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Dance review: DV8 Physical Theater at UCLA's Royce Hall

November 8, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Dv9dance North Americans have become so accustomed to seeing themselves at the center of the struggle for homosexual equality that it is startling to encounter a major work of movement-theater that completely ignores that struggle to focus instead on homophobia in the Third World and Middle East — and among émigrés from those places.

 That’s just the first surprise in Lloyd Newson’s  “To Be Straight With You,” the uncompromising text-driven cavalcade from England’s DV8 Physical Theatre that arrived at Royce Hall on Friday for a two-night visit as part of the UCLA Live series.

The size and muddy acoustics of Royce Hall arguably sabotaged the piece, leaving you straining to understand the words in all those pithy sound bites. But the mobile set by Uri Omi and a battery of film and video effects offered abundant visual compensations. What’s more, the dance embellishment of the texts proved unfailingly brilliant.

Developed from scores of interviews, “To Be Straight With You” begins with a compendium of hate speech and recollections of murderous violence. Eighty minutes later, it ends with evidence of internalized homophobia: the lies and evasions of people who now live in relatively free societies but can’t accept the truth about themselves because of religion or community disapproval.

Along the way, we get a new view of casualties in Iraq. No, not about our soldiers (the emphasis of news reports), but rather the gay and lesbian victims of free-roaming death squads in a country that we keep hearing is becoming a stable democracy. Indeed, Newson’s texts and the body language developed by him and his eight-member company increasingly target Islam and the question of how to survive as a gay Muslim.

Fearful concealment in Muslim nations and a smug hypocrisy abroad seems to be the answer of those interviewed — along with living in the down-low. “The only person who can judge me is God,” we hear just before the final blackout. But that defiant truism can’t disguise the inherent trivialization of self-knowledge that Newson isolates and loads with irony in such passages as a sensational duet for Ankur Bahl and Hannes Langolf fusing South Asian classical dance with Bollywood kitsch.

There’s also virtuoso foot-swiveling by Sera Adetoun Akinbiyi as she squirms through a speech dissing gay sex (“It’s nasty!”); a masked group dance to illustrate the statement that, in parts of Africa, a gay person is considered less than an animal; plus terrific solos using spinning and jumping rope to convey the frenetic avoidance of reality evident in the texts.

Nearly 20 years ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones brought members of the clergy onstage in a performance piece to discuss the role religion plays in societal attitudes about homosexuality.
Newson turns that process over to let us hear the voices of what we can call victims of religion, and he also includes chilling statistics (the number of nations where homosexuality is punishable by death) and examples of how the entertainment industry merchandises homophobia.

The result isn’t a call to action — after all, you can’t vote to end the murder of gay people in Africa, the Middle East or Jamaica. Instead, “To Be Straight With You” aims to shatter our complacency by personalizing the dangerous predicament of people facing ancient prejudices in the modern world. By contrast, it makes some of our own social preoccupations seem picayune.

The difference between marriage and civil unions may loom very large in gay American consciousness right now, but, with consummate skill and even grace, DV8 shows us that in many more places the dichotomy is simpler: a hidden life or sudden death.

-Lewis Segal

DV8 Physical Theatre, UCSB Arts & Lectures series, Lobero Theatre, 33 East Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, Nov. 18-20. $35. (805) 893-3535; www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

Above:  A scene from "To Be Straight With You." Photo credit: Matt Nettheim

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