Arts: All that is solid melts into air

Tonight sees the world premiere of Wild Air by Siobhan Davies, Britain's top contemporary choreographer.
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The Independent Culture
A week before the world premiere of her new work, what does a choreographer do on a night off? She goes to a play. Not something movement- based, but a drama brimming with words. The Weir, to be precise. "Very well acted," says Siobhan Davies, enthusiastically. "It's about Irishmen in pubs. It was fantastic to see something that had nothing whatsoever to do with dance," she sighs with relief. But then, she prefers going to the theatre or galleries. "When I see dance, I think: `Oh no, I wouldn't have done that'. Then, of course, I think: `What on earth has it got to do with you? Stop!'" She bursts out laughing.

Memorably described on these pages as "the Jean Muir of British dance", this 49-year-old ex-soloist with the late, lamented London Contemporary Dance Theatre has built up a peerless body of work which has been showered with praise ever since she formed her eponymous dance company in 1988. From the first piece, White Man Sleeps, which won her the first of four Digital Dance awards, she has catapulted herself into pole position as this country's queen of contemporary choreography. And now she's moving a step beyond.

Wild Air will be her first full-length piece, an idea which is making her distinctly nervous. Why? "Because with something that long, the next question is always: `what's it about?'" Unless you're in the narrative world of storytelling dance - which Davies most definitely is not - that's a thorny topic. "In drama you have some sense of reality. Watching The Weir, I knew exactly where I was: there are words and the set was an Irish pub. But you can't know exactly where you are when a dancer moves." She suddenly stretches her arms straight out in front of her, the palms of her hands bent upwards at 90 degrees. "That's a stop action, OK, but there are very few other movements that literally `mean' anything. So you have to abandon all that. What is dance really good at? Showing how much further a body in action can go than most people can imagine."

Her focus is on the who, what, where, and when within a clear moment. "`Who' is a little bit tricky because you can't be a character in quite the same way. But how you are moving, where, and when, opens up enormous possibilities which on a day-to-day basis we're not thinking about." Audiences testify to this in sessions with the company, talking of the liberation and excitement of seeing something powerfully expressive which is beyond words. "That's what I pursue," she says, simply.

Other choreographers are pushing the boundaries of dance towards drama, but Davies distrusts the gaucheness of some of that work. "I think if we're trying to make it look as if we're in the pub talking about our lives, it has a tendency to look naive. It can't quite do it." She recognises that, for an artist, the dilemma is usually not the idea, but the form. Yet this new piece came about the other way around. "One of my faults is to put too much material in too quickly. It's an understandable fault. Most writers or artists who have an idea are worried in case it's not strong enough so you put counterpoint to it to make it more interesting. You're slightly frightened that it won't exist by itself. Making a full- length piece was about saying to myself that it's alright to take time over something."

The question of a longer time-span has immediate repercussions on her select pool of regular collaborators. "Collaboration is a strange word which I'm not sure I completely go with." She's extremely respectful of the different areas of expertise with her composers, designer, and lighting designer.

"People think you're in conversation months in advance, that I've told them about delineation, form and timing. The truth is I couldn't compose a piece of music to save my life. If I interfere too much, all I'm doing is saying something horribly naive." She can't, however, quite keep the same distance with her regular designer, David Buckland, because they live together. "I kick myself afterwards, though. I must allow my collaborators the knowledge that they have arrived at, and not suddenly bring in my cheaper ideas."

The resultant hallmark of this approach is that in her best work, there is a harmonious balance between all the production elements. The separate inputs are combined but combed through to avoid too rich a mix. In the 1993 Wanting to Tell Stories, Buckland's moving metal mesh screens continually carved, bisected and redefined the space in which the dancers moved. Her almost inexplicably moving masterpiece The Art of Touch (1995) reached a pitch of emotion intensified by Buckland's bronzed backdrops burnished by Peter Mumford's sculptural lighting.

Most people consider dance to be about seemingly superhuman physical acts. But Davies' work makes you look harder. Her choreography seems to charge up the air around the bodies. You become aware of the depth around the dancers. The movement she painstakingly builds makes you aware this is about bodies in space and time. There's no literal "story", yet she creates striking resonances between people. Stronger still, the work is supremely legible. The more you watch, the more you see repeated shapes, patterns, gestures. Movements are passed between groups or set up in opposition to one another, producing a dramatic sense of friction or repose.

Her last piece was harnessed to the almost alarmingly percussive note- filled frenzy of Conlan Nancarrow's virtuoso piano writing. This time, composer Kevin Volans has provided a beautifully limpid score for two cellos and two guitars. "I know that dance mostly works off high energy. It's got to be good, but you've got more of a chance of it working if people are rattling across the stage and the music makes you high, but if that's all there is, then there's a massive amount missing." To challenge that notion, she wants to use her loyal dancers to their fullest range, but with something sparer and more delicate.

Oddly, despite the vigour of many of her scores and the fleet energy and speed of her movement, the overall impression of Davies' work is its line and silence; it's leanness. She smiles. "I know I'm not a noisy choreographer. People could fault me for a lack of bravura. I see that, although I think they'd be shocked by the technical difficulty of the work, but I'm not terribly keen on the idea of showing off. And dance has a tendency to do that." Despite her company's international profile, she's rattled by inadequate funding which denies her a permanent rehearsal space. Working in hired halls with hard floors takes its toll.

Judging by a run-through of Wild Air, however, the work keeps growing. "Early in your career you look at things in rehearsal and go `Oh no', and move on." I suggest that learning to trust her instincts is about experience and confidence. "And curiosity," she counters. "You learn to turn round and say hang in with the process. It might just take you somewhere."

Tonight and tomorrow, Oxford Playhouse (booking: 01865 798600), then High Wycombe, Brighton, Edinburgh, Sheffield and Salisbury until 5 June. Sadler's Wells and further tour dates in the autumn, 0171-250 3030