Hannah K Chapman from Young Arnolfini interviews renowned British choreographer Siobhan Davies (CBE) before upcoming installation at Arnolfini. This interview is taken from the latest Young Arnolfini zine 'Sequential'...
Does the concept of 'sequence' appear in or motivate your work in any way?
I don't think I've ever thought about it in those terms. I suppose the nature of making dance in the theatre, which is what I was doing until roughly ten years ago, means that each work stands alone. However, when making Trespass and Affection I asked a composer to write a piece of music and then choose a second piece of music as the companion work. I used the same design concepts with both pieces so they needed to be seen side by side. I was intrigued by how two very different pieces could employ similar objects and yet have a very different perspective. I also have a digital archive, which gives people the chance to see work, after work, after work even though they were not made to be sequential. They are available digitally in a way that was never possible when they were made. I don't suggest anyone watches them chronologically; although I have as part of a learning process to see how ideas or themes are excavated, altered, and edited out over a period of time. There's a sort of personal evolution that is available for me now, but I am also able to witness development of different dance artists. Quite unusually, over the course of a day, I am able to see how Deborah Saxon moved and changed between 1990 and 2010. The making of an archive has allowed us to see work in a different way.
Your new work, Table of Contents, explores the idea of archives even further. How did you go about the process of choosing what to include?
There are five other artists working on this project, all dance makers, dance performers, and choreographers who are highly thoughtful of what they want to do. To begin with looking at the archives felt like a hurdle over which none of us could jump. There's an oddity about looking at an archive; to a certain extent you go into an archive and you find something. You find an object; a film, a notebook, or a clip of audio; something that you bring out of its original context to look at more closely. None of us really liked the idea of treating each individual find or whole work as an untouchable object because now I don't make work as I did then and the artists I work with now don't dance like that anymore; even though we can appreciate that what we are looking at was part of a process, it's not where we are at the present. We tried to imagine that the works had turned into compost. They became a collective gathering of works out of which certain nutrients could be absorbed and we could grow out of and somehow learn from, then bring what we had learnt forward into a performance made for the present without dismissing the past. We were trying not to objectify the archive but turn it into material for now, with people who were going to make it live in the present for now, in front of an audience who are present now. That said, Matthias Sperling looked at scratch tapes, or rehearsal tapes, from the archive and quite consciously tried to learn the information that each artist (these included Gill Clarke, Deborah Saxon, Henry Montes, and Lauren Potter) was exploring at that moment. In that sense there is a sequence to this because it was not about him copying but about allowing material to move on. Both the artist and audience can burrow into the archive taking something both relevant to the archive and to them. The tension is in how to nurture the original choreographic concept, while recognising the impact of the performer who has grown out of their own contemporary practice. In Table of Contents (2014) two specific pieces were made in relation to my archive. One is the recording of a talk Gill Clarke gave just before she died which dance artist Rachel Krische listens to on headphones while moving. The audio tape is part of the archive but she is bringing it into the present by thinking of her movement as listening. Other audience members can share what she is listening to and respond by wearing headphones themselves, while others watch in silence.
Do you think that dance gives artists and choreographers the chance to learn about themselves? Does the audience have the same opportunity?
I'm not quite sure if I've managed to settle what the audience experience is yet, but the feedback we're getting is that while dance archives are an important part of their experience it also addresses the way that you and I, our bodies, are an archive of experience. Whether you're a dancer or not each of us has an archive of experience and knowledge that our body holds. I think people have been quite immersed with that as an idea as well as ideas around memory and how memory isn't a fixed thing, and therefore an archive involving performance can't be fixed. Alongside that un-fixedness is an element of 'what is at the heart of this' and 'what is there in the past that I can deal with right now', so you are trying to hold onto something and let go all the same time. The artists are trying to hold on to something that's meaningful to them, that they want to share with the audience, but at the same time trying not to fix it. The audience are a very important part of this work so we needed to keep imagining that idea all the way through our preparation period. We didn't really get a true audience until we started the durational performances at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London but what's lovely is that the response is that they feel very much part of it. Every so often we gather around a table and talk with the audience, who bring either a question or something they've noticed to the situation and the artists are very much amongst the audience during the performances, and can move wherever they want in the space and be close to one thing and further away from another. Some works are concurrent, they happen at the same time, while other works are the only event happening. The audience can choose when to enter or leave as well as negotiate what to look at or interact with.
In the past you have worked with a variety of mediums; stage, screen, and now gallery spaces themselves. Do you find one particularly more rewarding than the others?
The short answer is that I can't prefer one to the other. Each stage has been a process I felt ready to do and one which could keep me and the artists I work with challenged. I am enthralled by human movement more than I am by a particular technique. I have learnt through a long practice and that learning can now employ other mediums and locations. I need to be clear about what I should be doing, where I should be doing it and who I should be doing it with. When I started to dance I knew nothing. I was choreographing within two or three years and that opportunity was on stage. I was incredibly lucky and I learnt as much as I possibly could. When I was making that early work it was labelled as abstract and in hindsight I could talk about that label. I was fascinated with movement itself and what information people moving could convey. I just find movement an extraordinary resource for understanding. I wanted to work with people who were really interested in this idea so I formed a company that would allow me to do that. I stayed within the theatre but over time realised that there were many elements of narrative within theatre that I felt I was either being branded with, or told I was pushing against and I didn't want to take on that role. I realised that when I see movement close up I am benefitting from it in a way I cannot when I am in the auditorium, being so far away. So I grew into investigating movement, where it comes from, how it is performed, which allowed me to imagine that a gallery space would be a better space for that. Knowing that I then had to understand what a gallery space brings with it in terms of knowledge, history, and discourse; it's different to the theatre. It was important for me to try to understand the area I was entering into even though I believed it was the right place for me to be.
I was really interested to read that, in 1987, you dropped everything and moved to America. You were described as returning with a 'renewed vitality'. Did your time overseas cause you to approach your work differently?
I was given the Fulbright Award to go to America but the practical human reason is that I'd just had two children and I was exhausted. It was incredible to have over a year in which I wasn't responsible for making anything or responsible for being particular about myself; I could be with my two children and my partner. I went to see things and studied as much as I could afford to because they were all private teachers, which allowed me to make some kind of assessment of what was important to me and what I could leave behind now. You can't hold it all. We then travelled around America for four months with a camper van and a tent. I was able to see how long it took for landscape to change, how long it takes for things to happen, because you can go across the Rockies or the prairies and it can take days. There's not much change and I loved the idea that there was such a large amount of space to take time in. It was completely the opposite of anything I'd experienced before. When I came back reality hit. I was living back in London and the idea of more rapid change returned to my system, but the idea of noticing detail, trying to take time over what I learnt, trying to gather information and store it in places where I could handle it at leisure, became quite important. It taught me, even if there wasn't any more time in the day, to take time, to notice, to go into detail, to look at things over a longer period of time. Not everybody has the luck to have this time and I keep encouraging myself to not cram everything in. I've fought for lengthening reflection and rehearsal times when making work, for paying artists better so they have time to reassess and alter. It's trying, in a way, to professionalise the whole of our work by making sure that if you want to do something you really try to do it well. Work that alters us needs time to research, experiment, edit, prepare and reflect. I have worked for over 40 years and I can now see how repetition can be useful and harmful. Redrawing something freshly every time teaches me something but, repeating because we are tired, cramped or trapped I find lowering.
How much has the landscape of dance changed through the length of your career?
Massively. There was contemporary dance in the country when I started but it was very under-nourished by everything - finance, recognition, the lot. Robin Howard started the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and within a couple of years we began performing in front of remarkably few people, who were very excited but not understanding the properties of what contemporary dance could hold. Within a very short time we were touring many weeks of the year in front of full houses and it was exhausting. I was with an organisation in which I was learning to be both a dancer and a choreographer at the same time and it was an incredible learning experience that nobody could have now. I was there when there was this burgeoning interest in one area of contemporary dance, so the trajectory we were on was really quite pointed – just one organisation thrusting forward. Then reasonably rapidly, and quite properly, more organisations started to come on the field and so attention became divided. People become more specific about the sorts of things they'd like to attend to, and the audience became divided, and although it became larger it is spread across more dance groups and dance artists. What interests me the most now is that it was obviously necessary for us to bring dance to different people's attention, but also their attention would temper what we wanted to do. To begin with there was an element of shock and surprise about what dance is capable of, then that audience grew and recognised us and we became comfortable, not lazy with each other. Each new organisation challenged this recognition by introducing new elements and then they grew because they became recognised and established. We had to introduce the shock of a new art form into our culture and sustain its growth at the same time. I love that it began with this burst of energy and I have been carried along, still trying to create different waves within that, which have altered dance's perception of itself, the public's perception of it, and the other art form's perception of it. It's an explosion of activity and assessment and reassessment and it's amazing.
Would that be advice you would pass on to aspiring dance artists?
People should be very clear about what it is they're learning. You need to be receptive and gather information, but scrutinise what you are learning and why. Each dance artist can now be the author of their own learning process; it is a lifelong one and needs thought.
Do you collaborate much with young makers and does your work differ depending on the age of the person you are working with?
Yes and no. I personally don't but my organisation, Siobhan Davies Dance, does. We look at my most recent working method to see what threads would be useful for different people and I am there to talk my current method through with them. When we were teaching primary school level we were still using the same research methods that we used in our work, though obviously we would adapt it to fit ability and attention span where necessary. I've always been particularly interested in the way one set of excavations, if you break them down in different ways, can be useful for as many people as possible.
This interview is taken from the latest Young Arnolfini zine 'Sequential'…read here.