DANCE / At the theatre of blood and bruises: DV8 tread a fine line between athleticism and masochism. Their new work, MSM, goes one step further. Michael Arditti reports

It is given to few modern dance companies to feature on the front page of the Sunday Mirror but, on 11 March 1990, Lloyd Newson found the television version of his award- winning Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men anatomised under the headline 'Gay sex orgy on TV'. Angry viewers jammed the London Weekend switchboard; Tory MPs demanded action from the Home Secretary . . . and the South Bank Show, which commissioned it, secured its highest ever London ratings.

A searing portrait of sexual violence, loneliness and despair, loosely modelled on the career and crimes of Dennis Nilsen, the piece was calculated to cause controversy. Nevertheless, Newson recalls the brouhaha with astonishment. 'You had that headline and underneath 'Men cavort naked - except for underwear'. Then on Page Three, there was a picture of Tina Turner on a beach with all these boys in swimming trunks. Why didn't it have 'Tina Turner cavorts naked - except for swimwear'? The juxtaposition was strange.'

IT WAS precisely to expose such attitudes that Newson founded DV8 in 1986; its name, halfway between a pun and an acronym, was an immediate statement of intent. His aim was to challenge both the moribund ideas in dance and the moral standards in society that he found oppressive. This was no place for swains in tights and swans in tutus, any more than for the courtly creed that underlay them. It was to be a radical theatre in which meaning, movement, product and aesthetic were one.

Newson's challenge to the British mainstream was born of a triple alienation as a gay, working-class Australian. His interest in dance was sparked off at Melbourne University, where he studied psychology and performed with the Modern Dance Ensemble. He came to England in 1980 with a year's scholarship to the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and was then asked to join Extempore, where he remained for four and a half years. There he began to experiment with choreography, but became increasingly frustrated with the conditions he found himself working under. For one thing, he found the constraints of time crippling. 'We had three hours a day for three weeks to make a major work. It was absurd; like asking someone to write a major novel in three weeks.' For another, 'when I wanted to create a work, the dancers were chosen by the artistic director. I wanted to find people who thought as I did, who weren't trapped by the gloss of dance.'

The first person he found was Nigel Charnock. 'He'd trained as an actor and was therefore interested in the meaning of dance and not just the look of it.' DV8 was formed; and its debut piece, My Sex Our Dance, was a passionate and desperate duet for the two men, in which the very physical danger of the leaps and bounds and flips and hurls that they aimed at one another paralleled the emotional danger of lovers attempting to make contact. The intensity and integrity of the dance was itself a vital affirmation in the age of Clause 28 and Aids.

My Sex Our Dance established Newson's political agenda, but it also introduced his trademark vocabulary. His work has been described as 'the theatre of blood and bruises'; and, as his dancers throw themselves from ladders and ledges, through space and at each other, they occupy the area where athleticism and masochism meet. Unlike most dancers who strive to project perfection, Newson's are liable to drop one another, deliberately. They give physical expression to the pain and confusion of the Eighties and Nineties.

NEWSON's vision may be bleak, but its sheer physicality makes it exhilarating; his willingness to go out on a limb with his subjects has been matched by dancers who have been willing to risk their limbs. Yet he is adamant there is no inherent virtue in virtuosity; the most acrobatic movement must have meaning. He dismisses the aesthetic of classical ballet - 'What is the point of an arabesque in the middle of Romeo and Juliet? Why keep sticking your leg up?' - while applying as rigorous criteria to himself.

He understands the limitations of his medium: 'What dance does best is personal politics; what it can't do is discuss existential politics because we don't open our mouths.' So his two most recent pieces, the Beckett-inspired If Only and the Buddhist-titled Strange Fish, have introduced speech. With their mixed male and female casts and more prevalent humour, they appeared to move away from the stark sexual politics of his earlier work. There was even a sense that that seam of study was exhausted. But, with his current project, MSM, he has discovered a rich new field.

MSM ('Men who have Sex with Men') is a comprehensive term devised by sociologists who discovered that a lot of men who have sex with men do not identify as gay or bisexual. The piece centres on encounters in public lavatories (colloquially - and quaintly - known as 'cottages'), a topic that is largely taboo, even within the gay world. Newson relates that 'what attracted me to cottaging is the scope of sexuality that is revealed. It's a world where people go to discover themselves, to get in touch with that part of themselves which society doesn't allow them publicly to show.'

Unlike his previous work, which was created from company improvisations, MSM is based on detailed research. The piece sprang from a project at the National Theatre Studio in which Newson and six hand-picked actors conducted formal interviews with men who 'cottaged'. They were given two days' technical training by a consultant and worked to a very specific brief, with guideline questions including personal background, age, job, how they defined themselves sexually and first 'cottaging' experience.

Newson insists that the research method is valid. Every word spoken in MSM - and the piece is predominantly verbal - will be derived from the scripted interviews. 'It will give it authenticity. It won't allow people to say, 'I disagree with the morality of the play.' I want to use all the contradictions, all the confusions. There are a lot of things that I don't want to hear in these interviews, a lot of things that don't fit my framework. But I want to put them in. The thing is to listen, not to condemn.'

The National Theatre workshop took place in November and December 1992 and involved an arduous process of transcription and selection. David Foxe, lately of both Cheek by Jowl and the National, explains: 'Lloyd went through every interview and decided on the characters he wanted to use. So, on the first day of rehearsals (in July this year), from the original 60, we were left with 19. As well as this, we had 25 headings, such as 'Hands', 'Fetishes', 'Clothes', 'Sayings' and 'Addictions', and under them were different characteristics. We started work on presenting them, some with words and some purely physically.'

For both Foxe and Peter Darling, another of the actors involved, this was a novel mode of work. Darling admits that 'I was very frightened of the physical thing. I'm used to plays with the structure being there. But here I am exploring something much more with my body than my mouth, which is not what English theatre's about.' And yet, however daunting, the process can be exhilarating, as Foxe has discovered. 'It's so powerful to have all these contradictions. So often in a play, I miss that; I'd like to say at the end of a speech 'or not'. But you can't; you have to be true to the playwright. Here, it's all there.'

It also marks a new departure for Newson. 'You won't see people flinging themselves around and doing dangerous things on stage; that's become a cliche. And people are blinded by their fears on a gut level to the deeper meaning.' His prime concerns, as ever, are reason and rhythm; but now 'the rhythm, which before has been dictated by music, is dictated by words'.

He constantly reassesses the relationship between movement and text. 'So much physical theatre falls down in that it only works when it's physical. I don't sit there thinking, 'Oh, my God, this is physical theatre, I have to keep giving them things to do.' Physical theatre can be about being still; which is something that the dance world, with its philosophy of 'keep them excited, keep it moving', doesn't understand enough.'

MSM IS a risk for the actors in terms of both exposure and commitment. While some are veterans of stage nudity and claim that 'it's the build-up that's hard, not the nudity', others, of a more classical background - and less classical build - such as Foxe, have to confront their fears.

Above all, it is a risk for Newson himself. As a choreographer garlanded with awards, the piece risks alienating DV8's devoted dance audience, who come for the thrills and the spills and will instead find a 'physical play' motored by documentary research. Nevertheless, it is entirely fitting that, in pursuit of his ideal of 'theatre that dances', this iconoclast of the movement world should find himself in the bastion of the writers' theatre, occupying the main stage of the Royal Court.

DV8 plays at the Royal Court (071-730 1745) from Tuesday until Saturday 20 November

(Photograph omitted)