dance thinking

A conversation with Siobhan Davies about dance thinking

Originaly published by Dance UK, then the advocacey body for dance, in 2010 

Recently choreographer Siobhan Davies has seemingly turned curator, commissioning four new collaborations between dancers and visual artists, the results of which are being shown in an exhibition titled Siobhan Davies Commissions, running from the 4 –13 November at Bargehouse, London (www.siobhandavies.com/dance/dance-works/sdc.html). 

This will be the third major show in visual arts territory from Siobhan Davies Dance following The Collection at Victoria Miro Gallery and IKON Gallery Birmingham in 2009 and ROTOR at Siobhan Davies Studios and South London Gallery in 2010 (touring in 2011 to Whitworth Gallery in Manchester and Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh). Of the four commissioned dance artists, Henry Montes, Gill Clarke, and Sarah Warsop are partnered respectively with video and performance artist Marcus Coates, Turner Prize-nominated Lucy Skaer, and craft artist Tracey Rowledge. The fourth, Deborah Saxon, is working with Henry Montes and Bruce Sharp, who works in video, sound and drawing.

As both visual artist and dance maker, I was interested to know why cross art form dialogue has become such a key part of Siobhan’s artistic output. 

We met for an hour one crisp October morning in Siobhan’s glass fronted office in South London. I talked with Siobhan about how curating had become an extension of her own choreographic trajectory, why collaboration is important to her and how all of this relates to her personal campaign to promote dance thinking as a generator for ideas in other art forms. Talking with at times her eyes shut, hands floating back and forth, Siobhan gently uncovered the words to give me an insight that I share with you here. 

Siobhan put together the collaborators for this series of commissions in a way that was in itself choreographic. She set the initial scenario in which three pairs and one trio would come together, the rule being that neither party was to compromise but that true collaboration would be honoured. Collaboration is at the heart of making dance and dancers are a huge part of the process. They carry inside them a knowledge base for the work as well as being the physical material for it. This is acknowledged in varying degrees by choreographers and Siobhan is the kind that openly recognises the contribution that the dancers make. She says: 

' I have always worked best with a group of artists in which the feedback loop between myself and them is a constant exchange of what is possible with what we are doing. 

I like that variety of voice and intelligence in the making of the work and I honour the fact that it is the dance artists,  the performers, that have to be the work when we have reached the point of having a dialogue with the audience'. 

I asked why it was interesting to her to commission collaborations with visual artists that were, in all cases but one, previously unknown to her dance artists.

She told me that these commissions are an opportunity for her and the dance artists to see that dancer’s bank of knowledge and experience in a new light, through the lens of the newcomer with a freshness and new vitality.

Siobhan and her dancers have worked together for a long time. A moment had been reached where she wanted them to make work, and to trigger this she choose four visual artists for them to partner.

I was interested to know how long these new relationships had taken to build and how they had started. As all the dance makers reading this will know, a common starting place for dancers is to move in the space together and see what emerges, establishing the physical relationship first. Siobhan told me that in this case this was not the only option due to the different art forms coming together. Discussions about the work also brought up new opportunities. The pairs soon found that they had different reference points and words that normally brought connection, brought confusion, holding different meanings for each person.  

In order to find a process with which the artists could work together, a sort of archaeology had to take place, an uncovering of their experience and understanding of things, words and concepts. Further conversations with some of the collaborators revealed that it was through this process that some of the most interesting things came to light. Things that each person had previously taken for granted, things that formed part of their automatic knowledge base that they brought to a work, which may not have played a very large part before emerged as new and interesting ground for discussion. As dance artist Gill Clarke put it: 

'The very special aspect of this commission was that it gave time – and trust- to explore and not to have to turn our attentions immediately to focus on ‘what are were going to make ?’, which is the scenario much more likely to have kept us in what we already knew, in our own separate practices, somehow brought together or combined. 

Instead we were free to explore interests that we discovered we held in common or propositions we could get intrigued by, and allowed different forms to emerge that were not at all restricted by our individual disciplines. And yes, this did both reveal insights into each other’s practices and a chance to reflect on our own'.   

I know all too well from my own visual arts practice that if left to one’s own devices it is easy to spend a lot of time saying them same thing, and wondering how to get at what is underneath this. It is not until a body of work has been established that you catch a glimpse of this rich resource emerging, often overpowered by this dominant statement that you just can’t help repeating. 

Before training in dance, I was resistant to pinning my work down during the making process. I preferred that it evolved through a meandering and lengthy adventure to find new ground, rather than fitted a brief as such. The finished work then became a mirror, reflecting those things I couldn’t consciously articulate at the time from deep within my knowledge base. In this way I was having a conversation with myself through the work, externalising and making plastic the inner world. 

Dance training brought a shift in my thinking and I now see the benefit of talking to myself a bit earlier on in the process. I now have specificity in my approach during certain phases in the production cycle, and employ a process of constantly reining the work in, checking that it is communicative, honest, interesting and relevant. 

This involves words, something visual artists can sometimes be a little scared to involve in case they over power their visual language. To a visual artist the words are sometimes seen to operate in a way similar to the dreaded overpowering gluteus maximus and the quads over the smaller muscles around them. Dancers on the other hand seem to have evolved a mode of discussion that is very open and doesn’t squash movement language but in fact helps us to get deeper into it. My conversation with collaborator and craft artist Tracey Rowledge revealed that she had experienced a similar shift after her encounter with dance thinking. She says: 

'Sarah (the dance artist) is highly articulate during the process of developing a piece of work. My practice is mainly solitary, as a result I realise I’m not used to articulating my ideas in transit, for me, the language for a new work normally develops at the end of the process, not during it. Our process needed to be discussed rigorously throughout and it was an interesting struggle for me to find the language to fit, it was a good type of discomfort as only through that struggle could Sarah and I progress with the work.' 

The value of these collaborations to all involved is clear, but there is something else at stake which is meaningful to the future of dance. That is the part that they play in Siobhan’s drive to situate dance as a knowledge base and a generator of ideas in other disciplines. She points out that dancers are all too often labelled as receivers of information only, and their capacity to inform goes unnoticed. The desire to see the influence of dance thinking on other art forms has been a driving force behind Siobhan's last two exhibitions; The Collection at IKON Gallery Birmingham in 2006 and ROTOR at Siobhan Davies Studios and South London Gallery in 2010. Just as the dancer is often the unseen contributor in choreographic works, the modes of experience and thought processes that they employ bring light to a sphere of human experience that also often goes unnoticed, the 'switched on' experience of the world, from inside of a body. 

Many non dancers are unaware of their bodies, noticing the living, breathing, constantly cell dividing structure that they inhabit 24 hours a day, only when a strong signal of pain or pleasure is sent from the body to the brain. The headache that says drink more water, the stomach churning at the realisation the wallet is gone form the handbag where it was left, and (no giggling) in sexual relationships. 

The sexual context of the body  brings up a whole raft of perspectives that distract us from the subject of embodied movement. Women have been discussing these, campaigning and making art about them and writing complex philosophical theories on them, as they have climbed the mountain of equality. In the 1970s French linguistic philosopher Julia Kristeva wrote many theories about femininity, the body being labelled the feminine domain by patriarchal culture, with men getting the (ever more important) cerebral things such as language. Kristeva traced ideas about the body being abject back to the story of Adam and Eve, when childbirth (a sigificant spiritual and emotional journey) was rebranded as a punishment for succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh. Now, in 2011, these issues can still be so polemic that they tend to overpower discussions about the subtler lived experience of movement in a body that Siobhan has devoted her artistic explorations to. 

But a shift is afoot. The recent discoveries of neuroscience and collaborations between dancers and scientists, philosophers and artists are beginning to create some space around this concept of the body in motion and opportunities to talk about it without other agendas creeping in. In fact collaborator and dance artist Gill Clarke has recently led the PAL Movement and Meaning Lab,which is described as ‘a cross-disciplinary enquiry into our embodied nature, bringing together the physical and sensory curiosity and intelligence of dance artists, with scientists, social scientists, and influential policymakers and opinion-formers across culture and education. A project that places movement and movement based thinking in the centre.’ 

In daily life our perception is often somewhat reduced by the way that we live and the modes we choose to engage with the world in our daily lives, and I am passionate that we should not lose the intelligence of the body. Dance artists put me in mind of gazelles, perfectly toned collections of intelligence and muscles communicating, with the eyes and twitching ears in a constant state of signal and response, perception and adjustment to their surroundings. They carry with them vast knowledge about movement and embodied perception that is only just starting to be tapped, as Siobhan puts it: 

‘We bring with us a vitality of knowledge and an ability to do which is unique. The ability to be in the world and to have feedback loops with the various relationships that we have. It is a skill, one that has been observed by others and I think visual artists have in fact been observing this skill for a very, very different perspective for quite some time and that gives me energy. 

Dance has within itself an intelligence that highlights human thinking and activity in a particular form. The more I see dance and the dancers exploring the complexities, the more exited I get by this form of communication.’  

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

/A visit to Siobhan Davies Dance Company

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

// 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.