The English dance company DV8 Physical Theatre (founded in 1986) was a departure from traditional dance theatre in many ways. The very name of the company gives a clue, as DV8 can be read as “deviate.” The group’s works deviated from the norms and brought something new to the dance field, in terms of the themes of the works, the performers and the way the dance was made.
The founder of the company, Lloyd Newson, was born in Australia where he studied psychology and social work at university. He did his dance studies at the London Contemporary Dance School (The Place) and worked as a dancer and choreographer with several companies before founding DV8. From the very beginning, Newson was responsible for the company’s works, which reflected an interest in social, psychological and political issues. Key dancers in DV8 were Nigel Charnock (1960–2012) and Wendy Houstoun until the early 1990s, when they both began their careers as choreographers.
Instead of abstract modern dance, DV8 made physical dance theatre and dealt with human, real-life themes. Relationships between men were present even in early works, such as the duet My Sex, Our Dance (1987), which Newson made with Charnock. According to Craine and Mackrell in this work the “physical risk-taking mirrored the emotional challenges of a male relationship.” In My Body, Your Body (1987), eight men and women examined sexual stereotypes. Among the group’s most celebrated works was Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988), which addressed male desire.
Many of the stage works exist in television and film versions, such as Strange Fish (1992). Both stage and film works have won numerous awards: for example, Enter Achilles (1995) won the Prix d’Italia in 1996. DV8 toured extensively abroad, and in Finland they performed at the Helsinki Festival and the Kuopio Dance Festival in 1998. In 2016, Newson put the group on hiatus and decided to retire. However, in 2020, he returned to Enter Achilles, creating a new version of the work for Ballet Rambert.
No Need to Please
In DV8 new work was created through group- and process-oriented, collaborative working methods (devising). The group improvised based on their experiences and in response to the themes of the work. This meant including all the performers, their personal experiences and choreographic ideas in the process. From today’s perspective, this may sound like a normal process of creating a dance work, but for a long time dance companies had been hierarchical, with the choreographer playing a central role in the creation of new work. The choreographer would provide the movements carefully planned in advance, and the dancers would learn them by heart without producing their own material. In DV8 the performers were diverse, including dancers over 60, disabled people and dancers from different ethnic backgrounds, which was not common in the 1990s.
The words like “risk-taking” and “directness” describe DV8’s style well. There is an in-your-faceattitude in many of its works; things are harshly laid bare, but there is also humour and irony. Instead of abstraction, distancing or exploring movement and its qualities, it is about people – their relationships, strengths and vulnerabilities. The themes of the works have not been lost on audiences: for example, Enter Achilles explored the norms of masculinity by examining male camaraderie in the context of British pub culture, which includes things like humour, alcohol and violence. Can We Talk About This (2011), in contrast, dealt with freedom of expression and censorship.
At the time of DV8’s creation, Newson and Charnock were united by their disillusionment with the superficiality of mainstream British dance. Throughout his career, Charnock resisted the elitism of contemporary dance, and for him the best audience was ordinary people who did not usually go to the theatre.
Charnock later developed a close connection with Finland. He came here as a performer and visited Helsinki City Theatre Dance Company (Helsinki Dance Company from 2003 onwards) as choreographer in the early 2000s for The Big Because (2000) and The Intelligence of the Heart (2002), after which he served as the company’s director until 2005. This led to the creation of Paradise (2003), Baby (2004), 777 a love story (2004), First Sex & White Room (2005) and Life (2005). Charnock continued in the vein of physical dance theatre. Like Newson, he used dance, song, text and other theatrical means in his work.
The Postmodern Subject and Importance of the Gaze
Postmodernism is a broad term whose meaning, content and timing have been the subject of much debate. Different scientific and artistic disciplines have had different views on its meaning. A basic understanding of postmodernism is that it is a reaction against the values and forms of post war modernism. David Harvey has noted how high modernism was a return to Enlightenment ideas, including rationalism, optimistic scientific belief, universal morality and autonomous art based on its own internal logic. Postmodernism, instead, has been considered to include features such as heterogeneity, fragmentation, volatility and distrust in universal discourses.
Postmodernism has also been characterised by irony, parody and intertextuality. Literary researcher Linda Hutcheon has described these views. She argues that postmodernism is characterised by contradiction. It rejects neat binaries and hierarchies, focusing instead on questions and differences.
DV8 was born in the 1980s, a time when gender came to the fore in a new way, both in dance works and in feminist dance studies. Issues of gender and embodiment were topical in society at large. Beyond heteronormativity, perspectives on sexuality began to diversify. The 1980s and 1990s also saw several reinterpretations of ballet classics by contemporary dance choreographers. In the same period, for example, Mats Ek and Matthew Bourne were inverting and mixing traditional gender roles and combining different genres in their dance theatre work.
Ramsay Burt has analysed some of the works of the DV8 in his article which discussed the relationship of the viewer to the dancing queer male body in the works of openly gay contemporary choreographers. Burt argues that ‘queer’ as a term is open and inclusive and contains a large number of identities that are antithetical to normative heterosexuality, which in turn creates space for a range of subjects:
queer dance opens up and makes space for new and sometimes subversive pleasures, breaking down or blurring the boundaries of straight discourse and proposing new subject positions.
According to Burt’s analysis, DV8’s video work Never again creates a fascinating picture of queer possibilities: in the piece, a straight-identifying character played by Charnock painfully falls down a flight of stairs into a men’s public toilet in the 19th century. There he encounters a large number of sexually active queer men and women, so the lavatory is not for “men only” as Burt writes.
Along with queer, the male gaze is another example of a travelling concept that extends from one field of research to others. It was originally developed by Laura Mulvey in film studies in the 1970s and was used in dance studies in the following decade. The concept of the male gaze has been used to explore how the female body appears as spectacle and passive object of gaze from a heterosexual male perspective in ballet.
Burt highlights the importance and power of the gaze in the opening scene of DV8’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, which takes place in a gay disco. In this scene, the male gaze has a very specific meaning. Who is looking at whom and how? How does this begin to form the action and various relationships between the four male dancers? One dancer has been watching the scene from the sidelines all along and begins to react to the events. Burt analyses this interaction of gazes and how the audience becomes aware of their own voyeurism. A complex construction of desires and gazes on stage develops under the gaze of the audience.
In his article, Burt notes how subjectivity is embodied in postmodern choreographies:
Both [Bill T.] Jones and DV8, by blurring the conventional distance between spectator and performance, subject and object, make the male spectator aware of potential pleasures that are outside the norms of white heterosexual masculine sexuality but that the queer male dancing body can do to or for him.
In the works Burt discusses, the rational and neutral spectatorial attitude and distance of the subject, dating back to the Enlightenment, are broken down. He describes how the dance resonates in the viewer – the pleasure and horror he experiences as a spectator when male dancers perform masculinity. And that is exactly what DV8 was aiming to do with physical dance theatre.
2 Craine & Mackrell 2000.
3 For an intertextual analysis of the work, see Lehikoinen 2014.
4 Burt 2001, 239 ref. 11.
5 Craine & Mackrell 2000.
6 Newson 2012.
7 Kukkonen 2014, 23–42. My dissertation includes several notions on the term in Finnish context. For broader debate, see Linda Hutcheon (1988), David Harvey (1997) and Matei Calinescu (1990).
8 On the concept of intertextuality and the research approach, see e.g. Lehikoinen 2014.
9 Kukkonen 2014, 27.
10 For a broader discussion of the relationship between masculinity and homosexuality, see Burt 2007.
11 Burt 2001, 216.
12 Burt 2001, 216–217.
13 Burt 2001, 234–235.
14 Burt 2001, 235.
15 Burt 2001, 236–237.
Burt, Ramsay 2001. “Dissolving in Pleasure: The Threat of the Queer Male Dancing Body.” In Jane C. Desmond ed. Dancing Desires. Choreographing Sexualities on and off Stage. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 209–241.
Burt, Ramsay 2007 (1995). The Male Dancer. Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities. London and New York: Routledge.
Crane, Debra & Mackrell, Judith 2000. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kukkonen, Aino. 2014. Postmoderni liikkeessä. Tulkintoja 1980-luvun suomalaisesta tanssista. PhD Dissertation. Theatre Research, University of Helsinki. URN:ISBN:978-951-51-0086-3.
Lehikoinen, Kai 2014. “Askeleita tekstuaalisessa labyrintissä. Tanssin kielellistäminen, intertekstuaalisuus ja tulkinta.” In Järvinen, Hanna & Rouhiainen, Leena eds. Tanssiva tutkimus. Tanssintutkimuksen menetelmiä ja lähestymistapoja. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu Nivel 3, 27–44. Available at: nivel.teak.fi/tanssiva-tutkimus/askeleita-tekstuaalisessa-labyrintissa
DV8 Dance Theatre. Accessed 15.12.2021. https://dv8.co.uk/.
Newson, Lloyd 2012. “Nigel Charnock obituary.”The Guardian 7.8.2012. Accessed 15.12.2021. https://theguardian.com/stage/2012/aug/07/nigel-charnock.
Aino Kukkonen (PhD) is a dance critic, nonfiction writer and visiting researcher at the University of the Arts Helsinki History Forum. Her PhD thesis (University of Helsinki 2014) dealt with postmodernism in Finnish dance art in the 1980s. Kukkonen has worked as a researcher for the Helsinki Term Bank for the Arts and Sciences and as a curator for dance exhibitions at the Theatre Museum of Finland. Her publications include numerous articles and books on Finnish dance. orcid.org/0000-0002-5312-4395