A Way of Working
Siobhan Davies is one of the UK’s leading choreographers, with a career stretching back to the early 1970s. While her style and concerns have certainly developed over the years, from the beginning she has been passionately interested in the medium of dance itself: the way the human body moves, how it can be composed, what it can achieve and evoke. Rather than thinking of dance as representation – portraying characters, for example, or telling stories – she finds it more subtle and suggestive to explore what dance can intimate, what images and feelings it can reveal.
So instead of starting with a particular aim in mind, Davies characteristically begins a new piece with practical tasks for the dancers, like templates for them to work from. For example, one part of Bird Song grew from the task of visualising a musical score – its irregular pattern of lines, dots and arcs, its stresses and rests – which the dancers used as a basis for improvisation.
This collaborative process necessarily relies on the experience and imagination of the dancers, whose input broadens the palette of movement that Davies can draw on. And using tasks rather than setting goals can circumvent both her own and the dancers’ preconceived ideas and habits. She describes the process as ‘finding keys for unlocking movement – they are tools, not the end point’.
Davies then begins to take a more active role, honing and moulding the material, fashioning it into phrases, working and reworking its contours. But throughout, the piece is both shaped by and tailored to its particular performers, so that they become the embodiment of, rather than a vehicle for the choreography. They become, in Davies’s words, ‘the hand, not the glove’.
Creating Bird Song
In making Bird Song Davies chose a different way of working with sound and with structure from her previous piece, Plants and Ghosts (2002). In that piece, the dancers had improvised in silence. The score was composed specifically for the choreography, but music and movement were only put together at a later stage of rehearsal. For Bird Song, in contrast, Davies began with music, setting tasks that related to its texture and rhythm. Although often the music was not used in the final piece, she wanted the movement to keep its rhythmic and dynamic imprint.
The section of music that Davies started with – which remains intact in the final work – was the song of the Australian Pied Butcher bird, a simple series of notes that the bird shuffles into different sequences. ‘It is a recognisable tune to the human ear,’ Davies says, ‘but of course for the bird it’s doing something else – it might be about territory or display or signalling.’ Davies liked the idea that the musicality of movement made by the dancers could become engrained in their actions so that instead of consciously dancing to music, it would seem like second nature.
Another difference from Plants and Ghosts is the overarching structure. The earlier piece had been built up from small, cellular units of movement, whereas in Bird Song Davies began with an idea for the trajectory of the whole piece – a framework which the choreography would then fill in, like painting detail and colour into a sketched outline. ‘The idea,’ says Davies, ‘was if I had this very simple sound of bird song right in the middle of the piece, what was at its edges?’
The opening of the piece – the ‘leading edge’ as Davies calls it – uses fragmented sounds, which gradually become more recognisable and coherent, quietening before the central song. Then the direction is reversed, the sound dispersing back into scattered segments. At first driven by the sound, the dancers grow more individual and purposeful, beginning to create musical dynamics rather follow them, until the currents of music and movement converge at the calm centrepiece. So the overall sweep of the piece sees clusters of sound and motion spiralling in towards a pivotal solo, then spinning out again towards the ‘far edge’ – like a galaxy with the song of a bird as its gravitational centre.