"Go. Do." In Conversation with Choreographer Siobhan Davies

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Photography by Timo Wirsching, Styling by Peghah Maleknejad

Laura Allsop sits down with the dynamic choreographer, curator and filmmaker to learn about the value of making things happen, as she prepares for a major new installation

TextLaura AllsopPhotographyTimo WirschingStylingPeghah MaleknejadPhotographic EditorHolly Hay

Siobhan Davies' speech is as precise as her movements. Every word is weighed carefully, enunciated properly, given space to breathe. Her body is in perfect sync with her words, gesturing, punctuating, demonstrating. It's a library of movement, developed over 40 years, in which time Davies has become quietly famous for her distinctively cerebral brand of contemporary dance choreography. 

"I don’t remember a day that repeats," she says, and you believe her. Siobhan Davies Studios, the creative "engine" established ten years ago in a converted Victorian school in south London, has become a vital point of connection between contemporary dance and the wider arts. Davies is not only a choreographer, but a respected curator and filmmaker, always seeking new conversations with other disciplines to refresh and energise her primary medium. This openness to new possibilities stretches all the way back to her very first encounter with dance, when she was a 17-year-old art student dropping in on a class at what would become the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. "I have no idea what I’ve come across," she recalls thinking. "I have no idea, other than that I go the next day, and the next day, and the next day and the next day." Within a matter of months she was performing at the back of the stage, and soon she was choreographing. "Again, I had no experience, no teacher, nothing, other than – step forward and do it, make something happen," she says.

"I had no experience, no teacher, nothing, other than – step forward and do it, make something happen" – Siobhan Davies

It was during her time at the London Contemporary Dance Theatre that she developed the subtle, scrutinising approach to movement that has been a defining feature of her oeuvre. Of Davies' early work Sphinx (1977), dance critic Mary Clarke wrote: "Virtuosity she can devise when she wants it; but the willingness to eschew it altogether at times is an ever rarer gift." Indeed, there's a lack of spectacle in her choreography, a prevailing interest in simplicity, though her ideas are far from simple, informed as they frequently are by a tangle of different artists and thinkers. Her fellow classmates when she was starting out included professional dancers, actors and musicians, which allowed for a healthy dose of fluidity and experimentation. "That melee proved to be hugely exciting and a ferment. So it started like that and in a way, I’m always looking for other ferments."

It's been an inspiring, enriching ten years since the studios opened. Her list of highlights is a charming miscellany, including, among other things, a barn dance for the opening ("hardly any of the dancers knew what their right leg or left leg were doing"); collaborating with gallerist Victoria Miro on an ambitious exhibition across both their spaces; making films with the director David Hinton; working with Jonathan Saunders on costumes for Two Quartets (2007); and an event with Blixa Bargeld, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti that “shocked” the building. “It was all just on a completely different level to anything that had been in the building previously,” she remembers, of the latter. Yet her preference is always to look ahead.

"The next step forward, luckily, includes me," she says, with a laugh. In January, Siobhan Davies Dance will premiere a major installation at the Barbican Curve, entitled material / rearranged / to / be, a continually changing presentation of choreographed performances and artworks exploring the relationship between the mind and body, part of which will examine "lost" or "buried" movements. Davies is fascinated by neuroscience, and is in regular conversation with Professor Jonathan Cole, an expert in neurophysiology. "In this art form we have an opportunity to find out so much more about what being a moving, human, thinking body is," she reflects. 

There's an intrepidness to Davies, a constant receptiveness to new information and new mediums. It's a "do-or-die" approach that is still with her, nearly 50 years after stumbling upon her first dance class. "Go," she says, emphatically, recalling the impetus behind that initial leap into the unknown. "Do."

material / rearranged / to / be by Siobhan Davies runs from January 20–28, 2017 at the Barbican Curve in London.

Leather trench and wool trousers by Céline; Black cotton turtleneck stylist's archive.