Think of a harpsichord and the images that spring to mind are very ‘eighteenth century’: courtly mannerisms, civility, grace. Siobhan Davies’s new work The Art of Touch uses five harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, but instead responds to a very different quality: the jangling, astringent timbre, the plucked sharpness of taut wire strings. Listen to the tone itself, and an arpeggio seems to bristle with spikes, a chord becomes a crunch of sound.
It’s this zestful energy that lends the harpsichord to twentieth-century compositions, such as the concertos by Poulenc, de Falla and Gorecki (the last used in Lucinda Childs’ Concerto, seen earlier this year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall) – and I’m reminded also of the piquant dissonances for spinet in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Davies too sees this quality, and the second half of The Art of Touch is set to a contemporary score for harpsichord by Matteo Fargion, as if to bring out this distinctly modern dynamic in the Scarlatti sonatas.
The Art of Touch bursts into life with a busy solo for Deborah Saxon, zipping around the stage, abruptly punctuated by emergency-stops as she twists to look back over her shoulder; a wild, hyperactive creature with an alarmingly short attention span. With the exception of a more measured ballroom-dance style duet for Catherine Quinn and Paul Old, this sets the energy level of the Scarlatti section. Amanda Britton has a frenetic solo, leaning off balance at impossible angles only to catch the momentum and bounce it into some new, unexpected direction. The most thrilling section is to the fourth sonata. An ensemble dance, it sends the dancers into a frenzy of activity, playing games of catch-andchase, groups forming only to splinter into shards. When Gill Clarke falls to the floor, she carries on moving, grinding her shoulders against the ground, an oversprung mechanical toy that’s fallen over but won’t run down. And sure enough, as Sean Feldman gradually lifts her back to vertical her legs whirr on as if impelled by the buzzing wires of some internal circuitry.
Between the fourth and fifth sonatas we get a foretaste of the second half, a snippet of the Fargion music. The pace slows down to focus on John Kilroy, a solitary figure who seems to be searching for something – what, he doesn’t know, but it isolates him from the others. Following a final spurt from Scarlatti which animates the dancers with another surge of electricity, this more emotive ambience is explored in the second half. At one point Gill Clarke and Amanda Britton appear in an upstage corner, jerkily pointing in different directions with little pulses of energy. They still look like marionettes, but now instead of being inexorably driven by internal clockwork they have that strange, unsettling poignancy of figurines on music boxes: they seem puzzled, introspective, as if wondering what it might be like to be human.
they have that strange, unsettling poignancy of figurines on music boxes: puzzled, introspective, as if wondering what it might be like to be human.
John Kilroy provides the anchor in this second half, though he by no means dominates it. The more fluid, expressive choreography gently binds the other dancers together into a convivial group leaving Kilroy an outsider; not rejected, yet not belonging. Resignedly he sinks to the floor, lying still as the others line up behind him. Keeping in line, they rotate around to form a long, sculptural diagonal. In the final moment, a shudder of movement passes down the line, a last pulse of electricity now rendered human; the spasm eventually reaches Kilroy, whose body twitches momentarily into life. The tiniest movement, enormously moving.
I had the opportunity to watch the company in rehearsal a week before their autumn tour, and it was fascinating to observe the very different effects of seeing the pieces on stage and in the studio. The pleasure of The Art of Touch in the studio was its deliciously sensual indulgence in the movement itself: the densely textured ripples through the body which were abruptly reined in, or which ricocheted off in surprising directions; the way that a head could twist and overbalance, and how the body caught up; the sparkling refractive surfaces created by interweaving bodies in motion. ‘Touch’, indeed, seems the operative word here, in its musical sense of virtuoso keyboard dexterity; of precision and clarity at high speed. On stage, however, this quality seemed diminished. Partly this was because I couldn’t register these finer details from the distance of the theatre auditorium. Moreover, what I did see more clearly was the broader structure of the phrasing, which seemed to follow the Scarlatti rather too predictably (particularly the fifth sonata), and which worked better with the less rigidly organised Fargion music.
As an experiment, I went to see the piece again, reserving a seat right at the front of the stalls; and indeed it was much improved at this distance. Still, it was hard to regain the sense I’d had from the studio, and I decided this was simply an effect of staging: no matter how much we look at movement itself, on stage it seems we expect something more. For better or worse, we seek some kind of meaning or emotion, some theatricality. Actually, I think it is possible to get this simply from the movement, but in Art of Touch there were too many ‘extras’ that got in the way: the changing washes of colour on the textured steel plates of the backdrop; and the costumes, particularly the women’s. Gauzy grey skirts with shiny black bodices – part cocktail dress, part punkish bin-liner – suggested a knowing sexiness that worked against the spirit of the choreography, which for me was charged with physicality but not sexuality. I longed for the neutrality of practice clothes – even though I knew that on stage this would itself become a theatrical statement. Basically, I suppose, I wanted to sec it in the studio again.
Interestingly, the second half worked better from the distance of the theatre auditorium even though its mood is more intimate – perhaps because here all those ‘theatrical’ associations coming into play enhance the choreography rather than disturb it.
This same transformation between studio and stage also enhanced Davies’s second work Wild Translations. In rehearsal, Wild Translations appeared as a study in contrasts. As in Art of Touch, it responded to qualities in the music, this time by Kevin Volans. The score is a collage, the artifices of a string quartet overlapping with or superimposed upon the natural sounds of birds, voices. Silence alternates with dense sound, slowness with speed. The choreography makes much of this switching. At the very beginning the dancers are spread across the stage, remaining still just long enough for us to register the scene before exploding simultaneously into a chaotic burst of activity. Solos are set against groups, fluidity against sharpness, speed against stillness, steps against gestures. Britton twists herself around until she seems to turn inside out, then, like elastic, she suddenly rebounds back into shape; Kilroy winds his upper body around as far as it will go, then spirals back to the opposite extreme.
Engaging as this was to watch in rehearsal, the piece took on a whole new dimension in the theatre. The costumes are in muted, earthy tones, embellished with stitchwork. A large propeller-like structure filled with lights hangs from the ceiling, rotating slowly. I had the image of a halfremembered past, of a house on the border of human habitation, surrounded by wilderness: the propeller suggests a ceiling fan in a porch, wafting cooling air. Where Art of Touch moves between the mechanical and the human, Wild Translations moves, more subtly, between the human and the animal. During a lull in the music, three dancers slip fleetly across a diagonal, a flurry of moths in the night. A group stands in line, arms akimbo, elbows gently undulating: birds on a wire, or hair lifted by a breeze. Saxon plays quietly with her hands, like a child playing with water: Kilroy leans his head searchingly into Clarke’s waist and a slow shiver ripples up her spine. Kilroy, in fact, seems to provide the same focus as in Art of Touch: an isolated, yearning soul.
There is an extraordinary openness about Wild Translations: its forms and images can accrue any number of resonances. Generously, it allows us to invest it with our own personal associations, enabling a density of meaning that I had not thought possible from the studio.
Since I first saw Davies’s work in 1988, she has produced a number of pieces that are among the very best I have seen: Wyoming, White Man Sleeps and The Glass Blew In for her own company, and Embarque and Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues for Rambert. I now put Wild Translations in the same rank, though I wouldn’t have imagined it after watching the rehearsal. (How does a choreographer predict these transformations between studio and stage?)
If in the theatre The Art of Touch seemed the lesser work, it was nevertheless a richly accomplished piece, and, with its use of classical music, something of a departure for Davies. It also repays a second viewing: with most of Davies’s work there’s usually more that you can see, more to find out, more to invest – and she has a fine company of experienced dancers. So it’s unfortunate that we rarely get a chance to see her works more than once.
But there may soon be an opportunity: Davies’s twenty-fifth year of working as a choreographer comes up in 1997, and I’m hoping for a retrospective season. If either of these works is performed then, then try to watch The Art of Touch from near the front, Wild Translations from further back.