Can We Talk About This?
Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre has been rousing the world with its distinctive blend of theatre, dance and political rumination for 25 years. The veteran talks to Edmund Lee ahead of his Hong Kong visit.
Lloyd Newson couldn’t have started with a grimmer note if he tried. “I don’t mind dying for something that I’ve said,” explains the artistic director of the London-based DV8 Physical Theatre company, after informing me that he’s going to record our phone conversation due to the sensitive subject matters, “but I don’t want to die for something journalists said I’ve said that I haven’t said.”
If that sounds too dauntingly meticulous an approach for a dance theatre artist, it’s probably because Newson’s work actively demands that level of political awareness – time and again. A graduate in psychology and social work who started out working as a professional dancer (“my mind was stagnating then,” he says of those early years), he founded DV8 in 1986 to present a unique artistic mode that pays intriguingly little attention to visual aesthetics, as well as constant regard to the major controversies – from social, political to psychological – in the contemporary world. It has been an ongoing exploratory process for the company; even DV8’s lack of a repertory, according to Newson, is partly down to his refusal to get stuck in one way of working.
“I think it’s important to realise, and it’s something that one of our interviewees said” – Newson claims, momentarily referring to one of the more than 50 people he’s interviewed for his latest work – “that ‘nothing of importance will not offend or upset someone, somewhere’. Invariably when you talk about important issues, people will be upset – whether it’s abortion, nuclear power, Israel and Palestine, religion, or pre-marital sex. All these can upset people.”
Can We Talk About This?, which takes the stage of Sha Tin Town Hall’s Auditorium this weekend after premiering at Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival in late August, revolves around the issues of Islam, multi-culturalism and freedom of speech. Drawing from both archive material and direct, personal experiences of his interview subjects (representing a wide spectrum of prominent social figures, from politicians and campaigners to writers and policy makers) and citing a long line of incidents between 1985 and 2011 (from the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the ‘Muhammad cartoons’ controversy), the new work was first conceived when Newson was researching for his acclaimed 2007 work on religion and homosexuality, To Be Straight with You.
Newson recalls a survey he read at the time: “One of the questions was ‘did British Muslims find homosexuality acceptable?’ Out of 500 British Muslims who were asked this, they got zero percent [replying yes]. That was quite striking. So I was interested in [the questions] – have we created a segregated community with very different values within Britain? How do we respect religious and cultural differences, while at the same time respecting and promoting freedom of speech and the right for minorities?” He adds: “For the audiences who come and see the work, they will hear a lot of information, and hopefully it’ll give them room to think and debate.”
This insistence in keeping his works at once informative and thought-provoking has been one of the defining traits of DV8. In fact, while Newson often displays a readiness to introduce a touch of hyperreality into his works, the eclectic stylist is nonetheless better known for his preference for content over ‘aesthetics and prettiness’. He clarifies: “I want to make theatre work because I don’t want to just make decorative dance pieces – they are like chocolate. They’re very nice at the time you eat it, but not very substantive in terms of [generating] brain power.”
As a result, Newson’s artistic philosophy has also extended to his requirements of his performers. “When I’m auditioning dancers, I say to them – you need to be able to do pirouette very well and be able to do multiple turn, but I’ll probably never ask you to do it, because pirouette means nothing to me. It’s meaningless as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a trick,” he says of his personal tactics in countering the natural instinct to be seduced by the visually pleasing. “It’s about ensuring you don’t get people to put their legs higher in the air if there’s no reason for it.”
In spite of – or, some may say, precisely because of – Newson’s fascination with tackling complicated issues with talking head interview texts recited within the theatre space, the body language element is more than a welcome component in his works. Newson admits that it’s ‘a relief’ for the audiences. “Recently I went to a talk by a number of leading politicians here in Britain and some prominent figures around the world who are experts in world politics,” he says. “They were talking about the decade post-9/11. And I turned to my partner at the end of the talk (because that’s what they did – they all sat and talked) and I said, ‘I now know why I like people moving while they’re talking’.”
Can We Talk About This? is at Sha Tin Town Hall’s Auditorium September 2-4. Performed in English with Chinese surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.