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Lewys Holt: Phrases and Footnotes

By | Published on Friday 21 June 2019

I was really interested in Lewys Holt when I heard about him, not least because most of his work falls into two genres that seem to me like an unusual combination: comedy and dance.

This year he’s heading Fringe-wards with two different shows, playing alternately in one slot, one of which is definitely dance, the other of which is more at home in the theatre programme.

I spoke to Lewys, to find out more about both of the shows, his career, and what he expects from the future.

CM:You are doing two shows in Edinburgh this year, performed on alternate dates, but let’s deal with them one at a time: can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘Phrases’?
LH: Absolutely! ‘Phrases’ is a kind of collage piece that I’ve been working on for nearly four years. It’s taken many forms but has settled in the current version for the Fringe. It has abstract, improvised dancing, it has some stand-up, some big synth and guitar sounds, and projections of writing. All of this is in service of providing solidarity for people who overthink, who obsess and who feel a lack of ability to connect. It’s funny… among other things, and usually gets called ‘thought-provoking’. What thoughts these are is kind of up to the viewer.

CM: Secondly, tell us a bit about ‘Footnotes’?
LH: ‘Footnotes’ is a generally more straightforward beast. Have you ever watched a lecturer or someone giving a presentation and noticed they really have no concern for whether or not it’s completely going over your head and they just keep ploughing on through their totally dense script so you just have to let it wash over you? This is the basis of ‘Footnotes’, but the script being delivered has a lot of, you guessed it, footnotes. They start off quite benign, but as the lecture moves forward these constant interruptions take more and more disruptive forms… weird movement pieces, twitches, threats, OTT flirtations with audience members, long dances… MIME! So the strain of keeping the lecture on track becomes more and more intense.

CM: Do the two shows have common themes? In what ways are they alike and in what ways are they different?
LH: Yeah, there are definitely some common themes. They both seem to be to do with a general discomfort in one’s own given or chosen identity, and a kind of fear of the ultimate loneliness that human existence essentially is. And a desire to connect with others in some kind of ‘genuine’ way. Although what that means is unclear to performer and he never quite figures it out.

At the same time the shows are vastly different in form. ‘Footnotes’ sits in the Theatre section of the brochure and really is a more theatrical piece. Its structure is a clear with a kind of rigid proposition alternating between lecture and footnote all the way through.

‘Phrases’ is in the Dance, Circus and Physical Theatre section of the brochure. Its collage-like form totally comes out of my background in choreography and contemporary dance. Things are presented without explanation, and transitions focus more on an ebb and flow of energy than logic. It’s kind of a exploration of texture as opposed to a representational framework. Sounds fun, eh!?

CM: Where did the inspiration come from for the two shows? What made you want to create work on these themes?
LH: With ‘Footnotes’ I’d have to say that the inspiration came from ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace. A thousand page book with very small writing containing over 200 extremely long footnotes that take on a life of their own. This book also spends a lot of time talking about existential loneliness and the desperation of its central characters to connect to others. Unsurprising!

No doubt all of this has had an effect on the making of ‘Phrases’ as well, but that’s probably more ephemeral…as bloody always with that piece! A starting point of ‘Phrases’ was to take catchphrases and try to make a story from taking it way too seriously, or literally… So, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”… what happens if I don’t eat an apple a day… will he come and get me? Another was stream of consciousness writing that explores spirals of thought. The ideas of loneliness and a desire for connection kind of just became apparent once I’d already made some stuff which, I originally thought had no real theme. I guess it’s all subconscious!

CM: How does your creative process work? How do you go about putting a show together?
LH: I made these two shows though a series of residencies over three years, on and off – mainly off! – at Dance4 Nottingham, Yorkshire Dance Leeds, Attenborough Arts Centre Leicester, Curve Theatre Leicester, Pavillion Dance South West Bournemouth and Laban London, among others. I kind of throw things at the wall and see what sticks. I start on my own doing bits of writing and then try to put them on their feet, inviting friends and dramaturgs such as Tiia Ojala, Inari Hulkkonen, Eleanor Sikorski, Jack Britton, Charles Linehan and Stephanie McMann to look at things with me, so we can then chat about the material and edit it together and then just rehearse like crazy.

CM: What made you decide to bring two shows to the festival rather than one? 
LH: I premiered the works as a double bill last year at Curve Theatre, Leicester. It only seemed right to give them both a fair shake at the Fringe. Doing just one would have been like deciding between children.

CM: Have you been to the Fringe before? What are your hopes and expectations for August?
LH: I have been to the Fringe before! My dad did a show when I was ten… also contemporary dance. In 2014 I was part of a comedy chat show on the Free Fringe called ‘Conversation Garden’ where audience members became guests. In 2016 I brought a solo show to the very same room as I’m in this year called ‘Of, Or At, A Fairly Low Temperature’. My hope for this year is that I have a really good time and that nobody gets hurt on the stairs in my venue… well maybe during someone else’s show… maybe… but that’s the worst case scenario, I’m hoping.

CM: What plans do you have for the shows after the Fringe run?
LH: The plan is to try and book a tour! And to show them at festivals. It would be nice to take them around Europe as well… also I have a Canadian passport due to my father, so it would be great to go to the fringes out there.

CM: Can we go back a bit now…? How did you get into all of this? Did you always want to be performer? What did you do to begin your career?
LH: Well, both my parents are dancers and as a child I did enjoy a fair bit of clowning around, but was also pretty shy. I ended up going to university to study photography and film studies. After a year of that I was like, maybe I should do dance instead… so I changed course and started dancing at nineteen years old at university level. It really makes you confront your ego when you are flopping around in dance classes every day in a very unskilled manner trying like hell to keep up. So now I’m doing solo shows in Edinburgh: clearly the ego needs more confronting.

Over the years I’ve built a career as a professional dancer working with companies and choreographers in the UK and in Europe, and simultaneously I’ve been involved with sketch and improv comedy. ‘Conversation Garden’ won the Best Improv Show at Leicester Comedy Festival in 2018 and my improv show with comedian Daniel Nicholas – ‘Improv With Nicholas Holt’ – was nominated for Best Improv Show at Leicester Comedy Festival this year.

CM: The balance of your work seems interesting: I don’t feel as though there can be many people doing both comedy and dance. What do you enjoy the most?
LH: I feel like the kinds of enjoyment I get from them are different, actually, so it’s hard to measure. I’m totally addicted to making people laugh, whether that’s from a place of insecurity or avoidance, or whatever, I still just bloody love doing it. Being silly is my bread and butter. But dancing, on the other hand, particularly somatic practice and improvisation, has given me a sense of transcendence and ecstasy that I previously didn’t know existed. It’s wicked! I think my love of dance comes from quite a sincere place: it’s real, it’s genuine, it’s emotional; but all of my comedic persona and material is quite laced with irony and facetiousness.

CM: Where do you see yourself headed in the future? What aims or ambitions do you have?
LH: My main aim is just to be able to keep making and performing work as regularly as possible. In this economic climate I feel that that’s probably a radical enough dream to have. Also the moon would be cool to play.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after the Fringe?
LH: My partner’s sister’s wedding. Me and my partner are MC-ing! Also. I’m hosting a dance improvisation night called ‘Roadhouse’ and working in Luxembourg with choreographer Simone Mousset on a piece called ‘The Passion Of Andrea 2’, which is a sequel to a piece that never existed!

Lewys Holt performed ‘Phrases’ and ‘Footnotes’ at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2019.

Photo: Matthew Cawrey