Siobhan Davies has long been one of the foremost figures in British dance, with a professional career stretching back over 30 years. She began dance classes as a child, but didn’t excel: she recalls, for instance, the blunt hierarchy of a school show in which the good dancers got the parts of violets and primroses, the less promising ones those of vegetables; Davies played a cabbage. Following school, she studied art and design at college, and it was only a chance suggestion from a friend that led her back to dance, following which she enrolled as one of the first intake of students at the newly formed London School of Contemporary Dance, in 1967.
It was a time of great creative ferment: contemporary dance was not yet established in Britain, and the field was wide open for experiment. ‘It was a vital and very varied time,’ she remembers, grateful for the rich diversity of this early experience. ‘You could find classical dancers, Spanish dancers, non-dancers, mixed-media practitioners, sculptors, poets all in one class. By the time The Place started, the studios, theatre and dressing rooms were filled with every kind of theatrical event.’
Davies was soon taken into the new London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Her initial ambitions were focused on developing as 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, both performing in and creating many works for the company. She became an Associate Choreographer of the company in 1974, and Resident Choreographer in 1983 – the year she also stopped dancing herself.
Alongside working as dancer and choreographer, Davies began to develop another dual role, working in both the established and independent dance sectors. Contemporary dance in Britain was still nascent in the early 70s, and its two major companies, LCDT and Ballet Rambert, influenced above all by the Graham style, quickly grew to become its establishment, mainstream face. Yet from very early on there emerged a number of independent, experimental choreographers and companies, fostered in particular by LCDS, a group more akin to the post-Cunningham and Judson Church movement. A key figure was Richard Alston (also choreographing for LCDT), who formed the pioneering group Strider in 1972, presented UnAmerican Activities at the Cunningham Studio in 1976, and founded Richard Alston and Dancers in 1978. Davies, whose career has often overlapped and paralleled Alston’s, danced in UnAmerican Activities and in Alston’s company; and in 1981 she too formed her own independent group, Siobhan Davies and Dancers, to develop work her work on a more personal scale alongside choreographing for LCDT. The following year, she teamed up with Ian Spink, with Richard Alston as guest choreographer, to form the pioneering company Second Stride, for which she created a number of works, notably Rushes (1982) and Silent Partners (1984).
A turning point came in 1987 when Davies took a year’s sabbatical for a study trip to America, enabled by a Fulbright Fellowship, from which she returned with a renewed creative vigour. On her return in 1988 she moved from LCDT to Rambert (under the directorship of Alston from 1986), becoming Associate Choreographer in 1989 until Alston’s departure in 1992; her work for Rambert includes the fleet Embarque (1988) and the powerful Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (1992). Also in 1988, she launched Siobhan Davies Dance Company with Wyoming and White Man Sleeps, two highly acclaimed works that mark the beginning of her mature style. The company has remained the focus of her creative output ever since, although she has also choreographed for English National Ballet (Dancing Ledge, 1990), CandoCo (Between the National and the Bristol, 1994), the Royal Ballet (A Stranger’s Taste, 1999), and a solo for former company dancer David Hughes (Faun, 2002). Davies took another year’s break from choreographing in 2001, partly to renew her creative juices, but also to try to find a home for the company – for despite leading one of the foremost and most long-established companies in the UK, with a string of awards to her name, Davies has never had a permanent administrative base or rehearsal studio for her company. But the future is brighter: though currently housed at the Royal Academy of Dance, the company has finally managed to secure its own premises in Elephant & Castle, South London, and is due to set up base there in 2005.
Davies has never been a ‘theatrical’ or ‘narrative’ choreographer – though these elements have certainly infused her work. Rather, she has always placed a premium on the vocabularies, structures and meanings that arise from the essential medium of dance: movement itself. In some ways, her work is closer to visual art than to narrative drama – critic Judith Mackrell, for example, has written that ‘dancers and space go together like paint marks and canvas’, and she likens Davies’s early pieces to ‘large elegant abstracts along the lines of Ben Nicholson’, which later become ‘increasingly invaded by questioning human figures, bolder colours, more sensual brushstrokes and images from her own dreams and fantasies.’ That certainly captures two essential aspects of Davies’s work: she pays close attention to issues of composition and design, yet is also keenly attuned to more intimate human qualities of feeling and imagination. For some, these may seem contrasting impulses; but for Davies they go hand in hand.
As they do in music: we tend to see form and feeling in music as part of the same process. My own analogy is to see Davies’s dance as a kind of staged vocal music: dancers and space go together like voices and time. Bodies dance like voices sing, moving in harmony or in counterpoint, each body with its own physical nuances of motion and build, just as each voice has its own timbre and register. ‘Staged vocal music’ might immediately suggest opera, but Davies’s pieces are more like chamber works, or songs without words. But no matter how abstract the composition, the voice – like the body – always conveys a human presence. Davies is often concerned with this very hinge between the abstract and the figurative, nowhere more explicitly than in Wanting to Tell Stories (1993) where, using movement rather than narrative as a starting point, she nevertheless constructed a dramatic, richly expressive piece whose ‘story’, as she put it, ‘couldn’t be told in any other way except through dance.’
But the body is a more complex structure than the voice, an array of bone and muscle and nerve with a vast range of postures and actions – and Davies delights in it. Aspects of her distinctive physical style can be traced right back to her earliest work, Relay (1972). Though trained as a dancer in the Graham technique, from the beginning Davies the choreographer sought to find her own movement foundations, and in Relay she took inspiration from sports movement, admiring its ease of action and execution, its fluent interplay with gravity and momentum – qualities that remain with her to this day.
Nevertheless, Davies’s early pieces tended to stress shape, line and design in body movement (Cunningham was an important influence). Sphinx, from 1977, marked a turning point, with Davies deliberately going back to basics to bypass her ingrained movement habits. Shelving ideas of bodily line, shape and design, she delved into the torso and the spine as a source of movement, and produced a work of sinuous, animal-like intensity in which motion seemed to arise from deep within the body and ripple beneath its skin. 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 White Man Sleeps (1988), where she made those internal pathways of movement deliberately intricate, with quicksilver impulses spilling down the spine, eddying through the joints and limbs, and sending the dancers streaming into space.
That organic sense of phrasing, with curved contours and sophisticated articulation of the body, and its ease of motion through different levels, was for a while a hallmark of Davies’s style. She has since expanded her dynamic palette, for example with the deliberately interrupted flow evident in Wild Translations (1995), the arrhythmic sputters of Bank (1997), or with the interlocking, sometime abrasive phrasing in Of oil and water (2000).
Davies has always been concerned too with composition, enjoying the challenge of creating structures 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). She has on occasion used text, but is careful that it doesn’t overwhelm the dance: in Then You Can Only Sing (1978) for example, the repetitive text was a source of rhythmic interest; in Plants and Ghosts (2002), it was cumulative and cyclical, echoing the structure of the dance phrasing. She has also drawn on sign language as a source of gesture, in Different Trains (1990) for example and also in Plants and Ghosts, admiring its articulacy and precision.
Davies prefers to work with mature, experienced dancers, and many of her exceptional dancers have had long-standing relationships with the company. On the one hand, in the process of creating a work, their experience and familiarity enables both dancers and choreographer to quickly reach a level of tacit understanding of what to work on and how to work together. On the other, Davies enjoys using the particular contributions of her dancers in creating a piece, working with material that they generate in rehearsal. The piece is therefore both shaped by and tailored to its particular performers, so that rather than being a vehicle for the choreography, they are its embodiment – they become, in Davies’s words, ‘the hand, not the glove’.
The most objective physical language – the crafting and shaping of weight, energy and placement – can lead to a subjective world of dreams, desires and memories.
Recently Davies has begun to work in non-proscenium spaces, first with Thirteen Different Keys (1999) in East London’s Truman Building, then with Plants and Ghosts (2002), shown in a variety of spaces including a disused aircraft hangar and an old textile mill; her forthcoming Bird Song (2004) will also be a non-proscenium work. The move outside the proscenium stage was partly motivated by a desire to explore a different arena for choreography, Davies feeling that she had answered some of her own questions about choreographing for the theatre stage. But it was also to experiment with a different connection between audience and performer, with a less divisive environment that the proscemium theatre, possibly also with less preset expectations. Indeed many aspects of Davies’s are more noticeable in a more intimate setting: she isn’t given to ‘telegraphing’ messages to the back of an auditorium, but is more engaged by how to draw the viewer into the world of the dance, using nuances of movement, shades of gesture, compositional details. And it is with these subtleties that Davies, preferring allusion and suggestion to statement and message, paints the interior emotional landscape that so often seems submerged just beneath the surface of her works. Almost paradoxically, in her work the most objective physical language – the crafting and shaping of weight, energy and placement – can lead to a subjective world of dreams, desires and memories.