Lloyd Newson and the return of Strange Fish

‘Strange Fish’ rocked the world of modern dance in 1992, and 18 years later the visionary choreographer Lloyd Newson has re-envisaged his ground breaking performance piece. Having turned down opportunities to work with international pop superstars, Newson has carved a reputation for controversy and line-crossing, whilst retaining his creative integrity and producing some of the most insightful and unique dance of the last 30 years. In the East London studios of the DV8 Physical Theatre company, he is currently auditioning the world’s greatest professional dancers, searching for those who have the capacity to supersede the already strenuous demands of a dance performance. These dancers need to have more than just flexible limbs and strength in their muscles – they need to be able to express the tiniest fragment of human emotion through the smallest of movements. What’s more, there is not a tutu in sight.

A DV8 ballet disregards all of the traditional notions of narrative and formal structure, replacing them instead with a very natural, sinuous flow of life, energy and interaction. What occurs on the stage is a representation of real human existence – not a fairy tale. Upon watching this particular piece, the pre-conceived notions of ballet as ‘pretty’ ‘feminine’ and ‘delicate’ are disbanded and replaced with a forceful sense of social awareness. Speaking to dance critic Zoe Boden in 2003, Newson explained that in his opinion, the range of movement in traditional dance is “an abundance of beautiful wallpaper, but it’s not very representative of the greater world.” It appears that throughout his entire career, he has made it his quest to create performance that “talks about the whole range of social and physical situations.” Strange Fish is one of the greatest examples of dance being used as a form of communication. In the eighteen years since its conception, no other modern dance has even come close to matching its level of originality and resonance.

According to the original performance notes, Strange Fish ‘looks at our quest for someone to love and something, or someone, to believe in.’ The unique work addresses social interaction and the psychology of our behaviour towards one another, using dance to instigate analysis of relationships. The cast of eight men and women forge bonds, communicate and fall in love throughout the course of the performance. Often the performance seems so natural, it is hard to spot when the dancers segue from standard movement into ballet. They appear to draw from their own emotions and expressions , and gradually exaggerate their gestures into balletic movements. Newson views everyday life as inspiration for performance, but not in the convention of musical theatre. He interprets normal physical movement as a balletic gesture, by exaggerating every look, every facial adjustment and the slightest change in posture with control and grace. The performers do not need to speak, becuase they push the boundaries of expression through movement.

The choreographer not only plays with interaction but loves to also provoke reaction between the dancers themselves, and the audience observing. Sometimes these reactions are physical – a conflict between two lovers and a jealous friend is role-played using a wooden bench as a literal and metaphorical barrier. Sometimes the reactions are within the audience themselves, who question their own relationships and feelings after watching the raw fabric of human character laid bare on the stage. The beauty of Strange Fish is it’s unique juxtaposition of human awkwardness with balletic grace and fluidity.

Humour is used as a platform for the dancers to address emotional and personal issues of loneliness, self esteem, dependency, confidence, and of course, the business of falling in love. The only speaking role is given to the stand-out character of Nigel, an over eager loner who disrupts a party with his machine gun speech, hugely overcompensating for his lack of charm and charisma. His horrendously painful self consciousness is all too reminiscent of the awkwardness we as the audience have, at some point, all experienced. Eventually he uses his physical presence to interrupt pairs of lovers, but they are drawn together by a powerful magnetic force. His interruptions, although desperate, frenzied and awkward, are at the same time elegant and intricate.

The movement is of course what characterises this performance, and all of Newson’s other ballets. He views the human body as a tool, with limitless possibilities, to be stretched and bent and thrown into all manner of shapes, large and small. Whether a dancer is moving their head or flinging themselves into the arms of their partner like a frightened child, every gesture is executed with ultimate precision. Previously, Newson professed to The Independent that he considered the medium of film to be a better method of demonstrating the complexities of dance, as is apparent when watching any of the previous DV8 productions on the small screen. Naturally, a camera lens can reveal far more of a dancer’s movement than the naked eye, seated in the stalls of a theatre, so It will be interesting to see how Newson overcomes this challenge. Stage production technology has advanced considerably since the previous production of Strange Fish, and the performers now have an array of visual communication techniques to make use of.

In times of creative depression, it is essential that artists such as Lloyd Newson continue to provoke, shock and push us to use our imaginations, to make better use of our own creativity. When it was originally reviewed, critics were in awe of the boundaries that were broken by the DV8 performers, who took ‘astounding and humbling risks’ according to Judith Mackrell in 1992. Artistic risks are a rare commodity in the Noughties, and as Strange Fish made waves in the performing arts world nearly two decades ago, the time is ripe for the next generation to be inspired.

– Gorgina Langford

Strange Fish will be performed by DV8 in early 2011