26 and Fri Feb 27.