Siobhan Davies has long been one of the foremost figures in British dance, with a professional career stretching back over 25 years. If her new work for the Royal Ballet is something of a new venture – both for her and for the Royal Ballet – it also marks something of a return, for Davies first saw the Royal Ballet as a child, and was immediately captivated by the dancing of Margot Fonteyn and Svetlana Beriosova.
the good dancers played the parts of violets and primroses while the less promising ones got the roles of cabbages or carrots.
It is unlikely, though, that she would ever have imagined the way she has returned to the Covent Garden stage on which they danced, for the route she has taken in between is as circuitous as it is surprising – not least for Davies herself. Though she attended dance classes as a child, she vividly remembers the school show where the good dancers played the parts of violets and primroses while the less promising ones got the roles of cabbages or carrots. Davies was a cabbage.
Following school, Davies studied art and design at college, and it was only a chance suggestion from a friend that led her back, in 1967, to a very different dance world: the newly formed London School of Contemporary Dance. Taking class with her were not just dancers, but also painters, actors, poets, musicians. It was a time of great creative ferment: contemporary dance was not yet established in Britain, and the field was wide open for experiment.
Davies was soon taken into the new London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Her initial concern was to develop as a dancer, and indeed she became a prominent performer in the company. But Robert Cohan, the artistic director, was keen to nurture not only contemporary dancers but also contemporary choreographers, and very early in Davies’s career he encouraged her in this direction.
For many years Davies occupied the dual role of dancer and choreographer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, also performing as a regular member of Richard Alston and Dancers. In 1981, following a desire to work more experimentally with an independent company, she founded Siobhan Davies and Dancers; and the following year she went on to co-found the influential Second Stride, with Richard Alston and Ian Spink. She herself stopped performing in 1983, but continued to choreograph simultaneously for LCDT and Second Stride.
Then in 1987 she left LCDT and took a year’s break from choreography, travelling to America on a Fulbright Fellowship – and she returned with a renewed creative vigour. She joined Rambert Dance Company as Associate Choreographer (until 1992), creating several works for the company, including the acclaimed Embarque (1988) and Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (1992). She also formed the award-winning Siobhan Davies Dance Company in 1988, which has remained the main focus of her creative output ever since.
Though trained as a dancer in the Graham technique, from the beginning Davies the choreographer sought to find her own movement foundations. In her first professional piece, Relay (1972), she took inspiration from sports movement, admiring its directness of action and ease of execution. The abstract, almost painterly work of Merce Cunningham was also an important early influence.
Sphinx, from 1977, marked a turning point. Shelving ideas of bodily line, shape and design, she delved into the torso and the spine as a source of movement, producing a work of sinuous, animal-like intensity in which motion seemed to flow out from deep within the body. It was the beginning of an enduring interest in the anatomy of motion, in what happens underneath the skin, the connections between flesh and bone – themes she later developed perhaps most clearly in the fluid rippling of White Man Sleeps (1988), and the sharper, more ragged movements of Wild Translations (1995).
Davies has always been concerned too with composition – the legacy, perhaps, of her art college background (she has likened the stage to a canvas, and movements to brush strokes leaving textured imprints across the space). She enjoys the challenge of creating compositions that are simultaneously both intricate and clear, making simple movements elaborate – for example by moving the dancers in and out of phase with each other – and making complex movements legible, using many kinds of repeats and variations. In Plain Song (1981), for instance, she wove together seven long and detailed phrases, repeated and modified in timing and spacing, so that as the dance progressed the phrases became both clearer and more diverse.
Above all, Davies is committed to letting the movement speak for itself. Accordingly, the designs she uses – often by her frequent collaborator David Buckland – tend to be lucid and boldly imagined without being intrusive. Musically, too, she will often work initially without the score, and only later set the movement to cues in the music. She has worked mainly with contemporary scores (frequently commissioned), but more recently she has also used pre-classical music: Domenico Scarlatti for The Art of Touch (1995), Handel for Affections (1996), and Marais for Thirteen Different Keys (1999).
the most objective physical language can lead directly to the most intimate subjective one, a world of desires and memories that takes hold of the imagination and tugs at the heart.
While Davies attends closely to the form of movement, an interior emotional landscape often seems submerged just beneath its surface, imparting a quiet but compelling undertow of human feeling. Almost paradoxically, in her work the most objective physical language – the crafting and shaping of weight, energy and placement – can lead directly to the most intimate subjective one, a world of desires and memories that takes hold of the imagination and tugs at the heart.
A Stranger’s Taste
Working on her new piece in collaboration with her assistant Gill Clarke (a prominent member of Davies’s company for many years), Siobhan Davies now returns to the Royal Ballet no longer a cabbage but an established contemporary artist with her own distinctive choreographic voice. It is a meeting of unfamiliar styles, of strangers’ tastes.
In fact, that idea of difference, of strange meetings, propels the piece on a number of levels. The score juxtaposes the styles and timbres of seventeenth and eighteenth-century composers and instruments with John Cage’s twentieth-century music for prepared piano. The movement too jumps between spacious solos or intimate duets to tightly knotted groupings. Precise steps and footwork provide a foil for a gestural language of the hands and arms, calm adagio contrasts with fleet allegro.
In each case, Davies is concerned not with finding fusions but in how these contrasting qualities interact, each putting a distinctive stamp on the other while retaining their own unique characters. Rather than trying to bridge the distance between them, she explores the possibilities that arise from their crossing paths – a parallel to the encounter between the style and training of the Royal Ballet dancers and her own choreographic sensibilities.