Carnival of the Animals, performed in 2008 by Rambert Dance Company
Sophisticated, complex and nuanced, Siobhan Davies’s work is a taste to be savoured. Some prefer the stimulus of more immediate, recognisable flavours, but her subtly sensual choreography seeps into your pores.
Siobhan Davies was a student at art college when she began to take dance classes at the newly formed Contemporary Dance Group in 1967. The Group went on to become London Contemporary Dance Theatre, a major force in British contemporary dance, and Davies performed with them from the outset. Robert Cohan, LCDT’s director, recognised Davies’s precocious talent for choreography: she made her first piece for the company in 1972 and was appointed associate choreographer in 1974.
As well as combining the roles of performer and choreographer, Davies straddled the worlds of mainstream repertory and independent choreographer-led companies. Alongside her work at LCDT, she was a regular performer with Richard Alston and Dancers. In 1980, she formed Siobhan Davies and Dancers, which was subsumed the following year by Second Stride, a small but highly influential troupe co-founded by Davies, Alston and Ian Spink. She stopped performing in 1983, but continued to choreograph for LCDT and Second Stride.
In 1987, Davies left LCDT and took a year’s sabbatical, travelling to America on a Fulbright fellowship. On her return, she became associate choreographer of Rambert Dance Company and founded the acclaimed Siobhan Davies Dance Company. The company has remained the focus of her creative output ever since, although she has also choreographed for the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Candoco. In 2004, after years of a nomadic existence, her company finally moved into its own base, the Siobhan Davies Studios in south London.
During the early years of her company, Davies developed a slippery, organic way of moving in such works as White Man Sleeps (1988), but she later deliberately tried to interrupt the flow with spikier rhythms (Bank, 1997). Recently, Davies has been making dance for smaller, non-proscenium stages to enable audiences to appreciate the intricate, intimate choreographic details – see In Plain Clothes (2006). Her current work explores connections with the world of visual arts from which she emerged.
Watching Siobhan Davies
Davies’s style has changed over the years, but she is always interested in what dance can communicate in and of itself. She likes to sense movement not just on the surface, but also beneath the dancers’ skin: you can often feel the springs, flows and ripples inside the dancer. She is interested in composition: how to develop and reuse phrases, how to group people together. She’ll generally use commissioned, contemporary music and bold but spare designs.
Davies always focuses on the stories and feelings that dance evokes, exploring an interior emotional landscape just beneath the choreographic surface. Keep your eyes, ears and heart open – and your brain switched on – and just see where Davies takes you. Some find her too reticent or indefinite, but Davies would rather draw the audience into the dance than dish it out to them. Davies treats her dancers as co-creators in the work, so she sometimes emphasises her role as director or editor. For her current project, involving visual artists, she comes closer to curator.
Davies tends to prefer mature, experienced dancers, including Lauren Potter, Gill Clarke, Deborah Saxon and Sarah Warsop. Her regular collaborators have included designers David Buckland and Antony McDonald, lighting designer Peter Mumford and composers Kevin Volans and Matteo Fargion.
Davies is an acclaimed dancer, but she didn’t always make the grade. As a child, in a show where the better dancers were flowers and the weaker ones vegetables, Davies got to play a cabbage. Later, for a piece by Remy Charlip at London Contemporary Dance Theatre, she turned out to be hopeless at tap-dancing, so Charlip had the other dancers do the tap while Davies simply walked across the back of the stage, naked. Problem solved.
In her own words
“I do not create work from a pictorial starting point. My first concern is always the internal workings of the movement.” –White Man Sleep: Creative Insights (Dance Books, 1999)
“You need to surprise your brain in order to make the body work differently.” – Interview with John O’Mahony, Guardian, 2004
“Creativity is part of our human makeup – it’s there, but you have to open doors to get to it. To a certain extent, I’m like an editor or a director in that I give the dancers an initial starting point, then everyone works in isolation in one big room trying to draw out this material.” – Interview with Kate Mikhail, Observer, 2002
In other words
“Her dances do not smack you with their thrills, or grab you with their amusements. Instead, she has discovered how to pierce your imagination, perhaps your soul too.” – Ismene Brown, Daily Telegraph, 2002
“This is a world of nuances, of fine-drawn lines, of incidents that go on echoing in our minds long after the dances are ended.” – Clement Crisp, Financial Times, 2007
“There’ll be a title that gives nothing away. There’ll be the high-class collaborators … You will see the show, thinking: she’s blown it this time, it’s just too difficult/esoteric/obscure. You’ll mull it over, sleep on it, then wake convinced that Siobhan Davies is the subtlest, most original, most rewarding creative dance talent we have.” – Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday, 2000
“I watch, I listen … and something moves inside me.”
“What’s this all about? I think we should be told.”
Richard Alston, whose career parallels and intersects with Davies’s in many ways.
Merce Cunningham was a big influence in her early years.
London Contemporary Dance Theatre
Rambert Dance Company