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Five minutes after I have met the choreographer Siobhan Davies, I am feeling the wall of her Riba award-winning Dance Studios in south London. The stairs of the 100-year-old school building have been removed to create a three-floor atrium; the wall is a mixture of shiny white glazed tiles, yellow old London brick and plaster. It feels alive and hairy. Sweeping her own hand across the wall, Davies, wiry and elegant in skinny black jeans and a cashmere sweater, explains that the architect, Sarah Wigglesworth, mixed goat hair in with the plaster in imitation of the way Victorian London builders worked. “It is very bodily, don’t you think?” she remarks.
Davies, born in 1950, is one of Britain’s foremost choreographers. Starting out with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre at its inception in 1967, she has consistently explored the limits of what dance can be. She has made dance in theatres and garages, in white cube art spaces and under a vast Conrad Shawcross installation at London’s Roundhouse. In June this year she made Manual for the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, as part of its sculpture show, Every Day, which involved the dance artist Helka Kaski inviting members of the public to instruct her on how to walk or stand. Next week, the film she made with the director David Hinton, All This Can Happen, will be screened at the ICA in London.
This film has no dance in it at all. Made in 2012, it is partly inspired by the 1917 Robert Walser story “The Walk” and is densely, poetically constructed from stills and found footage: early newsreels, home movies, natural history and medical films, all featuring human movement. “In a way it is the tangle and chaos of our lives,” says Davies, who sees her editing role as akin to choreography. “The part of me whose knowledge has come through moving is also very present.”
Davies did not grow up in a pink tutu. Although she saw the Royal Ballet in its heyday with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, her primary influence was the British postwar art her family and their friends collected. Art, she recalls, “was a physical part of my world – I could smell the paint, I could see the mess. I have always loved the idea of the workshop.”
She enrolled at the Hammersmith School of Art and Building with the idea of becoming a theatre set-builder. Another student, the daughter of dancer Hilde Holger, introduced Davies to dance, inviting her along for a class at The Place. This, the home of London Contemporary Dance, had only just opened, specifically to bring the dance ideas of Martha Graham to Britain. “I found myself maybe the closest I could get to a workshop, in a dance class, and began,” says Davies.
Within two years she was dancing with the company, and by 1972 she was choreographing for them. Its philosophy was a far cry from that of classical ballet; here she was taught “that the body was a symbol as well as anything else, so symbolically you were on the stage and you were trying to make big gestures that would reach the audience”.
She also imbibed the ideas and dance vocabulary of former Graham dancer Merce Cunningham, via his early collaborator Viola Farber. “He sort of dismantled everything, and he dismantled the body into different body parts, so rhythmically you had far more to deal with because you were broken down, an enfilade of bones. The idea of the mythic personage was completely taken apart.”
In the 1970s, Davies worked closely with Richard Alston while pursuing these ideas in her own distinctive way. In 1977’s mesmerising Sphinx you see how the movement of the “mythic personage” arises from within the dancer, as a means of experiencing the world. “As a dancer I had to work with myself as material,” Davies explains. “I want to feel this with my body, I want to understand this with my body ... ”
The difficulty has been how to reconcile this interiority, the specificity of dance to a single person, with the discipline of choreography. One solution is intense collaboration in the studio with a small number of like-minded dancers: Davies founded her present company in 1988, and moved it in 2006 into the space where she and I are chatting. In parallel, she is drawn increasingly to make work inspired by everyday movements, where you can see the unique quality of each of her collaborating dancers.
It is this conversational aspect of her work, however fast and furious some of its physical manifestations, that makes the art gallery such an appealing forum. “In order to be able to see the [dancers] think and to be close to the variation in quality of the body, you want to be close,” she says, “whereas in a theatre, some of the dance becomes cinematic, spectacular.” Yet Davies has not shied away from theatre work, choreographing for Rambert, English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet in the 1990s.
She is only too aware of how ephemeral the discoveries of dancers and their “formidable bodily experience” can be. Her next project, a collaboration with curators at three UK galleries – the ICA in London, the Tramway in Glasgow and the Arnolfini in Bristol – and with five dance artists, addresses directly the question of what can be passed on. Table of Contents will invite participation from the audience as well, who will wander among the dancers.
Davies reflects that her legacy may lie in single movements or ideas that in future will be incorporated into other choreographers’ structures. “In the end,” she says, “you are passing on brick work.”