One step ahead

Sophie Hansen interviews Adelaide Festival guest Wendy Houstoun in London

Wendy Houstoun, British performer and director of dance theatre, is on the move. She returned from teaching in Vienna to perform in a platform of British contemporary dance in Newcastle. She next travelled to the Adelaide Festival, to perform her solo trilogy, Haunted, Daunted and Flaunted. Before that she completed a site-specific commission for the Spitz cabaret club in London and conclude a mentoring project for emerging choreographers at The Place Theatre. Houstoun has been to Australia before, having toured with native Lloyd Newson’s company DV8. She has an affinity with Australians. “People often think I’m Australian”.

Houstoun’s trademark melange of monologue, movement and mood swings, hovers around the fringes of the contemporary dance scene; uncomfortably in the UK, where she is often criticised for subordinating movement to theatricality, more easily in Europe and beyond. In Newcastle she was programmed into the marginal mid-afternoon slot, but still stole the show with the international promoters. Her part time manager has been avalanched by offers for touring. “The Italians didn’t understand a word I was saying”, Houstoun shrugs, “but they still wanted to buy the work”.

Working on the Spitz commission when we met, Houstoun was remarkably chipper about her lack of progress: “That excruciating first step can take ages. One minute of dance can take five days to make”. On her own again, Houstoun is nevertheless clear that solo shows such as the trilogy are not the way forward. “Haunted was a way of breaking with Lloyd,” she admits, referring to the many roles she has created for DV8. “We were in a bit of a trap. We always started from devising and patterns would emerge and we’d repeat them and become sort of mutually dependent. It became hard to change or accentuate our ways of working. I would always end up cranking up the energy to get on the edge and become manic.” The links are not broken however, “Lloyd still comes to have a look at what I’m doing. He can see what is under the work”.

Houstoun is not in any hurry to get back onto the treadmill of international touring. “The trick is to keep free. There’s a degree of ordinariness in my work which I want to maintain. It’s to do with the claims you make for what you do. I want to avoid raising too many expectations. I can still change direction pretty easily.”

She’s at a turning point again: “I’m looking for a more internal way of performing now. I want to make smaller, quieter work. All this expressiveness is a bit juvenile”. The trilogy could already be seen as a first step towards this aim. There are traces of the confrontational characters Houstoun created for DV8, however this work allows a range of personae to take the mike. “I don’t see it continuing”, Houstoun says, “The whole idea of a trilogy was a bit of a joke. It just sort of carried on. The next thing should be quite different”.

Should be. Following Adelaide, Houstoun will work with theatre director Neil Bartlett on a series of performances in British cathedrals. “There will be a choir of 100 people, actors, dancers; anything could happen”. As we discuss the relationship between text and movement in her work, we stray into her experiences as movement director for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Houstoun continues to feed off theatre but reaffirms her commitment to dance as “the best way to get at human interaction. Acting is boring in the end. I get tired of the relationships the actors have with each other, with the director, with the text. They’re always talking everything through. Dancers take direction better, they take on shape without needing to know why”. Directors she admires (and she has workshopped with the best of them) are those who, like Deborah Warner, exhibit, “a light touch”. “Deborah has more of a manner than any specific technique. She leaves a lot of room around things. She’s not subscribing to any school of thought”.

There’s no doubt that the actorly dimension in Houstoun’s work will remain. Houstoun loves words and used them as the starting point for the trilogy. “Words often come way before the music. I often have to switch off, suspend thought to make the movement and to put the two together”. The words she wrote for Haunted were stored away long before the idea of the performance emerged. “I looked at the structure of a few plays. I pinched the odd quote. I’m interested in ways of talking to people, not so much what the words mean, but what they suggest. Speech as resonant of something else.”

In Touch, the short dance film Houstoun made with director David Hinton, there are no words. “A lot of the ambiguity goes out of words in film.” The medium still appeals however, “I enjoy the rigour of film, the way it eats ideas”. The pseudo-documentary she made in 1997, with Hinton again, taught her some lessons. “Maybe Diary of a Dancer didn’t work as a dance film. It was too long, gentle, lyrical. Not slick. It’s genuine. It has helped me to get away from some of the hardness too.”

And Houstoun is back to the impetus behind the steady progression of her career. “I need to negotiate ways to keep on making interesting work.” Whilst she cultivates a self-effacing modesty, it’s clear from the patterns of her career that she is always one step ahead of her current project, retaining the most interesting parts and moving on.

“How do you mature with your work?” she asks searchingly. “Credibility and respect are hard to negotiate.” Yet as the enthusiastic response to the trilogy and the offers of innovative collaborations with directors, musicians and choreographers keep on coming, Houstoun appears short of neither.

Haunted Daunted and Flaunted, Adelaide Festival, Price Theatre, March 10 – 14

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 38

© Sophie Hansen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998