This year sees the tenth anniversary of the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, while last year marked 25 years of Davies’s professional work as a choreographer. An appropriate time, then, for celebration and for looking forward; but also a moment that invites reflection.
In many ways Davies’s career has grown up in parallel with British contemporary dance over the last three decades. She was among the first intake of students at the newly formed London School of Contemporary Dance in 1967, and danced in the first season of London Contemporary Dance Theatre the same year. Though performing was her main concern at the time, she was soon encouraged to choreograph. She remembers those early days as a period of creative experiment. ‘It was a vital and very varied time. You could find classical dancers, Spanish dancers, non-dancers, mixed-media practitioners, sculptors, poets all in one class. The early LCDT works included very minimal pieces as well as more Graham-influenced dance. By the time The Place started, the studios, theatre and dressing rooms were filled with every kind of theatrical event.’
But LCDT had to consolidate its position as a professional body in order to survive, which meant building adequate rehearsal studios, organising tour schedules, sharpening its focus. Davies agrees that this was absolutely right for the company, but admits that ‘as the company grew older and I grew older, we developed different needs. LCDT had to build up an audience – which it did – and had to tour far more than any company does now, with usually 6 or 7 shows a week, opening on Monday, closing Saturday, travelling on Sunday. This went on maybe 25, 30 weeks a year? So there wasn’t even time to think.’
‘This search for growth,’ she continues, ‘was also a way of building within a structure, and parts of the structure became a support, parts became a limitation.’ Working within a rep company, for example, meant that creative work had to fit in with other schedules. ‘The work was very much influenced by the rehearsal process. You might have two people for an hour and a half, so lo and behold, you made a duet. Bully for you. Then you have four people, and we make a quartet. So there was no question of structuring the piece for the needs of the piece, you structured it because that was what the rehearsal director could give you.’
She is quick to acknowledge the immense support that LCDT gave her, and admits that in the early days she probably wouldn’t have questioned the restrictions of rehearsal schedules. And besides, from the early 70s Davies also worked outside LCDT in the growing independent sector, performing with Richard Alston and with Ian Spink. But by 1981 she was ready to develop her choreography away from the demands of a repertory institution, and set up her own company, Siobhan Davies and Dancers (which later evolved into Second Stride). The work itself could now take priority. ‘The time is yours, the authorship is yours and your company’s. At last I was having a conversation only with my work and the people who were performing it.’
So, flying from the security of the nest which nurtured her towards choreographic freedom and self-determination? She laughs. ‘Well, while I remember the restrictions at LCDT, the sadness is that you go right back to square one. The moment you left the shell, there was no structure to work in, no studios, no money. So you start by agreeing not to be paid much, not to work in ideal studios – though there aren’t any of them anyhow.’ It was not an easily sustainable position in which to make work.
In fact Davies kept a foot in both camps through the 80s, working in the expanding independent sector alongside choreographing for the now established rep companies LCDT (until 1987) and Rambert Dance Company (1989–91), and forming her current company in 1988. The early 90s saw a substantial shift in the contemporary dance world, with Rambert changing direction towards a more modern-ballet style of work from 1993, and LCDT folding in 1994. Davies herself left Rambert in 1991 and has since focused her creative energies on her own company.
In the process she’s learned the strictures as well as the freedoms involved in running a choreographer-led company. ‘You try to pay the dancers properly, try to put in a pension plan, give them holidays, provide rests over very long rehearsal periods. All this suddenly becomes a structure outside yourself and starts to impinge on you. And all for very good reasons. But I just have to make sure that the first interest is putting together an artistic programme that I and everybody else in the company are totally involved in and believe in.’
As Davies has grown up as a choreographer, so she has also preferred to work with mature dancers (in her current company all but one of the dancers are over 30). ‘I like to work with artists who have considerable experience and knowledge, so that you are able to move quickly to a more curious plane of developing work. Because that’s also what they want to do, and they know immediately how to get there.’
This means, of course, that those outside structures start to make demands again, for if dancing is to be a feasible adult career, it needs to be a viable one. One example she gives is working with dancers who are parents. ‘This year we have three mothers in the company, and five children. Having had two children myself was immensely helpful, because I can see in a mother’s eyes that day when she hasn’t slept, when her child is probably ill. I made a rule to myself that the children are first: if there’s a real disaster, don’t even think about it, just go home. But having made that rule, I find I’ve rarely had to put it into practice.’
So knowing that the ‘emergency button’ is there means that the dancers don’t have to worry about it? ‘Yes. Ultimately, good practice made by the company means we’re more able to make creative work, which is what we’re there for. After all, the funders and the audience don’t give a damn about who’s had a sleepless night and how many children they’ve had.’
Does this mean that being a parent, an adult with outside commitments, is necessarily a compromise, or even incompatible with being a dancer?
Does this mean that being a parent, an adult with outside commitments, is necessarily a compromise, or even incompatible with being a dancer? ‘Well, if I said it was actually all too difficult then I would lose a generation of artists like Amanda Britton, Lauren Potter and Cathy Quinn – so the decision is barely there.’ Furthermore, Davies points out that motherhood can bring huge benefits artistically. ‘I think their own work is somehow released by it – the worrying about perfection is diminished; it can be quite liberating. And having children is an extraordinarily creative process. You see children grow and change on a daily basis, and it doesn’t allow you to go in the studio and wallow. You learn from them about incredible human potential, and as I think the arts are a brilliant way of pushing human potential, the combination of the two is pretty phenomenal.’
Have there been moments when it could have become all too difficult? ‘There was a horrific moment in a rehearsal studio a few years ago,’ she recalls. ‘We’d turned the heating off because the gas was leaking, so the dancers were wearing hats and gloves. We were so absorbed in the work that no one was complaining. A film crew came in and they looked absolutely horrified – and I suddenly saw the situation through their eyes. I stopped the rehearsal then and there and said: we’re leaving now. Within a few days we had to find a new studio. I promised myself that would never happen again.’
But without a constant struggle it could happen again all too easily. Astonishingly, Davies actually considered closing the company recently. ‘Yes, we hit a brick wall last year. I went utterly honestly to the Arts Council, our prime funders, and said we’ve been explaining our position for several years, and it’s not as if I don’t understand yours. But let’s be clear: if we don’t get an uplift, I’m going to stop the company. And I meant it. I wasn’t prepared to push the company into a spiral of depression because an element of funding was not in place while we were capable of producing good work, well managed – a creative situation that does not always last.’ Eventually they reached a compromise with the Arts Council.
‘I hate whingeing,’ she says, ‘because I know other people are worse off. But I’m in a better position to viably complain and to think of creative solutions than someone who’s just starting out. And hopefully if one company does it then others can achieve it.’
It’s a sobering statement. Davies is a mature artist with mature performers, who has grown up in parallel with British contemporary dance; yet she is still struggling to establish dance as a viable grown-up profession for adults.