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Man, Beast or Both?

Gross, loud and inappropriate--choreographer Lloyd Newson says 'Enter Achilles' tells the truth about men. And then there's the sex doll.

October 26, 1997|Kristin Hohenadel | Kristin Hohenadel is a freelance writer based in Paris

Facing his own vulnerabilities gave him a title for "Enter Achilles," and the recuperation period gave him time for more research. He read 30 books on gender, about everything from the meaning of masculinity to how to get along with your father. "All the nurses thought he was having the worst identity crisis on earth," says Leonie Gombrich, DV8's general manager.

Out of the hospital, Newson put together a cast to begin the final process of developing "Enter Achilles." At first, he went after lads like the Glasgow dancers, who wouldn't so much act as be the characters. But they turned out to be too one-dimensional: "The problem is if you look for real blokes, you get the values of real blokes. You've got to really find very interesting men to play blokes--it's like, if you're going to do a piece about schizophrenics, you don't employ schizophrenics."

Newson conducts his rehearsals and choreography sessions like a group therapy: behind closed doors. "I demand a very high level of honesty and truth in my performers. Today we started a run-through and halfway through I said, 'Right, stop. I don't believe this. What is this about? Stop pretending to be this macho man, you are this, I've seen you do this, I've heard you say terrible things, be that, find that,' " he says. "I think generally they can deal with that provided there's nobody else watching them."

The original cast of "Enter Achilles," a mix of gay and straight dancers, endured field trips to pubs, strip joints and sex shops. Homework involved assignments from Newson's hospital reading list and writing about their own worst qualities. In class, they led workshops for each other about things like pornography and men in nightclubs. And they improvised for five weeks, six days a week, nine hours a day.

And then they had to spill their guts. "We started every day with a different issue related to our personal experiences about being men," says Liam Steel, 31, a blond-haired, blue-eyed dancer from northern England whose character provides much of the piece's comic relief. The dancers have gathered for a coffee in the downstairs cafe at Toynbee Studios.

"We all had to make a decision that nothing that was said in that group would ever be told to anybody else--[not] your wife, your girlfriend, your boyfriend--that [it] was confidential," says Steel. "That creates a very strong atmosphere that you've got something quite precious."

But it didn't make it easy. "To place so much trust instantly in seven other men was quite daunting," says Australian Robert Tannion, 27, whose dark good looks and sharp features serve him well as the most terrifying of the blokes.

Later, Tannion admitted that his character was informed by a painful part of his life: "I had a pretty tough childhood with quite an abusive stepfather. There are points where I become him," he says, recreating the blank face of his character before he flies into his most intense rage. "I never show my softness."

Most of the dancers say that Newson is the most detailed, precise choreographer they have ever worked with. "He never gives up searching for meaning in every single little gesture," says the soft-spoken, boyishly handsome Hounslow, 31, another Australian.

"A lot of choreographers are interested in overall aesthetics, but he picks out little things and picks and picks and picks and picks and picks. He pushes you to find something else inside yourself, to make the work deeper."

"He's very good at installing ideas," says Tannion. In one sequence, Tannion and Hounslow engage in a slow-motion struggle for the almighty pint. "He would say, 'Now don't use your arms here,' or, 'How can you look like you're one person trying to reach for something. . . .' "

"Or he'll say," Steel interrupts, shielding his mouth in a whisper: " 'Remember that story you told me where you wanted that thing from that person, well, I want you to make it like that.' "

"And he doesn't forget a thing," Tannion adds, shaking his head and smiling. "He has a memory like--"

"An elephant!" Steel says.

"An elephant would be ashamed," Tannion adds, and they all laugh.

Since "Enter Achilles's" first London run and its initial tour, there's been just one major voice of dissent over DV8's portrayal of men.

"[It] deliberately presents only the damning evidence against men," wrote a female critic in The Guardian. "What's really startling is the fact that a group of men could have produced such an unloving and unforgiving portrait of themselves. . . . It was funny and deadly, but it was too bad to be true."

Newson, who claims her review is the first one he's read in 10 years, felt he had to respond: "I rang her up and she said, 'I don't know any men like this,' and I said, 'You should get out of the wine bars in Covent Garden and come to the East End.' "

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