In the spring of 2020, Ballet Rambert and Sadler’s Wells will present the revival of “Enter Achilles”, a seminal piece by Lloyd Newson and DV8 Physical Theatre. In an interview we spoke with the choreographer about restaging the 1995 work.

Ballet Rambert. “Enter Achilles” © Hugo Glendinning

“Enter Achilles” was made in 1995. It was turned into a film by the BBC winning a number of accolades including an International Emmy and Prix Italia. It continues to be a staple resource for GCSE, A Level and degree and diploma syllabuses throughout the UK. Why do you think the work struck such a strong chord with audiences across Britain and abroad?

I formed my own company (DV8 Physical Theatre) in the mid-1980s out of a frustration with the vagueness and abstractionism I experienced with most British dance; both as a dancer and audience member. And I wasn’t alone … many people saw Enter Achilles as a welcome relief to other contemporary dance they’d seen.  It had a storyline and characters people could recognise; audiences understood what the performers were doing on stage and why they were moving the way they were.If people comprehend what a work is about, generally it’s easier to engage with it – and that includes criticising it. Which might explain why some contemporary choreographers prefer making abstract work; it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes. Audiences are left thinking, “I’m not smart enough to understand this” when unfortunately, there’s often little to understand.  Dance with meaning, which mixes drama with humour was rare when I made “Enter Achilles” in the mid-90s and is still relatively rare today – when was the last time you laughed in a contemporary dance show?

Why have you decided to restage “Enter Achilles” with Ballet Rambert?

After 30 years I was tired of running a company and managing people, as well as having the pressures, and fears, of making new work. So, I put DV8 on hold at the end of 2015 …  and that worked a treat, I discovered the joys of a life outside of dance. Then Helen Shute (Ballet Rambert’s chief executive and executive producer) approached me about her plans for Ballet Rambert to showcase seminal British works which were no longer available for audiences to see live and asked if I’d be willing to mount “Enter Achilles” again. What stopped me in the past making or restaging works on other companies was the expectation to use dancers within an already existing company.  This was too constricting because I cast performers according to the needs of a project. I require dancers who can act, which is a hard ask, then I may also need them to sing or do aerial work, or even, be good at football. Previously, due to the subject matter of my works, I’ve actively sought to employ disabled, older (60+) and ethnically diverse performers.  While many companies have dancers who have great technical skills and can execute perfect pirouettes, they often struggle to understand the principles of body language, as the work they do trains this knowledge out of them. Many dancers I’ve auditioned, despite their incredible techniques, can’t connect meaning to movement. Ballet Rambert is the only repertory company that has offered me the opportunity to audition worldwide to find the right dancers for my work. I was enticed by the prospect of being able to focus on the art, without the pressures of having to manage a company.  This along with Helen’s guarantee of sufficient support and time in the rehearsal room meant I couldn’t refuse her offer.

Ballet Rambert. “Enter Achilles” © Hugo Glendinning

Will Ballet Rambert’s version of “Enter Achilles” be the same as the original 1995 production?

DV8 toured “Enter Achilles” for over 3 years and during that time I kept revising it.  There were also some cast changes, and this meant I’d rework the choreography to suit the incoming performer’s skills and personalities. The 1995 premiere was very different to the final show in 1998.  Consequently, I’ll make some changes to reflect the new incoming cast and a Britain 25 years on, however it’s also important for me to maintain the key elements and structure of the original production, because these gave the work its power.

For those people who haven’t seen “Enter Achilles”, what can they expect to see?

“Enter Achilles” celebrates the humour, fun and camaraderie that many men – especially working-class men – enjoy and shows how alcohol plays a significant role in their bonding – as well as being a catalyst for violence.  So, I set the work in a pub, designed by Ian MacNeil, who also designed Billy Elliot. The work explores what unites a group of men and what divides them – what they feel they can share with other men, and what they feel they can’t. It looks at vulnerability, pack mentality and how men, these men, police one another’s behaviour for weaknesses and deviations from what’s considered traditional masculine norms.

While “Enter Achilles” received overwhelmingly positive reviews, there was one critic who said your portrayal of the men within the piece was “too bad to be true”. 

Interestingly, the person who said that was a woman. “Enter Achilles” was based on my direct observations and experiences of men – as a man. There were a number of significant events happening in Britain at the time I made and toured the production. Football violence was endemic, for example there was a match between England and Ireland in 1995 where English fans rioted mid-game; dozens of people were seriously injured and parts of the stadium destroyed.  The following year, when we were touring Enter Achilles, England lost against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final – German cars were overturned and set alight around Trafalgar Square.  In dozens of other locations around the country violence erupted, including a Russian student who was repeatedly stabbed by British thugs after being asked if he and three friends were German. None of what happens on stage in “Enter Achilles” comes close to being as “bad” as this. “Enter Achilles” doesn’t aim to speak generically about all men. The work is about a group of specific men, in a pub, on a specific night and what happens when an outsider enters their world.  Nonetheless the scenarios that then unfold are reflective of “traditional” masculine, rather than feminine patterns of behaviour; be they innate or learned. On an anecdotal level, when I was in A&E when my Achilles tendon operation became infected back in 1995, two guys came in, they told me they were best friends. One of them had ‘glassed’ the other when a drunken argument they were having escalated. “Enter Achilles” is tame in comparison.

Ballet Rambert. “Enter Achilles” © Hugo Glendinning

Do you think ideas about what it is to be a man have changed significantly since you first made “Enter Achilles”?

Let’s take football again, only because there are some references to it in the work. When I first formed DV8, English teams had been banned from playing in European football for 5 years because of hooliganism – it was referred to as the ‘English Disease’.  39 people died in the Heysel disaster; 14 Liverpool fans were subsequently convicted of manslaughter. It’s fair to say that the majority of football hooligans during this period were English men, not women, predominantly from working-class backgrounds. Compared to that, today’s calmer matches abroad show some things have changed – although police confiscating passports and banning alcohol in stands at matches has helped reduce that violence considerably. However, the pressure for men to conform to masculine stereotypes hasn’t vanished despite the wishes of many of the chattering classes and remains highly ingrained in the social conditioning of most men. Don’t get me wrong, there are many admirable attributes associated with traditional masculinity, and “Enter Achilles” isn’t a blanket condemnation of masculinity, far from it, but it’s worrying today in the UK that 78 % of the perpetrators of violent crime are men, 74 % of homicide victims are male and men are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than women. Interestingly, this year when the American Psychological Association (APA) said traditional masculine ideology had been shown to limit males’ psychological development they got a fair amount of flack as a result. While APA were quick to make clear they weren’t referring to every quality we associate with masculinity, they believed they had enough empirical evidence to show that many masculine ideals are often counterproductive to men’s emotional stability and that aspiring to these stereotypes can exacerbate men’s mental health problems resulting in violence towards others or themselves – suicide, excessive drinking, reckless behaviour. The British police receive 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every hour; where the perpetrators, again, are mainly men. If England loses in a world cup match, that number will increase by 38 %. That’s not a good ad for modern day man. One of the questions we asked back in 1995 when making “Enter Achilles” was, we accept men have historically oppressed women, but how oppressive have men been to themselves? So, to answer your question, there has been some chipping away at the negative aspects of masculinity: the violence, sexism and homophobia but as the stats show the problems haven’t disappeared. I think in light of all this and with the advent of #Metoo and Brexit it’s a timely moment to revisit the work.

The interview was provided by Sadler’s Wells.

“Enter Achilles” can be seen at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele on 5 to 7 March 2020.