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Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men

  • featuring DV8 Physical Theatre, A co-presentation with the Moving Pictures Festival of Dance on Film and Video
  • Saturday, October 11, 7 pm
  • Jackman Hall, AGO Dundas St. West at McCaul St. $2 members/ $5 non-members Due to AGO policy, those admitted must be 18 years or older

Part of Fall 1997

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men is a starkly brutal, stunningly beautiful study of masculine identity, executed through choreographed movement and dance. Directed by David Hinton and featuring the daring physicality of DV8 Physical Theatre, this film* presents a series of vignettes which explore the conflicting desires and fleeting connections of four men on the make. These monochrome men form shifting alliances and fragile unions in their relentless efforts to satisfy their desires. Darkly erotic, strikingly intelligent and incredibly sexy, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men is both exhilarating and devastating by turns, a riveting psycho-thriller which offers images so hot that the celluloid threatens to burst into flames. Arguably, the most compelling dance film of all time.

This program opens with three short videos by the
young, sharp-witted British performance duo John Wood and Paul
Harrison. With Harry Houdini, the screen is transformed into a
claustrophobic holding tank while, in Untitled, a man is
aggressively dissected by shards of light. Device brings to the fore various odd mechanical gadgets, all embedded in droll formal play.

* To be exhibited on video


John Wood and Paul Harrison’s

Harry Houdini (There is no escape that I can see)
(1:30 min., video, 1995)
The idea of escapology as entertainment is literally turned upside down in this video. A man trapped in the screen struggles to keep head above water whilst attempting to escape. The camera is caught up in the event and as the title suggests the man is framed in a hopeless situation. The beginning and the end look the same, but something in the middle changes.

Untitled 1996 (Ball Machine)
(6 min., video, 1996)
With a strong reference to film, Untitled gradually reveals an image whilst simultaneously destroying it. The video contains other contradictions: it is violent but absurd, clumsy yet elegant, and logical but stupid. Underlying the video is a strong formal structure which frames the chaotic humorous event.

(6 min., video, 1997)
Inspired by various objects such as roller-skates, escalators and diving boards, Device is a sequence of events exploring certain demanding physical movements. Some of them are useful, some useless, some elegant, and some violently clumsy. It takes the narrative out of slapstick and heightens the deadpan, leaving a set of minimalist gags.

John Wood and Paul Harrison have been working together since 1993. Their work has been shown in Europe and America. Recently they have exhibited at Video Positive ’97 (England) and the 7th International Video Week (Geneva). They live in the UK but are currently working on a project in Germany.

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men
Directed by David Hinton (60 min., film/ presented on video, 1989)

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men is a starkly brutal, stunningly beautiful study of masculine identity, executed through choreographed movement and dance. Directed by David Hinton and featuring the physicality of DV8 Physical Theatre, this film presents a series of vignettes which explore the conflicting desires and fleeting connections of four men on the make. As paradigmatic representations of psychological characteristics drawn from the deepest recesses of the male psyche, these monochrome men form shifting alliances and fragile unions in their relentless efforts to make connections and satisfy their desires.

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men has been surrounded by controversy for its implied violence, frank sexuality and unremittingly honest depiction of the darker dimensions of the gay male psyche. Upon its television premiere in 1990, London’s gutter press headlined the film as a “gay sex orgy”, thus ensuring a massive local audience but scaring off timid international broadcasters and programmers. Consequently, Dead Dreams is known largely by reputation only and is now just beginning to receive the widespread attention it deserves.

Darkly erotic, strikingly intelligent and incredibly sexy, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men is both exhilarating and devastating by turns, a riveting psychological thriller which offers images so hot that the celluloid threatens to burst into flames. Without a doubt, the most compelling dance film of all time.

(Scott McLeod, Pleasure Dome)

Excerpt from
The Silence of the Man by Josephine Leask

DV8 built up its reputation as an issue-based dance group which produced hard pessimistic work related to sexual politics and specifically ‘queer’ sexuality in response to homophobia and the AIDS crisis in the 80’s. Since then the work has developed and grown to reflect more optimism in a gradually-changing, more accepting society, but still the confusion of attitudes towards sexuality in the 90’s and the complexity of relationships both hetero and homosexual are areas of tireless subject matter for this issue-based company. Newson works out his anxieties about human behavior through his work, only creating when there is something serious on his mind and when there is “a need that is artistically motivated rather than commercially or administratively driven.” … The key works of DV8 which seem to embody the development, both in form and content, of Newson’s concerns and which reflect most clearly on the tensions and anxieties of society towards sexuality and relationships are My Sex, Our Dance (1986), Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1989), Strange Fish (1992) and MSM (1994).

DV8 was formed in 1986 by Newson and an independent collective of dancers who had become disillusioned with the direction of most western dance. Newson had come over to London on a scholarship from Australia where he had performed repertoire with the New Zealand Ballet, had left the London Contemporary Dance School to choreograph with Extemporary Dance Theatre, but rapidly became concerned about the lack of meaning in western mainstream dance and its irrelevance to society and culture for the sake of virtuoso technique. After performing with these companies, he felt frustrated with the fact that “so many choreographers denied who I was, my ideas, my thought. I was nothing more than a bit of pigment for them to paint with” – and that they denied the dancers’ humanity and individuality on stage. Newson’s training in psychology prior to his dance career and his work with children and families had given him an investigative interest in people that was certainly not satisfied by the lightweight aesthetic concerns of the dance he saw around him. His curiosity in people, his observation skills, and his desire to delve deeper into areas where dance had previously not dared to go were to be used in developing his form of dance/physical theatre. This name implied a departure from accepted contemporary dance styles, did not rely on traditional dance vocabulary, but of a more athletic physicality, contact and improvisation skills and body language. The research for each new work has always been rigorous and the performers have taken almost as much of that responsibility as Newson himself. It is important for Newson to share the working process with his performers so that the work becomes collaborative, although ultimately he makes the decisions, sets exercises or edits material. As well as being strong dancers, his performers need to be open to improvising and challenging themselves both emotionally and physically. Often they are asked to show sides of themselves in performance that most humans would never reveal and sometimes will fail on stage as a result, but failure, which is a possible outcome of risk-taking, is part of DV8’s working process.

Some of Newson’s missions as stated in DV8’s artistic policy were to “reinvest meaning in dance, take aesthetic and physical risks, and to break down the barriers between dance, theatre and personal politics, with the main goal being to communicate ideas and feelings clearly to as wide an audience as possible.” Each work that has been produced has achieved these aims with varying degrees of success and has always disturbed or shocked people in the process. However, as Newson states, “It is never my intentions to provoke an audience or upset them per se,” but rather to challenge their preconceptions of dance. “I’m interested only in provoking and pushing myself, questioning my own and the performers’ motives, reasons, thoughts, assumptions….Many of the things I deal with are often considered social taboos….but unless one examines and questions them I feel that we, as a society, cannot go any further.”

Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men was a consolidation of the homosexual focus, and built on the male relationships explored in Newson’s first piece. The work, based on the life of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen who lured his male victims back to his flat before murdering them, plunged into a very dark and sadistic side of homoeroticism and one that was threatened by death. Going way beyond political statements about homosexuality into extremes, Dead Dreams was a depiction of the utter despair and gloomy consequences of repressed love. The first half was set in a club where Nilsen often picked up his victims. The whole process of the hunter seeking out his victim was played out through convincing body language, gestures and glances by the cast of four men including Newson. (Newson performed in most of the earlier works as he felt that by participating he could get a better sense of the quality of the work). Scenes from a hard-core gay club and the darkroom were played out. The performers struck body-builder poses on top of pedestals, while a couple clutched and dragged one another, one active, the other passive, struggling, suffering, enacting the sordid penalties paid for the price of love.

The second half moved to a gloomy bedside, the site of Nilsen’s carnage. Two naked lifeless bodies were dragged around, then one was suspended upside down from the rafters while the other was laid out on bathroom tiles. Both bodies were like carcasses, passive slabs of meat, victims of the male meat market whose sex has to be practiced illicitly underground, away from the public eye. Scenes of drowning a lover in the bath, which was one of the murder methods Nilsen used, or abusing another, blindfolded, clocked up the disturbing images, variations of which have appeared in later works. For example, the sex scene where one man is crawling or pumping against another body and doesn’t notice when that body moves away, or bodies either emerging out of water, or falling from a huge height into an empty void, suggesting betrayed trust. Or the action of kissing a victim on the mouth using the kiss to drag the body along the ground or to suck out is life force, painting a double-edged picture of sexual violence and abuse.

The source material for Dead Dreams was taken from the book by Brian Master entitled ‘Kill for Company’, and the images from the book were carefully woven with images from Newson’s own powerful image repertoire. Subtle movement and frozen poses were juxtaposed with fast and dangerous contact work, furious outbursts which showed a sensitive awareness of pace and timing. Newson’s outstanding skill in crafting movement and form to match the content was revealed at its best. Even in his other work, where content has been more flaky or the focus less intense, the choreography has always provided a sound backup, both in terms of structure and form, showing his innate understanding of how to create theatre. The work was made into a film for London Weekend Television’s South Bank Show directed by frequent DV8 collaborator, film director David Hinton. As a result of this coverage (the South Bank Show is a mainstream arts documentary programme with a large viewing audience), Newson made front page tabloid news and was the subject of much controversy because of his blatant depiction of sex and death.

Considered to be DV8’s most powerful epic to date, Dead Dreams proved that physical theatre could tackle complex issues without simplifying or sensationalizing its subject. Both choreographer and performers worked into such emotional and physical depths and into such dangerous territory that they had to change their direction after making the film. As one of the dancers said about being in Dead Dreams: “….it is like cutting yourself with a knife. How long do you keep cutting yourself? And while people are amazed that you cut yourself on stage publicly Ñ how much do you keep doing it, repeating the same action? I won’t continue to cut myself, I now need to find another that goes beyond that.”

(Originally published in ballet international 8-9/95)


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