A dance work seen in the theatre is the end result of a long process that began in a studio. How does a choreographer begin working in that empty space? ‘There’s a misconception that an experienced, skilful choreographer like Sue [Siobhan Davies] will have the piece thought out when she goes into the studio, and then set the movement on the dancers,’ says Gill Clarke, a long-standing member of Davies’s comp any. ‘But I think it’s almost the opposite. She goes through the same processes and even tries out the same tasks as anyone else would; it’s just that a good choreographer has a much clearer eye – visually and mentally – and won’t be so readily satisfied.’
So how does the process start? ‘I find that if I have structures and some physical ideas, then the energy is generated to find the best movement to suit them,’ says Davies. ‘They may not be necessarily pertinent to the piece, but they are keys to unlocking; they’re tools, not the end point.’ Davies uses the solo for Gill Clarke which opens Affections (1996) by way of illustration. ‘Most of the movement in that solo was generated by a parallel solo in the previous piece, Trespass. And the initial idea for that was a very pedestrian floor pattern, and a sense of accumulation. So we did movement A, then when that A came back a B was put in front, then it was CBA, then DCBA…’
‘But although the idea was very clear,’ continues Clarke, ‘the interesting thing what had to shift in order to make it work. We wanted the spatial structure and use of time to be the focus rather than the movement itself – but we found that we couldn’t just walk and do the small gestural movements we’d first imagined would make that clear. We had to make the movement itself more memorable, to remind the audience of what they’d seen before.’
Making a movement ‘memorable’ is one of the things that really test a choreographer’s judgement. ‘Oh, it’s so complicated!’ exclaims Davies. ‘We had some imagery for the solo: accumulation and progression, like you were on a journey. Things like the hands held in front of the body and then snaking forward was like creating a path ahead of yourself which the body then moved into. But we found that the gestural movement had only one dimension, because it is all to do with the upper body, and I wanted to find how to place the upper expressive part of the body on a very rich base. One part of the body is sometimes a framework for another, and you have to have the body in constant conversation between various parts of itself, and that again generates interesting movement. You try and put things in which are as visually and physically arresting as the piece can take – but you also have to know when that richness should be only one small movement.’
‘You have to be game to try things which might feel crazy,’ adds Clarke, ‘either too simple or overdone. Because it would be easy to reject something too soon. You have to push through that to find out what will come out the other side.’
It’s clear that choreographing this solo was not simply putting a preconceived idea, its ‘meaning’, into the medium of dance, but that its final shape emerged from an interplay between physical ideas, imagery and body movement. ‘I think the whole process was indicative of how you can’t get to something by a short cut,’ concludes Clarke, ‘how hard it is to make even something simple from a blank canvas.’
This solo became the raw material for the opening solo of Affections, which presented a whole different set of problems. One of these was the music, a haunting aria by Handel, which provided a new image for the movement. ‘Although I didn’t want to use the words literally, you can’t get away from the idea of missing, someone missing a love in their life,’ explains Davies. ‘So where in Trespass there was an idea of accumulation, in Affections it was the opposite. Instead of addition, parts of the movement were subtracted. While the aria repeats and builds, the movement becomes erased by longing, absence.’
‘We also had to find a way that it could enjoy a dialogue with the music without being pulled down by it,’ adds Clarke, ‘how not to compete with the emotion of that voice. That felt like a challenge for Sue as well. Musically it was a more overtly emotional starting point than usual.’
Perhaps because of the power of the music, Davies was determined to find out what dance could do on its own terms. ‘I’m absolutely not frightened of dealing with emotion,’ she asserts. ‘What I don’t want to do is let the dance down. There was this most extraordinary sound, an amazing aria, and I didn’t want the dance to compete. Whatever it does, it must add on its own, and extraordinary terms – it shouldn’t have to compete with something that has an incredible palette all of its own. And finding that perfect place was unbelievably exciting as a maker – and, I think, as a performer.’ Clarke heartily agrees.
Davies has often acknowledged the contribution that the performers make in the process of choreographing. It’s one of the reasons she enjoys working with experienced dancers. ‘Any dancer who’s made a real decision to dance is a pleasure to work with. But the real stomach-satisfying moment is when you have someone who really wants to make decisions themselves from their own sense of artistry, and they have enough information to make good decisions. Someone who is as curious as I am, and is unembarrassed about trying to do something without success. It’s also good when people’s ideas and approaches are different, there’s a creative friction. Of course, it’s not always harmonious, but all of us want to make this a very positive process; there’s very little ego that comes marching into the studio.’
But the relationship between the choreographer, dancers and the dancework is a shifting one. ‘There’s almost three phases,’ explains Clarke. ‘The very first one is where you begin to make movement and Sue is very clear if it’s appropriate or not, and why. Then a second stage when you all have to trust what you’re doing and just go with it, because if you don’t commit yourself it will never work anyway. And the third stage is when the piece begins to find its own life, logic. And at that point you have to take responsibility for it, and make decisions and choices. You too become a useful judge. You go back to Sue and say: this doesn’t feel right. Or: what about this? But you also have to justify why.’
‘Hopefully it means that by the end everyone feels they understand the piece,’ suggests Davies, ‘because they’ve gone through all its processes – its negatives, its positives, everything. So the people who perform it – they’re it, they’re the piece. And the more they understand about how and why it was made, the more likely they are to be able to communicate it.’
It’s also why, when Davies has made revivals of her work (Plain Song, for Rambert, Sphinx, for London Contemporary Dance School, as well as her forthcoming revival of White Man Sleeps) she never just does a straight reconstruction. Instead she’ll work with the dancers who are to perform it, often adjusting the piece to fit with the individual performers, so that they too go through the behind-the-scenes processes that make up a dancework.
Clarke concurs: ‘There isn’t a final point when the piece is fixed. You’re constantly open to making decisions and choices – even in the finished performances – and it’s wonderful to be in an environment where you know that is welcome.’
So when the piece is finally performed in public, though Davies has been a guiding hand throughout the choreographic process, she acknowledges that in the end the dancers have to inhabit the work, make it their own: ‘In order for the performer to make most use of the piece, and therefore give the most, they have to become the hand, not the glove.’