Brand new or just brand?, asked the message board as we exited from DV8 Physical Theatre’s show at London’s Tate Modern gallery. Well, not brand new: Living Costs is a partial though substantial reworking of The Cost of Living, which choreographer Lloyd Newson originally made for the Sydney Olympics arts festival in 2000. Just brand? A pertinent question, and a theme of the show itself.
As a brand DV8 Physical Theatre certainly has a name, a reputation, and a set of values. But it is far more than just that. Founded in 1986, the company blazed a pioneering, energising trail through the contemporary dance world. It married a fiercely visceral style of movement, uncluttered by any self-conscious ‘dance style’, to a resolutely issue-based conception of theatre that drew on the personal experiences and capabilities of the performers, and sought any medium necessary to express its ideas, whether movement, speech, costume, film or set. The debut work was My Sex Our Dance, a bruisingly raw, homoerotic piece for Newson and Nigel Charnock that pushed the duet to its physical and emotional limits. The dark, powerfully disturbing Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988) took the gay mass murderer Dennis Nielsen as its subject; MSM (1993) was based on public-lavatory sex. If these productions were concerned with the outsider, the marginalised or the taboo, others (like Living Costs) looked beneath the surface of the ordinary. Strange Fish (1992), with a stunning stage set, seemed like a journey through the hidden aspects of the human psyche, cut with both horror and humour, and ending with flesh-mortifying religious symbolism. Enter Achilles (1995) cast its eye on the ordinary rituals of masculine bonding, and The Happiest Day of My Life (1999) turned an unflinching gaze on everyday domestic life, with another marvellous set in which a living room gradually reveals a subterranean pool of water beneath the floorboards. On the back of these works, DV8 quickly gained a reputation, critical acclaim, a string of awards, and a broad following that went far beyond the traditional dance audience.
Living Costs was commissioned by the Tate as part of the Tate and Egg Live season of performances (sponsored by online bank Egg). Coinciding with the performances were screenings of excellent film versions of some of DV8’s best works – Dead Dreams, Strange Fish and Enter Achilles – and a creative workshop programme for artists and dancers. For the show itself, Newson – never one to be dictated to – has turned his gaze onto the mainstream art context in which the piece is presented: branding, classification, and hierarchy in art, dance and audience are its subject.
Living Costs takes the audience on a tour through the Tate Modern. Moving up through its levels, we witness scenes ranging from low-art clowning to high-art modern ballet, by way of vaudeville, pop, circus and fashion. Our guide is Wendy Houstoun, a combination of smooth-talking arts presenter and slick PR professional. Communicating via the headphones we all wear, she steers us through the building to ensure that we have a ‘rich and happy experience’, prompting us with tour-guide commentary lest we pause in doubt. ‘Newson moves us to a higher level,’ she urges, as we ascend an escalator. ‘The wheels of fortune keep turning,’ she offers, while circus artist Kareena Oates hula-hoops a ring of fire.
In the ground-level turbine hall there are bored clowns, cheesy muzak, and an usherette with the voice of an angel who cajoles the audience into a banal singalong. A cast of sequinned Ziegfeld Follies girls (both male and female) descend the escalator to participate in a game show (‘Up for Grabs’) in which everyone is a contestant but no one a winner. Houstoun sizes them up, from pliant ballet girl Talia Paz through overweight Thom Fogarty to septuagenarian Diana Payne-Myers (‘strong foundation, but the cracks are showing’). Higher up, Rowan Thorpe bops ecstatically to ultra-bland Celine Dion, and rows of identikit models in chic black numbers announce the Tate 2003 Collection, accompanied by seductive, sedative dinner-jazz music in which you can almost hear the subliminal message ‘buy me, buy me’.
We move on up, past living exhibit Payne-Myers, naked on a plinth labelled ‘Please Touch’, past Fogarty egging us on to see the ballet girls spread their legs, like a sleazy freakshow host selling his fairground attraction. And the finale, on the top floor: a trio of dancer-types going through starkly minimal motions, all pointy feet and pointy arms. Their choreography is no great shakes, but the stunning backdrop of the night-time cityscape lends the scene a cool metropolitan sophistication. Ah, location, location…
Bolshy Scotsman Eddie Kay is having none of it. Ripping off his clown mask, he rants: I hate this job, where’s my minimum wage, what are you looking at? Later, he pogos agitatedly but ineffectually, his rebellious posturing constrained by the dead weight of Thorpe’s impassive hand resting on his shoulder. At the end Kay gives the dancers the slow-hand clap, pissed off as ever.
Like the art, the audience is stratified, divided into colour-coded groups. Some sit, some stand, and a tiny elite (I was one) is given preferential treatment as if they were corporate sponsors – or press reviewers. Living Costs probes the hierarchies of art and audience, who gets to the top and who’s left out in the cold, what we buy into when we buy a ticket, the gap between the come-on and the pay-off. But the ideas are stronger than the execution, which often mirrors rather than ironises its subject (witness a bland film projection ‘commissioned by Tat’). Consequently – and disappointingly, given Newson’s track record – the show carries a frisson of risk without packing the punch of a challenge. Which is probably fine by the sponsors. ‘Is this the revenge of capitalism against postmodernism?’ purrs spin-meister Houstoun. Your call.