Confused? It’s a not uncommon response from friends I’ve taken to see Siobhan Davies’s work. Though perhaps struck by the movement, design and music, they nevertheless found the underlying meaning puzzling, and often they worried that they were not arty or dancey enough to get the point. This could lead to distinctly negative feelings: inferiority, suspicion, or, worse still, resentment at being dragged along to some rarefied contemporary dance (and I’d taken them to show them how good it can get).
The crucial issue, I think, is that they found the works ‘abstract’, so not only was it difficult to understand what they were about, but they also seemed strangely dispassionate. Still, they’re in good company: in a review of Dance Umbrella ’95, critic Keith Watson ended with a plea to put humanity centre stage, implying that choreographers of the ‘dance for dance sake school of movement’ (amongst whom he includes Siobhan Davies) generally avoid doing this. ‘After all,’ he asks, ‘do you want to be moved by dance or just watch dancers move?’
It’s a question that I think my dazed and confused companions would understand. But I’d disagree with its terms, which are based on a familiar distinction between ‘theatre dance’ and ‘pure dance’ and in favour of the former. From this point of view, theatre dance engages with human issues by representing characters, situations, stories. At its best, it is accessible, dramatic, moving and human. (Though at its worst. let me add, it can be blandly literal.) Pure dance, on the other hand, is a of choreographic navel-gazing in represents nothing but itself, a pattern of rhythms, phrases and shapes. It is emotionally cold, remote, abstract, and inhuman. (Again though, let me add that at its best it can be a dazzling experience of design, texture and motion.)
Interestingly, Watson said to me that he did enjoy Davies’s The Art of Touch for its sheer energy (‘like Siobhan Davies on speed’). For one way that pure dance can be readily engaging is by projecting the superhuman qualities of its performers: energy, agility, technical skill.
With The Art of Touch as a possible exception, Davies’s work might indeed appear cool and difficult: it doesn’t usually have set characters within a particular story, nor does it go in for breathtaking displays of dancerly prowess. But, supporters of dance theatre notwithstanding, I find Davies’s work intensely humane and compassionate. Where does this come from if not from portraying people, characters, dramas?
The body comes first; ideas, character and drama follow in its wake.
From a more primal level: the human body. The body comes first; ideas, character and drama follow in its wake. (We are, after all, bodies before we become personalities – though afterwards we often seem scarcely aware of this). There is an organic quality to the movement Davies uses, a sense of generating movement from deep within the body itself rather than from ideas about what it should look like, or what it should express. Davies once described the revelation of seeing the dancer Eva Karczag: she was fascinated by how movement seemed to ripple through Karczag’s body rather than conforming to some idea or geometrical ideal. Davies has explored this process to a great level of sophistication. Bodies are treated not as units made up of a fixed set of component parts, but as highly articulate, fluid ensembles. Each body part has its own movement potential, yet remains linked to the rest of the body in a shifting network of possibility. How can a hand move, a forearm, an elbow, and what potential responses are there from the shoulder, the head, the hip, the knee? A flow, a resistance, a counterpull, a twist, a fall? I can think of no better illustration of this process than a distinctive phrase from White Man Sleeps, originally performed by Lauren Potter, which showed an incredible bodily articulacy: a pull of the elbow, a curve of the spine, a jiggle of the shoulders, a bounce in the hip, all within the space of a few seconds.
Add in dynamic variety, a finely tuned sense of phrasing in space and time, and an easy relation to gravity, and the result is a rich palette which ranges from intricate, densely structured textures, to stillnesses, to broad sweeps and arcs, all of which seem to arise organically. (Even when Davies interrupted the flow, as she did for Wild Translations, the effect was not to this organic quality, but to extend its range.) It also means that dancers never appear to be using more effort than needed, don’t seem to be straining and contorting their bodies. So they don’t look like people ‘doing dance’, they look like people moving, being.
This is all very well, but what can it do for an audience? Firstly, there’s the sheer visceral pleasure in seeing people move like this. There is an indulgent, sensual enjoyment in the very physical substance of the dance: a coil in the torso, a languorous giving-in to gravity, the weight of a back breathing into the floor. ‘I don’t always like what I do, but I do delight in it,’ Davies has said. That’s a good guideline for the audience too: we don’t even have to like the overall piece to take pleasure in its movement.
Davies’s creative process also avoids the commonplace dichotomy between theatre dance and pure dance. Crudely speaking, movements can be categorised into ‘steps’ and ‘gestures’, steps being functional or formal manoeuvres (a preparation, a pirouette), and gestures being expressive or communicative actions (a wagging finger, a shoulder shrug). Choreography will often emphasise either steps (pure dance) or gestures (theatre dance), or will switch between the two – as in many narrative ballets, when a story-telling mime scene or pas d’action is followed by a more abstract divertissement. Again speaking crudely, this division between steps and gestures roughly corresponds to that between the legs and the arms, or the lower and the upper body. But with Davies’s work the division is continually being crossed, blurred or dissolved. By exploring the articulacy of the whole body and its parts she moves beyond these habitual associations (legs as functional, arms as expressive). So she expands not only the body’s formal capacities, but also its expressive ones: we see the shape of a gesture, feel the passion in a step.
How can you know what the passion is without knowing what the character or situation is? Well you don’t ‘know’ as such. The movement doesn’t represent ideas or emotions in any straightforward way, but evokes them, suggesting images, qualities. Take, for example, the final moment of The Art of Touch. John Kilroy has been lying on the floor, solitary and isolated. The other dancers form a long sculptural diagonal behind him and a spasm of movement passes down the line, finally reaching Kilroy, whose body shudders momentarily into life. On the one hand, we see very clearly a frieze of body shapes, a slope across the stage, a ripple of motion. On the other, it suggests an intimate, humane gesture to Kilroy that he is not alone.
Sometimes the same movement suggests different meanings in different contexts. In 1996 Davies toured a double bill of Trespass and Affections; a lot of movement from Trespass reappeared in Affections, sometimes in altered form, but sometimes quite straightforwardly repeated. But the effects were completely different – so much so, in fact, that many people didn’t even notice the similarity in the movement. A duet by Amanda Britton and David Hughes in Trespass seemed nervous, antagonistic even: Hughes hurled himself brutally to the floor, Britton edged off away from him. The same duet reappeared in Affections, but here Hughes seemed vulnerable, less frenetic, and the duo appeared more supportive. Why this difference? It’s a combination of factors: the contrasting designs, costumes, lighting and music all affect the nuances that the dance gives off; and in slight, perhaps imperceptible ways, they also affect the performances of the dancers themselves.
By pairing Trespass and Affections, Davies seemed to be providing a lesson about how to view her work: not to worry about what the movement means, but to register its effects. For example, when I saw Wyoming (1988) I was struck by images of small animal life within a flat, spacious horizon – low, creeping creatures; lizards, snakes. So I initially thought I’d misjudged the whole piece when I discovered it was based, albeit loosely, on a short story (by Gretel Ehrlich) with specific characters and situations. But I forgave myself: the work can take more than one meaning – and besides, I’d enjoyed it well enough.
That’s another good guideline for audiences: have confidence in your own responses. Some choreography seems to project its message into the auditorium, like transmitting a beam; it brings the dance out to you. But with Davies, you also have to bring yourself to the dance. Rather than simply corresponding to images or feelings, the dance is open to them: they can emerge, accumulate, swell, multiply. That can make watching the dance a wayward and unpredictable experience, but it can also make for a very rich, generous and rewarding one. As an audience member, you play an intimate part, an integral part. Let go of the idea that you have to find out what the dance is ‘about’: make something of it, join the dance.
Davies is fascinated by the creative, generative possibilities of the human body in motion (what better qualification for a choreographer?), and by expanding the scope of human movement, in her own personal style, she seems to expand the scope of what it can mean to be human. Not only is humanity nowhere more centre stage than here, but the audience is invited to identify with the movement, to contribute their own feelings, to participate in the dance. So if you want to be moved by dance, you can just watch these dancers move.