new york

DV8 Physical Theatre

brooklyn academy of music

DV8 Physical Theatre is a British dance company with a fervent mission: to set dance straight by returning it to real life. With a righteous contempt reminiscent of ’70s punk, DV8, led by artistic director Lloyd Newson, spurns the overly refined techniques and effete aims of modern dance and ballet alike in favor of blunt physical action. The company’s dances make comic-book-clear points about relationships of both hetero- and homosexual persuasion. The didactic agenda is activated through another classical revolutionary device: works told from the viewpoints of the mentally disturbed. This approach makes for a catchy novelty in the sleek, technique-obsessed world of today’s dance, and would be almost laughably naive if DV8 were not so accomplished at embodying its uncompromising statements in performance.

You can turn DV8’s earnest arguments around without much effort: what could be more artificial, less truthful, than the sitcom simplicity of the conceptual framework for My Sex, Our Dance?, 1986. A man and woman drink wine, flirt in low whispers, and eventually exit with clearly amorous intentions. Meanwhile, two men, initially in separate, cell-like spotlit areas, are dressed by attendants. They proceed to enact a series of physical actions based on ordinary yet metaphorically loaded gestures, beginning with a handshake, progressing to a pushing-pulling contest, and ending up in an all-out wrestling contest and a brief, explicit embrace. The dialectics of this concisely structured melodrama are quickly grasped: the culturally sanctioned, innocuous mode of love contrasted to the “deviate” angst of homosexuality. What stays with you, however, is the almost scary physicality with which the performers enact their choreography. The brutal falls and shoves, the repetitive running in circles, the dives and leaps, the wrestling—all are carried out to the point of exhaustion. This real exertion gives DV8’s cartoon-caricatures a visceral punch that makes their conceptual posturing more persuasive.

Deep End, 1987, a collectively created work, added large doses of humor to the program. A locked-legs, postcoital discussion between two characters carried Chekhov’s observation that people talk but don’t listen to each other to hilarious extremes. Typically, however, this routine segued into a vignette about jealousy, betrayal,and passion thwarted. And there was one chilling scene of an almost primal power: a tiny female dancer, blindfolded and continuously jumped upon by two much larger men, an episode that unabashedly dredged up a sense of nasty, perverse pleasure. For DV8, humor comes mostly in black.

The problem that remains for this company is like the dilemma that punk had to address: having made The Statement, what’s left to say? Right now, though, DV8’s truth-in-action style is a vital reminder of where the thrill of dance originates—in the nerve centers, stirred by fundamental motion.

John Howell