England’s DV8 Physical Theatre swoops in this weekend for three nights of intelligent and boundary-pushing performances. Presented by San Francisco Performances and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the company will perform artistic director Lloyd Newson’s latest work “To Be Straight With You,” a multimedia dance theater piece that, over 81 minutes (there’s no intermission), delves into fundamental subjects such as tolerance, intolerance, religion, and sexuality.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with the company’s Lloyd Newson. He’s an Australian man with a clear point of view and a knack for making you feel just a tad bit off your guard.
Lloyd Newson [calls at 10:24-ish AM]: Is now a good time to talk?
Becca Hirschman: Yes! Now is great. I just found out that you observed daylight savings a week or two earlier than we do, so our timing is a little bit off [especially since the press reps continued to stress 10AM pacific time/6PM UK time].
That’s right, so it’s slightly a different time span.
That’s fine, though [Although I’m anxiously eyeing my watch. I do this for free, and today in particular, this is my very early lunch break!].
I know that you got into dance through your interest in psychology and sociology
Pysch and social work, yeah.
So how did dance speak to you and how did you decide to move into that field?
Primarily when I was at university, I had been a sports person. At college, when I was studying, I felt that I needed to do something physical in order to counter the academic work I was doing, just to balance my life. And going forth and doing some dance classes… it wasn’t part of the curriculum because I was doing a degree in psychology.
And gradually I started doing some classes, some extracurricular classes, and then, slowly but surely, I got seduced into dance. Interesting enough, when I began dancing professionally, after, oh, about the time I reached 28, my desire to just do nice shapes started to wane. I could feel that as I left my academic studies, while the physical training and performing satisfied me for a number of years, it wasn’t enough. I started craving for some of the intellectual pursuits and stimulus that I had at university. And hence, after about, well, by the time I reached 28, I needed to really form my own company and do work that was much more socially conscious than most of the contemporary dance that I was doing.
You use the term “seduced”–that you were seduced into dance. Was there something specific about it? The intellectual side that spoke to you? The movement in your body? The athletic side?
No. Sorry, I thought that I just answered that. [Long pause.]
It was the lack of intellectual rigor within dance that made me return to trying to make dance theater. That is, in essence, really move away from traditional dance. So, it was just the physicality of dance that was seductive. The idea of working with your body, trying to express yourself physically to a degree, in the early days, and you know, doing nice shapes and achieving pretty pictures and that sort of, um, as much it was, is interesting for a bit, but if you do that constantly, it becomes vacuous and empty.
What does physical theater mean? Could you give me a little more information about how it’s different from other forms?
We call it physical theater instead of dance theater because it’s often driven by meaning as opposed to theater or dance. And because it’s highly physical as much more than just talking heads, hence physical theater seemed appropriate.
[That was a short response. Maybe I won’t push on that. I mean, we went round and round and round and finally the guy agreed to call me from England, the home of Posh Spice and Harrods. But is dance not driven by meaning?]
I was reading on your website that you’re moving towards more text-based work as opposed to movement-based. Is there any specific reason for that?
Well, if you try just saying in dance, “This is my sister, ” it’s going to take you a long time.
Hmm…[Really. I said that aloud.] You started your company in 1986, right?
Yes, that’s correct.
Do you ever feel like you need a break?
Well, I had a sabbatical in 2001. [Another long pause.]
And did you do anything…
That was helpful.
Did you go anywhere or work creatively?
I fought a local government, a housing department, for a year.
Well that sounds like tons of fun!
Yes, that’s why I came back and continued to do creative work. I realized that life and politics and the real world were a lot more boring and tedious and frustrating than the power I had within my company. With my own company I can make work about whatever I like. We’re a small organization, we’re all accountable to one another, and the problem in the real world is that you’re often lost in the maze of bureaucracies and all the rest, so I like that I have a company that is able to make something and work efficiently.
Also, just that your question is, that also, of course DV8 do take time to make work, we’re not just churning out one work every year, regularly. That means that we do some works that we can make faster, some works we make slower. However, we do take a considerable time to make work that I hope reflects the amount of contemplation, research, and consideration that we give work. When we do do them, whether people like them or not, you can’t deny that there has not been a lot research that’s gone into each piece.
It’s not like, here’s a piece of music, let’s dance around to it.
[Note to self: do not be the one to introduce Newson and Alonzo King. The shit might hit the fan.]
What kind of research do you do?
Well, for the piece we’re bringing to San Francisco, to the States, “To Be Straight With You,” we interviewed 85 people. One-to-one interviews, some of those interviews vary between one to six hours. We then interviewed 200 people on the street. We edited a lot of those interviews until we could get a rough structure. That took months and months and months. Then we had to cast, and of course the casting was very particular based on ethnicities. And people’s abilities to use dance, but not only dance, but dance very well, being able to connect movement, but also able to handle text. So we probably spent about twelve months in between doing the research for it and trying to cast for it before we found the right cast.
And is the cast mainly from the UK?
Most of the cast is UK but we do have an American in the company. He’s very good at British accents.
I hope so! A few of your works that you’ve choreographed or put onto the stage you’ve turned into films. Does that affect your creative process at all or do you see the film version as a whole separate work? How do you work with that transition?
Some works work as film and some don’t. Basically if a theater piece has a narrative drive and an overall riding narrative, then it will work because traditional film thrives on the traditional narrative drive. Often what I like about theater is that it can challenge often the type of structure that you see on television. It can handle much more episodic, much more abstract concepts. That why I think Beckett’s [Wait, Posh’s hubby? Oh, that’s Beckham.] pieces work better on stage than often they do as films.
When was the last time that you toured in America?
We were actually there last year with the piece we’re bringing (“To Be Straight With You”). We were in Dallas, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Did you notice any differences between British audiences and American ones?
American audiences seem to get to their feet very quickly.
As in they want to leave at the end?
We’re working on that.
What do you mean, leaving the theater?
Well, no, trying not to. People here seem to think, “That’s it.” There’s no thanking at the end. I don’t think we’re always that gracious.
[Sorry, guys, but I’m being serious. Stop hightailing it to the taxi stand or the bus. Thank the dancers who just burned 500+ calories for your personal and cultural enjoyment.]
No, no, no. They do! They give standing ovations.
Oh! Here I thought you meant they were running out to grab a cab.
[This language barrier is getting tough. I think I need an English-to-English dictionary.]
No, they often get to their feet and applaud. Actually, they’re incredibly gracious; that’s the thing I found to be a little bit odd and couldn’t quite work out. Why they so readily go to their feet.
[Things turned around! Oh wait, that last part… maybe they haven’t. Need to throw in an S-curve mixed with a little bit of flatter-the-director-ness.]
Well… Maybe they don’t see great arts performances very often? I don’t know.
[Shrug. Wink. Ouch. Nope. Not the curve I wanted.]
Well, I certainly can’t say that! You know, you’re American.
I think we have a lot of great arts, but I never thought that [interrupted! Gah! But I was going to say that I think the US has amazing, inquisitive dance companies, but many times, for some unexplained reason, the local, smaller companies don’t often get the audience draw or publicity blitz that the visiting companies tend to receive.]
Let’s not say anything. [Ok. Let’s not.] Also, I think American dance has been dominated by the ponderance of abstract, more abstract dance. As someone wrote in a BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) catalog, [fuzziness], someone said in a forward to the season said that Americans have to prove that they can dance, and I was to say daaaaance with an American accent.
Whereby the Europeans accept they can dance and then do something else with it. And I thought that that is an interesting sort of distinction, that there is a lot of dance for dance sake in America, whereby in Europe the whole notion of dance theater is really, well, it grew out of the whole American town theater genre. That’s not to say people like Bill T. Jones don’t do highly theatrical work. But you look at companies like Cunningham, like Trisha Brown, like Stephen Petronio, they’re sort of highly abstract forms.
Do you have any expectations for your audience when you come to San Francisco?
Well it’s interesting that in this piece that while it deals with religion and homosexuality, and San Francisco is so renowned, you know, for having a large gay community, it will be interesting to see it in front of, well, I will assume a large part of the audience will be gay. Nonetheless, I think this piece is more than about homosexuality or religion. It’s about tolerance. It’s about how different minorities respond to one another. It’s about logic versus belief.
When somebody says, “I believe in a god,” is that logical? If somebody says, “I don’t believe in a god,” is that logical? Whose belief trumps another person’s belief? Is it do we respect somebody’s belief system or not? Is it appropriate that I say, “Well, my belief system is that you are an abomination”? Is that acceptable? Should I respect that? Should religion be ring-fenced off from criticism? Is it different to any other belief system? If you have a political belief system, be it conservatism, that should be open to challenging, why not someone’s belief system?
I think these issues are huge. I mean, how do you reconcile respect for religion and at the same time respect for human rights when often each of those two things can conflict with one another other.
In addition, on Friday, November 13th at 9AM, DV8 will be holding auditions for its re-staging/tour of “Strange Fish” and a new work. Please note that the audition starts promptly at 9AM and latecomers will not be admitted. Details can be found here.
Most performances are close to being sold out. Purchasing tickets ahead of time is strongly advised.
What: DV8 Physical Theatre
Where: Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco
When: Thursday-Saturday, November 12-14, 2009, 8PM
Tickets: $39/$27; 415.978.ARTS (2787) or www.ybca.org, www.performances.org
1)There will be no late seating for this performance. Really. They’re quite serious about this.
2)A pre-performance talk with Lloyd Newson will be held on Friday, November 13 at 7PM in the Forum at YBCA. Free with performance ticket or advanced reservation here.
3)There’ll be a pre-performance, free screening of DV8’s film “The Cost of Living” (originally conceived for the stage) on Saturday, November 14 at 7PM in the screening room at YBCA. Reserve seats online.