ARTS; Something in the way she makes the moves

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The Independent Culture
GIVEN THE physical intensity of a typical dance rehearsal, the most natural thing in the world would be to take a break when one's on offer - lie down, flake out, have a gossip. But when Siobhan Davies announces to her perspiring company that she's off to feed the parking meter, back in half an hour, the dancers at first don't seem to hear. If anything, they step up their efforts, each absorbed in a private workout of their own. A girl in a tie-dye T-shirt tries a complicated arm-swing over and over and over. A man in leggings and socks fixedly negotiates what look like animated yoga poses. No one speaks. Davies - a quiet, good- natured woman of 44 - is not the type to insist on all-out commitment, but as the acknowledged First Lady of British contemporary dance, it comes to her unbidden. "It's not me they're devoted to," she modestly explains when she reappears in the studio. "It's the work."

Davies's dance style is hard to pin down. It's easier to say what it's not: not avant-garde, not balletic, not narrative, not flashy or particularly athletic. What it is is lyrical, fluid, subtle, unmistakeably English and visually satisfying in a way that can only be the result of hard graft and ruthless self- criticism. Ask anyone about Siobhan Davies and the answer will always contain the word "quality". She herself is the first to propose that more time produces better work. The company's latest piece, Wild Translations, which begins a British tour this week, has had a record eight-month gestation - a lifetime compared with, say, the few weeks recently allocated by the Royal Ballet to realise a commission.

By Davies's own reckoning only a fraction of what is created in the studio is ever seen on stage. She compares the process to that of a writer "who writes and writes and writes and throws it all in the bin and finally pens a phrase that cannot be bettered. With choreography you make and you make and you make and suddenly ... something slips into place. And we all say, 'yes!'."

Davies talks a lot about "we", meaning her six dedicated dancers. She even goes so far as to confer authorship on the group. Her own role, she says, is to create the atmosphere in which a piece can develop, and then to "rub off the corners, or add another element that will irritate the movement, like sand in an oyster". She deliberately chooses performers in their late twenties and early thirties who are ready to take that creative responsibility. "The more say the dancers have in the steps," she believes, "the more it belongs to them, and the stronger the communication with the audience."

In today's rehearsal the company is starting work on a new piece for next autumn, for which Davies has chosen some frisky harpsichord music by Scarlatti. A ghetto blaster and tape are the only tools. Earlier Davies had invited in a street performer to give a demonstration of "body-locking", a new kind of break-dancing she thought might offer a fresh approach to the baroque music (she is nothing if not eclectic in her sources). The ideal, she says, is to get to the very nature of the movement. "It's too easy to dance to this music as dum-de-dum-de-dum. Anyone can do that. To find the nitty-gritty you've got to break the rhythm down so it's less obvious but still there in essence. For instance, if a movement flows through the body one way I might stop it and send it back the other." This might sound rather technical but the end result, even in its raw state, looks right, somehow organic. This quality is Davies's constant ideal: "If it's all technical expertise it's not human. But if it's only human you're not using the art form. It's a question of teasing one from the other."

Despite Siobhan Davies's deference to her dancers in the studio, she is one of contem-porary dance's great solo thinkers. She has had a long time to think: seven years with her own company and 20 before that as choreographer and dancer with London Contemporary Dance. In fact she appeared in LCD's first ever performance in 1967, aged 17 ("I walked across the back of the stage, and did it badly), only three months after attending her first dance class. She was a student at Hammersmith Art College, and had gone along with a friend to one of the new classes in contemporary dance, which at that time barely existed outside the US. One session was enough to give her the bug, and she persuaded the course director to accept her college artwork ("terrible, awful paintings") in lieu of fees.

She has never regretted having missed out on childhood ballet-training, because, she says, "classical ballet, being a more defined technique, would have been much harder to break away from. Even so, the [Martha] Graham technique, the [Merce] Cunningham technique, they have a hold on you. It's years before your choreography can become personal." Personal in the sense of being stamped through with Davies' special sensibility, yet universal in its reference.

The latest work, Wild Translations, is set to a string quartet threaded through with sounds recorded in an African village by the young composer Kevin Volans. But audiences will search in vain for any reference to tribal dance. That's not her style. The nearest thing is a simple repeated gesture that looks like a woman balancing a pot; and another that might be drawing water, but then again might not. "My work is not literary, it's not linear, and I'm not going to make it simple for the audience because nothing is simple. On the other hand it is incredibly straightforward. The way people move can't help telling stories."

Jenny Gilbert

! Siobhan Davies Dance Company: Mercury Theatre, Colchester (01206 573948) Mon & Tues; Gardner Arts Centre, University of Sussex, Falmer, nr Brighton (01273 685861) Thurs-Sat.