Matthias Sperling
At the ICA in London, Matthias Sperling performs an excerpt from past works in ‘The Right Thing for Right Now’

How can past movement be performed in the present? Can an ephemeral art form such as dance be archived? Come to think of it, what is an archive? These are some of the questions raised by choreographer Siobhan Davies and five collaborating dance artists in her latest project, Table of Contents. Exploring dancers’ memories and the company’s back catalogue, it is described as a “live installation” and is showing at the ICA in London before touring to the Tramway in Glasgow and the Arnolfini in Bristol.

This is not the first time Davies’ work has been performed in an art gallery. Always pushing the boundaries of what dance can be thought to be, she increasingly works outside traditional dance venues and across art forms. Her piece “Rotor” was last year adapted at London’s Roundhouse to respond to Conrad Shawcross’s installation Timepiece, and in her recent film with David Hinton, All This Can Happen, she merged her choreographic eye with archive footage in the story of a young writer.

Dance-wise, the pared-down elemental style of her choreography makes it particularly suited to a gallery context. Davies seeks to explore the encounter between performers and audience, and the openness and fluidity of a gallery space, where people can wander around and choose to engage – or not – with the art, enables this most effectively.

Whether you come to see an exhibition or a dance performance, it’s a good idea to leave any preconceptions at home, as Table of Contents will confound all expectations. In a large, white, windowless room, Davies and her team – dressed in jeans, checked shirts and sneakers – stand around a waist-high table, like a draughtsman’s board, chalking out their next move. Addressing their own questions, each piece, or “enquiry”, is inspired by something in the Siobhan Davies archive – a movement sequence, a drawing in a notebook, a rehearsal video or a recorded interview. These are the starting points for the dancers to explore their own memories and embodied history.

For instance, in “Headphones”, Rachel Krische responds to a talk on choreography, which audience members can listen to simultaneously. “I Remember This” is a duet performed by Andrea Buckley and Charlie Morrissey, with a running commentary on each move as it happens: “I remember being upside down”; “I remember my elbow in your face”; “I remember being disorientated”.

Andrea Buckley and Charlie Morrissey
Andrea Buckley and Charlie Morrissey perform ‘I Remember This’

In “The Right Thing for Right Now”, Matthias Sperling picks short excerpts from past works, including “Sphinx”, “Wild Art” and “Rotor”, and presents them in a riveting sort of dance-collage. These events are often happening at the same time so, as an audience member, you can choose what you want to watch.

However, Davies is not going to let you get away with indiscriminate browsing. You might well find yourself being passed the headphones and told to speak aloud the choreographic instructions to Krische; or, like me, asked to be a puppet-meister and tell Morrissey exactly how to stand up from a supine position on the floor (much more difficult than you would think, involving an incredibly detailed amount of information).

In sharing these thought processes, we are made aware of the depth of physical memory we all have, and a dancer has a hundredfold. This personal exchange also reveals just how much each dancer has been, and is, contributing. They are initiating and driving the work, rather than merely performing someone else’s steps; Davies is in many ways the facilitator. “I am the inviter and provider of a context,” she says. “I think that they [the dancers] want to experience this as a different kind of responsibility for both them and me.”

As it unfolds, Table of Contents inevitably raises more questions about the interface between spectator and performer, some of them uncomfortable. There’s a grey area that is audience behaviour. If this is an exhibition, is it OK to walk away from a dancer halfway through a piece and move on? It feels rude, particularly as the artists are present as themselves, not characters in any sort of designed scenario; yet any improvisation can be uninteresting, and sometimes an enquiry takes on the slightly worthy air of an illustrated lecture. At the preview, the audience naturally took an unscheduled break after about an hour, chatting, getting up to go out, while the action reset and continued.

The performers also have to confront new challenges. Can a dancer be expected to articulate with their voice as well as their body? Having to talk at the same time seems to inhibit the dance, stifling its momentum. Morrissey admits that it’s difficult, “like tapping your head and patting your stomach at the same time. But we will get more adept.”

But in the end it is these moments of mutual awkwardness, intimacy and humour that define Table of Contents and make it such a unique project. At each performance, something original will happen. Every audience member will relate to the work from a different perspective. By using the art gallery as a context, Davies creates an environment where these conversations about the past will continue their arc into the future, like new stars on a journey. If anyone can boldly go where no choreographer has gone before, it is she.

To January 19.

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