Siobhan Davies was a student at art college when she first entered the dance world back in 1967. She was soon performing with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and went on to become one of the choreographers who defined the field of contemporary dance in Britain, working with companies including LCDT, Rambert, and her own Siobhan Davies Dance Company. But over the last decade she has moved away from such established practices and, through a series of collaborative and curated works designed for exhibitions and galleries, has been taking dance into the art world and art into the dance world.
I spoke to her about her latest project, Table of Contents, a collaboration with the ICA London, the Glasgow Tramway, and the Bristol Arnolfini galleries.
Sanjoy Roy: You’ve had a prominent career within the dance world. Why did you abandon the conventional model of touring company productions to theatre circuits?
Siobhan Davies: That context necessarily encourages certain ways of working and thinking and there came a point when I couldn’t see how to evolve my work further in that direction. So I was looking for ways to change my circumstances. I also felt very strongly that our art form, dance, has a lot to offer within the wider field of contemporary art, and I wanted it to be much more present there.
SR: What direction have you taken instead?
SD: Since opening the Siobhan Davies Studios in 2006, we have been developing it as a meeting ground for dance with other kinds of art, so we host not only dance-related activities but talks, exhibitions, conferences and other events. At the same time, I wanted to take dance out to other places, particularly to visual arts spaces. I felt these encounters could help answer the questions of what dance and choreography can do as an art form, and how it resonates with other fields. And of course, for dance itself to be tempered by those encounters.
SR: You have already helmed several projects in which dance artists have worked in collaboration with visual artists, or in conjunction with visual arts. Is Table of Contents the same?
SD: In this case, all of the artists I have collaborated with – Andrea Buckley, Charlie Morrissey, Matthias Sperling, Rachel Krische and Helka Kaski – come with a dance background. But the invitation was for us to work in a visual arts space.
SR: And how does that bear upon the work?
SD: We wanted to acknowledge each location as a visual arts space, but at the same time to hold our ground within it. The idea came up that if you go into a visual art space, the audience and curators and artists have at their fingertips an archive of material that can go back centuries. There is a discourse, there are shared references. With dance, its archive is simply far less available, and far shorter.
Now, I do have an online archive, and I am incredibly proud of it, but there is something it cannot hold – which is liveness. And the dance arts are a lot about movement and change. So our challenge with Table of Contents was how might we perform a dance archive. It’s impossible, of course! But the paradox is interesting, and we found it generative.
SR: What did it generate?
SD: Charlie and Andrea have been looking at the way that every body is an archive. The fact of how we have learned to walk or run and the way that our bodies are a kind of physical library. Helka, Rachel and Matthias have in different ways responded to my archive. Helka has been looking at how to let past material re-live or be redrawn in the present. Matthias is representing moments from the archive. And Rachel’s reference is a recorded talk by dancer Gill Clarke, which she is sharing with the audience through headphones and responding in a way she knows how – which is to move.
SR: How are these different elements “staged”?
SD: Being in a gallery is very different from being in a theatre. Visitors can come and go and move around. So you can’t have a sequential line from A to Z, you have to think of composition in a very different way. Instead of that being a problem, we wanted to make it an interest, a fascination.
One of the images we had was of visitors to a library, where they can come in and look around, or pick something from the shelves. So we have a big table in the room, and chairs around it, and we invite those that wish to come to the table, and at different intervals
one of the artists may say: I’d like to show you something, would you like to see? The idea is that visitors will be amongst work, in a place where dance is present and the past of dance is present.
SR: In keeping with your interest in opening dance up to other fields, I understand there will be some accompanying events to Table of Contents.
SD: Yes, there will be three parallel talks at the ICA. The first is a conversation between myself and dance academic Ramsay Burt. The second will be with neurophysiologist Jonathan Cole, about performance and action. And the third is a round table about archiving live practice.
We also have put together an accompanying publication with two essays: one by Ramsay Burt drawing on material and ideas arising from rehearsals and one by Marina Warner on the idea of archiving. Marina takes the theme into all sorts of different directions, with an exquisite lightness of touch. It also contains photos by Pari Naderi of the Table of Contents.
Table of Contents is at the ICA London, 8-19 January 2014; Tramway Glasgow, 29 Jan – 9 Feb 2014; Arnolfini Bristol, 24-27 April 2014.