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INTERVIEW: Choreographer Siobhan Davies talks ROTOR, the Roundhouse and the evolution of dance

Siobhan Davies is one of the UK’s leading contemporary choreographers. She was a dancer and choreographer with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre during the 1970s, before founding her own company, Siobhan Davies Dance in 1988.

Throughout the month of August, the Camden Roundhouse will become home to Conrad Shawcross’s new largescale light installation, Timepiece. Suspended about the Main Space, the vast faceless clock will fill the space with light and shadow, using the 24 columns of the Main Space to mark the hours of the day.

To counterpoint the installation, three pieces from ROTOR, 2010 by Siobhan Davies, Matteo Fargion and E.V. Crowe will be presented and performed by Siobhan Davies Dance.

We caught up with Siobhan (Sue) Davies to find out about the work…


RR: What was your original inspiration when creating ROTOR?

SD: I don’t think in terms of inspiration. That feels too flashy! I am trying to find situations in which all of us involved can be at work and find out by doing, testing stuff out, crashing, redoing; building up layer by layer of stuff that works, as well as surprising ourselves.


For the parts of ROTOR we’re showing at the Roundhouse we began by looking at two simple elements, walking and a circle. These two simple subjects, side by side bred an immense amount of content.  One of the most disturbing and engaging parts was how each of the four performers coped with the rules we all set up.  This meant that each person was responsible themselves while still having to be equally responsible for the three others. However each dance artist approached the situation from very different points of view. This resulted in a mixture of hard fought debate and hilarity, fury and hope.


RR: ROTOR premiered in 2010 in your Southwark Studios and has since toured various venues in the UK, including the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and Dovecot in Edinburgh. How do you think the work has evolved or changed with each new space?

SD: Performing work is so much about being responsive to each and every moment and so finding ourselves in a new environment with fresh reasons for being there keeps us very alert.


When we presented ROTOR at Whitworth and Dovecot we asked each gallery to respond to ROTOR. The Whitworth curated works from their own stored collection and these were shown in one of their galleries. We came into the museum knowing how much they had already thought about what we had done and how involved they had become.


To quote the curator "We wanted a dialogue between the vigour and rhythm of the performance and the relative stillness of the art, ROTOR had inspired this presentation, unravelling forms, wandering, lines, cyclical motions and eroded boundaries."  The fabric of Lucienne Day, an Albrecht Durer woodcut, a Richard Hamilton painting and an Anthony Caro sculpture were amongst the 14 works chosen.


At Dovecot weaver, Naomi Roberston created her response on a big loom as we were performing downstairs.  Each day we, and the audience, could go and see how her finely woven 3D macquette had evolved. Her actions, her concentration, the thrill of seeing the simple base structure on the loom and the detail being gradually woven into it became another way of seeing how work from other disciplines are built into a finished form.


Our work evolved by how these different individuals, the artists and the gallery curators, had taken on our proposition.  The work was separate to ours but threaded into by the process we had undergone. Yes we were altered by the circumstances we found ourselves in but our work also evolved through those people who worked on these satellite commissions and curations. At the Roundhouse we perform ROTOR under a work already made, whose shadows make a great difference to how the work is seen. But the performers are concentrating on the fact that the space is round, it has no corners. This has disorientated them a great deal and they have to strengthen their relationship to each other even more rather than reference the room.



RR: Timepiece encourages the audience to take a fresh look at something we all take for granted, what would you like the audience to take away from ROTOR’s three works as part of the installation?

SD: Timepiece stills me, my brain seems to unfold and I want to take more time to notice details.  I experience the exquisite craft of each of the separate pieces which fit together to make the moments within moments that each rotation brings.


ROTOR at its simplest is about four people walking a circle, but it too draws the audience to notice detail. Everything from the particular lengths of gait each performer uses to how one performer's position in the line gives them a different character trait to another.  How quick decisions need to be made and how near to disaster one performer can be when another's choice destabilises their intent or if anyone loses concentration for a second.


I also want the audience themselves to realise how expert they are in movement.  To walk is an extraordinarily complex orchestration of movements which we all have evolved from baby hood.  Instead of thinking of it as a common movement I would love it to be celebrated for how beautifully constructed it is; a series of minute adjustments which allow us to maintain fluidity while balancing with the force of gravity.


RR: You apply choreography across a wide range of disciplines and have worked with a fascinating range of art forms, what do you think are the main benefits and drawbacks of a cross-disciplinary approach to creating work?

SD: The benefit is in each artist having the time to peel back to what is truly vital about their work and then share that with another artist from another discipline.  From that point a cross disciplinary discussion can evolve.  It is brave but it can give each artist an unpredictable insight in to what makes another really tick.  Once that is revealed and understood then it is nearly impossible to ask anyone to compromise.


From an audience point of view I like the idea that one artist or one art form tempers the other.  If I as an audience member appreciate the sheer beauty of the engineering in Timepiece then I feel that I have another kind of entry point into enjoying the exactitude needed to perform ROTOR.



RR: Many of your works are available to see in your incredible digital archive RePlay, and more recently, Relay, where the public can access digital exchanges of ideas about dance and choreographic processes. What prompted you to open up your work and share processes on a digital platform? How would you like to develop this use of digital platforms in the future?

SD: I have lengthy debates with this myself!  I treasure live performance and the "in the momentness" which a performer brings.  I also want to understand better the contexts out of which our art form dance, has evolved. We have a history reaching back to primitive beginnings but in comparison to the other arts there is less to delve into, and simply less information about what we do.


Our archive partially reveals the evolution of my own work and those of the dance artists and designers who worked alongside me.  It is the beginning of what will, over time, become a far richer resource as more people address the idea of how to archive dance.  More and more dance artists, curators, writers and film makers will ask themselves the question, "what, if any, traces do I want to be in the world and readily available now, and what do I want to be seen in the future.


I find it fascinating and I have a lot of questions.  The many digital venues have opened up a vast scope of possibilities but we need to be very clear about how they influence and support a commitment to live performance.


RR: Who or what has inspired you most throughout your career?

SD: The artists I have worked with, especially those who research and make performances. I have also learnt from and enjoyed conversations, sparring, sitting around a table with food and wine and making sure that humour is not far off.


RR: What’s next for Siobhan Davies Dance?

SD: Last year I made a film, All This Can Happen, with David Hinton, which we are showing at the ICA in November and December this year.  David and I made it side by side, I wanted to use my choreographic compositional skills but I did not want to make movement.  Instead we used the work of the 19th century French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey as an initial resource. His work was amongst the first to photographically record movement. From that point on we decided to make the whole film only out of the earliest archive footage and stills which we could find which would serve to reflect on the short story The Walk by Robert Walser.


The film is a choreography of movement images, sometimes several frames are shown on the screen at the same time.  The orchestration of these images and looped clips helps to create a portrait of the character in Robert Walser's short story, his individual consciousness and his way of looking at the world.  How observation and fantasy, memory and speculation can all co-exist in the same mind consecutively. The film has already been shown in many festivals, we premiered it at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and from there it’s been screened in Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Paris, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Mexico.


Right at this moment I am talking and making a new work with five other dance artists for an event to be seen at the ICA, London, Tramway in Glasgow and Arnolfini in Bristol in the first half of 2014. We have been in dialogue with the three curators from these venues and our trigger for these early conversations has revolved around many questions including, how the body remembers movement, how dancers carry with them and embody dance history, how movement is often passed on verbally, and how referencing movement can be visible or experienced by audiences.


Siobhan Davies Company


ROTOR Performance Dates & times:
Sat 17 Aug, 12pm, 4pm & 7pm
Fri 23 Aug, 5pm & 7pm
Sat 24 Aug 12pm, 4pm & 7pm 

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