DANCE / Fish out of water: LLoyd Newson is better known for his serial killers than his jokes. It's time to lighten up, he tells Louise Levene

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'When was the last time you actually laughed in a dance performance?' This is a surprising question from a choreographer whose most famous work is based on serial killer Dennis Nilsen. In 1988 Lloyd Newson, the Australian choreographer and director of DV8 Physical Theatre, used this grisly story to explore the wider implications of society's homophobia, and the piece was reworked as a film for the South Bank Show to the outrage of the tabloid press.

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men was a dark masterpiece that proved to be the end of Newson's blue period. His next works for DV8, Never Again and If Only, still displayed his choreographic style of apparently reckless physical risk in the context of deeply troubled relationships, but they were also tinged with wry humour and mischief. In Strange Fish, his most recent work, he has developed his lighter side still further.

He sees this as less a change of direction, more a shift in emphasis. 'There's quite a lot of humour in this piece, but I think it's dangerous to think you can't use humour to talk about serious issues. It's an element that most dance avoids. I got sick to death of people flinging themselves through space with intense looks on their faces - I wanted to take another approach to similiar subject matter without getting trapped in the heavy, intense approach that's beginning to typify contemporary dance.'

DV8 has toured Europe and Canada with Strange Fish, and gave the work its British premiere in Glasgow last month. Its reception has reflected the controversial nature of Newson's work. 'One night in Holland, two people waited almost three quarters of the way through and then stormed out of the auditorium, flung the doors open, threw the programme towards the audience and yelled out, 'Shit]'. But after the piece had finished the audience got up on their feet for an ovation. I was delighted.'

Despite his smooth protestations to the contrary, Newson is, in fact, deeply interested in the size and nature of his audience. 'One of the problems in doing the exclusive dance festivals is you get very elitist audiences. I've always made a commitment to try and take dance to people that don't normally see it.'

Newson's eagerness to film his work has been a major factor in DV8's success. His experience choreographing rock videos for the likes of Bronski Beat and Feargal Sharkey in the mid-Eighties taught him what he didn't want. 'I couldn't bear working for directors who wanted eight women in fishnet stockings and stilettos being thrown around by eight chunky guys doing groin thrusts. I'm interested in experimentation and that wasn't the world to do it in.'

Dead Dreams was directed by David Hinton, and he and Newson are currently working on the film treatment of Strange Fish for the BBC. 'The whole piece has to be condensed from 90 to 30 minutes because of budgetary requirements. Things have to be changed.' Newson is not inhibited by the reduction in scale. 'The wonderful thing about the camera frame is that you can bring the viewer into a close-up of a detail that would never work on stage.' For Newson the neglect of the tiny gesture often explains the failure of dance on the small screen. 'I think a lot of dance is not really about drama and the movement is quite abstract. If the work is slightly abstracted anyway, it suffers enormously on television. Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring is wonderful on film, but a lot of Merce Cunningham's work and other abstracted work that just uses traditional dance vocabulary is often not very interesting.'

Despite Newson's belief in dance's abilities to convey subtle nuances, he has chosen to expand the range of expression in Strange Fish to include the spoken word to a surprisingly large extent. Is this an indication of dance's limitations? 'Dance doesn't deal very well with complex and difficult narrative and philosophical arguments, partly because images are ambiguous. There's no dictionary you can turn to that says 'this image means this'.

'For this piece we investigated the Siren myth. It can be interpreted from different perspectives: some feminists would say it's very misogynistic - women calling men to their deaths; other women would argue that what it says is that men are governed by and destroyed by their desires, whereas women have much more strength. Christians would say it's about not yielding to sin and staying true to your course, while the gays would argue that it was very interesting that Ulysses was with all his men on the ship and tied to a very erect pole . . . ' So isn't there a danger of trying to say too much? 'I think a lot of dance hasn't been ambitious enough. The whole reason that DV8 exists is to try and push what dance and movement can say. Too many people think you'll excite the audience just by doing something physically dangerous.'

Which is where the words come in. 'We're using a singer (Melanie Pappenheim), a wonderful woman whose voice is fantastic. She sings either in Latin or in English sung backwards. We wanted a language that people wouldn't be able to understand so it wouldn't get into the literalness of words, but some type of mystical language that you wanted to understand. Most of the time I cringe when I see a live singer and dancers speaking within a dance programme. Very rarely do those elements create a cohesive piece. I think we do it quite well - but of course I would say that . . . '

(Photographs omitted)

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