A man lies in bed, tenderly kissing his shapely lover. He traces his hand down her pliable back, gently cups her buttocks and covers her salient belly with delicate kisses. "Stop it," he chides her playfully as her hand reaches to tickle his side. He rolls over and pulls her in closer, his kisses more prurient, his touch firmer. The phone rings. He lets the machine pick up. It's his other date on the line--she's been waiting in front of the theater, wondering where he is; did she get the time right? Bachelorette #2 sounds hesitant and distraught; perhaps she senses his infidelity. It's a crowded dance card; down at the pub, the lads are gearing up for a night of boozing, and he'll be joining them soon. Finally, the man stands up, turns up the volume on the stereo to drown out the phone and returns to the seductress in his bed--a blond, long-haired, inflatable doll.
So begins Enter Achilles, DV8's triumphantly disturbing work about everyday maleness. Come watch eight blokes in a pub with nothing much to do except pass the Guinness around, throw darts, and boogie to "Stayin' Alive" with their pants rolled down--not what you'd call dance, perhaps. Unless, of course, you have seen any of DV8's other 11 full-evening pieces and your definition of the terpsichorean art is a) pretty expansive; b) pretty radical; and c) pretty damn fun.
Lloyd Newson, DV8's charismatic founder and choreographer, doesn't tread lightly on any subject, least of all on the state of contemporary dance: "It's generally accepted that theater can shock, offend, challenge, deal with conceptual ideas," he rapid-fires over the phone from London. "Most of the time, dance doesn't do any of the above. This partly has to do with what people define as dance: How can pretty lines and pointed feet talk about euthanasia or homosexuality? And is technical perfection all dance has to prove?"
It was the ubiquitous pleasantness of dance, its tacit rules and dense canon of do's and don'ts ("It's a tremendous metaphor for British social etiquette," Newson says) that prompted the 40-year-old native Australian to leave mainstream dance in 1986. Along with two other disenchanted colleagues, he started DV8 (Dance and Video 8), launching headlong into works of uncompromised physicality and biting social satire. Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988) painted a chilling picture of the gay underworld (as inspired by the story of Dennis Nilsen, a British serial killer and necrophiliac), while MSM, created in 1993, was a text-based work about the phenomenon of "cottaging"--engaging in gay sex in public toilets.
Ironically enough, DV8's philosophical and thematic withdrawal from mainstream modern dance has launched them into full view of mainstream audiences, even plastered them onto the front pages of British tabloids. "The day the film version of Dead Dreams was broadcast on television here in London," Newson says, bemusedly, "the front page of one daily read 'Gay Sex Orgy on TV.' And when the paper's two-and-a-half million readers turned on their TVs to be shocked, they weren't, so they wrote to the paper and complained. What I find wonderful is that two-and-a-half million people turned on their TVs to see a dance company."
Definitions of "shocking" are elastic nowadays, but in the dance world, where such hot buttons are seldom pushed, DV8's work is considered rather piquant. Still, shock value is one thing and attacking provocative social issues with verve, another. The disturbing effects of Newson's work stem not from its subject matter but from our lack of experience reacting to dances that make human failure their unapologetic subject matter. In Enter Achilles, failure lurks behind the veneer of straight and solid masculinity. One guy spends his nights with a blow-up doll, another hides his homosexuality while going along with the faggot jokes, while the rest harbor their share of unspeakable secrets. Pints in hand, cigarettes in mouth, they dance the subtle censorship dance around each other, fulfilling the dictum in the piece's program notes: "What men will not express themselves, they will not allow in others."
"Men are constantly looking to one another to assure that they are behaving in a blokey way," Newson says. "If two men are walking down the street holding hands, they will be stared at. But if at least one man has his arm around the other's neck, preferably with a clenched fist, and he's going--oi! oi! oi!--it's OK."
For Newson, manliness defines itself as a set of negatives--not wiggling your hips too much when you walk, not wearing certain colors, not drinking (anything other than) pints of beer. Unmanly activities are subject to ridicule, threat, and, of course, to the sort of violence that two men holding hands may attract unless they insert a few oi! oi! oi!s into their conversation.
"There is an element in masculinity, per se, that I, as a gay man, find frightening," Newson says. "But I recognize it in gay and straight men, and I think it goes beyond an individual's sexual orientation. We rarely talk about how men oppress each other. In fact, few men admit that they are frightened of other men."