"Straight" talk: U.K.'s Lloyd Newson tackles more risky business.
In his newest work Newson, 51, has returned to the interview format but considerably widened his focus. To Be Straight With You is 80 or so minutes of verbatim theater culled from 85 in-depth interviews, plus man-on-the-street interviews, all done in the U.K. Its subject matter is the dichotomous and often life-threatening relationship between homosexuality and cultural or religious intolerance. The production, which comes to the U.S. this fall at Peak Performances in Montclair, NJ (as well as visiting Dartmouth College and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) makes brilliant use of spoken and pre-recorded text, dance, and digital animation to bring its complex points home.
Newson has never failed to champion content over form. "So much dance and theater is often middle-class rambling. It shouldn't be just about a dancer's ability to come up with extra-nice phrasing, or my ability to construct nice movement. To me that's secondary. I want what DV8 does to be urgent, to be about this time, and to engage with important issues."
The piece champions rational thought in the face of virulent homophobia. In turn, Newson says, "The only thing I'm critical of in terms of the Islamic, Christian, or Jewish religion is those passages in their literature that suppress other people or suggest violence to them. That's when I challenge them. I'm not going to anesthetize half my brain because I'm told I must respect a culture blindly. Every community needs to be open to scrutiny. Why should I respect something that wants my death?"
Finding interviewees--and then performers--who were willing to tackle such sensitive, hot-button topics was tricky. The next hurdle was artistic. Working with a cast of nine dancer-actors, Newson's task was formidable. "This is one of the hardest projects I've ever worked on. How do you match dance, which is largely an abstraction, with the highly naturalistic language of conversational interviews? If you do nice-nice dance movement--and most dance movement is nice because it's built around an aesthetic--and someone's talking about being raped and beaten, it's insulting and reductive." Solutions arose from hours of painstaking improvisations. In the finished product the performers move in striking, superbly integrated ways as they speak, and in styles ranging from a mirror-image Bharata Natyam duet to an ensemble line dance to rope skipping.
According to Jed Wheeler, executive director of Peak Performances, "Lloyd Newson is an artist of considerable world impact--of the caliber of Bill T. Jones, Bill Forsythe, and Pina Bausch. They ask audiences to rethink the art form. This year artists are focusing on tolerance and intolerance. I love the idea that Lloyd's including Islamic homophobia--talk about taboos!" Wheeler takes special pleasure in the hard-to-define nature of Newson's work. "He uses a combination of communication tools--some physical, some visual, some text-based. He doesn't conveniently fit the dance matrix."
For his part, Newson isn't much bothered by categories. "I think it's an absolute dance piece because every movement is choreographed. It's also a theater piece because there's almost nonstop talking." Unsurprisingly, he sought legal advice throughout the creative process. "Somebody came in to ensure that nothing onstage contravened any of the new legislation; that we weren't doing anything libelous or inflammatory; and that all of it could be deemed good, honest and documented journalistic material," Newson says. "Sometimes that meant presenting honestly the views of religious homophobes, even though I might not support their position. In the end, because these are real stories, the contradictions and complications that emerge are authentic."