A dance work is like a journey: we follow the performers as they travel through the sights and sounds of the work’s own particular landscape.
And if the performance is a journey, then so is its creation. ‘There’s a misconception that an experienced, skilful choreographer like Siobhan Davies will have the piece thought out when she goes into the studio,’ says Gill Clarke, a dancer who worked with Davies for over a decade. In fact, at the outset Davies will only have general ideas and images to work with, which she explores with the dancers in the form of physical tasks and questions.
‘I find that if I have structures and some physical ideas, then the energy is generated to find the best movement to suit them,’ she explains. ‘They may not be necessarily pertinent to the final piece, but they are keys to unlocking. They’re tools, not the end point.’
Davies uses these tools to sharpen and shape her ideas. She describes a solo from Trespass (1996) by way of example: ‘The initial idea was a very pedestrian floor pattern, and also 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 …’
‘We wanted the spatial structure and use of time to be the focus rather than the movement itself,’ continues Clarke, ‘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.’
Davies elaborates: ‘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. 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.’
‘I think the whole process was indicative of how you can’t get to something by a short cut,’ adds Clarke.
But, as Davies comments, ‘You get very interesting dance material, but so what, if you’re not really doing anything with it? … This is where my job becomes much larger than only worrying about the individual movement … How do you structure this whole thing so that the eye of any individual member of the audience is led through into this country?’
As her choice of words suggests, Davies’s works often evoke a sense of places and people. The dancers evoke a particular human environment through the sequence, pacing and placing of movement – who does what, where, and how. Instead of using scene-setting and story-telling, Davies uses repetition and variation to build a sense of continuity and development, and to remind the audience of particular moments. ‘Memory,’ she says, ‘is also how you structure a piece and how you involve the audience, so that by the end of the piece there will be certain places which you have memorised well, and there’ll be certain parts that won’t be in your front-brain thinking but will be in your back brain because you have seen them turn up in certain guises.’
As the structure of a new piece of choreography develops, it begins to take on its own character. ‘There’s almost three phases,’ explains Clarke. ‘The first one is when the dancers 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’ll 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 Siobhan 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,’ adds 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.’
So the creative process is an integral part of the final work, a journey which finishes at the point where the performance journey begins. And while Davies has been the guiding hand throughout, she acknowledges that ‘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.’