A visit to siobhan davies dance company

A visit to Siobhan Davies Dance Company 

Originaly published by Dance UK, then the national advocacy body for dance in 2010. 

I have worked and trained in both dance and visual arts, as a maker and also as a manager/producer in both mediums. Dance is spending more and more time in the territory of the visual arts and what is more this started as far back as the 1970’s (some might argue long before that). I am writing this series of articles as a ‘way in’ to this particular area of artistic activity because I believe that dance is a highly influential media and that the knowledge base of its practitioners can bring insight to many other realms. Dance is evolving in many different ways and it is key to the growth of dance that we, the dance community, realise the potential in cross-disciplinary relationships. What is more we have no reason to fear loosing our identity because the efforts of the last forty years have established dance firmly as an art form in it’s own right.

The first article in the series below shares my visit to Siobhan Davies’ rehearsals for ROTOR, which opens on the 3 November. ROTOR is an ‘ensemble’ of new works including one work by Siobhan Davies and nine new commissions from artists working in painting, film, theatre, music, ceramics, light installation, video, photography, poetry and sculpture. All of these works have been made using a piece of movement material (created by Siobhan) as a starting point. It was intended that the artists used this material as a ‘jumping off point’ rather than translated it word for word into their own language.

This show is intended to bring focus to the wider significance of dance and to present artworks that a dance audience will find engaging, if for no other reason because they all originated from a dance stimulus that was the generator of the ideas behind these new works. However that doesn’t mean to say that dance gets lost in the mix, in fact there is no ‘mix’ as such. Each art form sits alone observing its own rules. Siobhan’s dance piece for the show is very much ‘pure’ dance, post-modernist and medium specific. Brilliantly this show champions dance’s wider significance as a stand alone art form and as an inventive generator of imaginative ideas which can be used as a spring board for making works of art, in the full spectrum of art forms. The dance in this show doesn’t hybridise, collaborate, mix or fuse. It leads, inspires and catalyses. Nine new works now counterpoint because of it.

 I was invited to a rehearsal to find out more:

11 October 2010.

I visited Siobhan and dancers Annie Lok,  Charlie Morrisey,  Lindsey Butcher and Andrea Buckley at the beginning of week seven in their 10 week rehearsal period. As I arrived on that Monday morning and was lead up to the Roof Studio by Siobhan I was immediately struck by the sense of calm that I found inside. The four dancers had brought with them various combinations of costume to suggest to EV Crowe (the Playwright) later that afternoon and the shopping trip to get them had been, by all accounts, something like a family outing. The atmosphere was one of focused hard work and delight in working together.

Siobhan relates to her dancers elegantly with a soft-spoken voice and a girlish manner that easily makes you forget she has been on the post-modernist dance scene since the 1970’s. Straight away she made time to sit down with me and explain how the work that they were rehearsing had come about including the process that the other commissioned artists had been through to start their works. They had all been given a video clip of movement material created by her, filmed from above and all bar one had been to rehearsals to see it live as well. She had decided to develop the material herself to make a finished work to sit alongside the rest of the ‘ensemble’ that she is calling ‘A Series of Appointments’. The work is a development on the motif that appears in the original piece of four people walking in concentric circles whilst remaining in a line. The dancers eventually break out of the pattern that they are locked in and begin move past one another as if they were tying a knot. 

The work starts with four dancers in a line, they then start to walk in concentric circles whilst maintaining their positions in a straight line, rather like how it is rumoured crop circles are made. There is a tremendous feeling of magnetism between each person, never touching but locked in similar proximity all the time. The person in the centre is virtually turning on the spot and the person on the far outside edge has to lengthen their strides so that the line does not bend. As the work progresses the dancers then begin to weave in amongst each other, with the rest maintaining the line, the speed picks up and at one point a square geometry off centre in the performance space replaces the circle and the line vanishes for a moment. This break in the mesmerising circling is quite disconcerting and dancers and audience have to re- orientate them selves in the work.  The four dancers have a knack of making it look easy and I am told that they have to wear trainers for the piece because it is so hard on the lower legs and ankles to circle at that speed for that long.

Then halfway through the morning Theatre Director Ramin Gray came in to see the new work by Playwright EV Crowe which he is directing. This work uses a similar motif to the beginning of ‘A Series of Appointments’ and lets us into the inner worlds of the four characters. As they dancers march round in a circle, locked in line, turning concentric circles and speeding up throughout, they begin to recount their personal perspectives on what it is like to be doing that particular part of the quartet. It is a work with humour, pace and a rhythmic nature that complements ‘Knot’ and gives us an understanding of what it is like to do this sort of movement. 

Lastly Siobhan, Ramin and I observed Matteo Fargion’s new work of music which is comprised of a series of words, sounds and movements the previously meaningless sounds of the vocal warm up. It is at once fascinating, hilarious and very well executed. I was drawn to the complexity of the four-part work and Lindsey showed me her score, something in between a percussion score and a drawing, scrawled with notes to self and an intricate web of personal colour coding systems.

The publicity material for ROTOR describes the nine new commissions as an ensemble. Siobhan told me that it was intended that the works counterpointed each other, as different components that fit together because they are all made from the same root. So how are we to read this ‘ensemble’? One of the last things Siobhan said to me before I left that afternoon was that she knows some dancers may well come and see the show and ask ‘is this dance?’ This isn’t though what she wants to focus on.  She is interested in encouraging dancers to look beyond this and to let themselves be exposed to the opportunities that dance has in a wider sense. This exhibition shows that dance (and dance people) can find interesting things ‘in conversation’ with other art forms’ other than music and scenography that are also interesting for an audience to share. 

For Siobhan it is a valid choreographic choice to make dance that is not inextricably linked to music. In her work dance doesn’t always relate directly to the music, but rather dance and music sit together and work together in counterpoint. Her work need not evolve from the music either, her ‘score’ in this case was a simple pattern of everyday movement filmed from above as we have already seen. In this new series of commissions she demonstrates that if dance sits against music rather that evolving from it, then it can sit against any other art form too. Her show ‘The Collection’ at IKON gallery in Birmingham last year (2009) is a good example of this (WEBLINK: http://www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/news/9/2009/).

Dance in arts territory is not new and interestingly not only was Siobhan at Art College when she ‘found’ dance, but also Victoria Miro the gallerist sits on her board of directors. Trisha Brown, who’s work was also celebrated this month by Dance Umbrella,  was making work for gallery spaces in the 1970’s including the famous  Man Walking Down The Side of a Building (1970) and Floor of the Forest. The latter has been shown recently at various arts spaces including Documenta 12 and most recently in the foyer of The Queen Elizabeth Hall performed by CadoCo Dance Company and Laban students before Trisha Brown’s recent repertoire shows. Brown has also been known to use her own artwork as a backdrop for her dance work. Furthermore Merce Cunningham’s work was renowned for the input of visual artist Rauschenberg and John Cage, and recently there have been two new works showing at Sadler’s Wells that have created with the input of artist Anthony Gormley.

This season we are seeing the greats of the dance and visual arts conversation. Speaking to Annie Pui Ling Lok who is performing in all of the live works, and who trained and also taught on the Dance and Visual Arts BA at Brighton, I am certain that there are many more emerging artists eager to make their voices heard. In Siobhan’s recent statement in response to the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts to the arts in The Stage, Siobhan remarked on how adverse the affect on independent artists could be. (WEBLINK: http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/30034/cultural-leaders-hit-out-at-short-sighted)

All her career Siobhan has advocated for dancers to be able to enter into this conversation with other disciplines, we must make sure that the opportunity we now have to do so freely is not lost. I hope our programmers and curators see the potential in this blossoming area of dance and also that Siobhan is recognised widely for her contribution to keeping the conversation alive this far.

You can find out more about ROTOR at WEBLINK:


The complete set of writing that Dance UK publised is below: 

// Coffee with Stephanie Rosenthal, curator of MOVE: Choreographing You at the Hayward Gallery.

// A conversation with Siobhan Davies about dance thinking.

// Falling in love with another art form Yvonne Rainer and my divorce from painting.

// Catching movement, painter Peter Lanyon. 

// Who wears the crown? Artist Lawrence Kavanagh and four choreographers take on jealousy and authorship.