DANCE / She wants to tell you a story: Narrative force or empty gesture? Judith Mackrell talks to Siobhan Davies about the 'literature of legs'

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Siobhan Davies's latest piece, Wanting to Tell Stories, plugs into an argument that has acted as one of the great creative motors of Western dance. For at least two centuries, choreographers and critics have been debating whether or not dance is capable of creating interesting fictions about the real world; whether it ranks as one of the serious dramatic arts or whether it just slots somewhere between music and decoration.

Back in the mid-19th century, the suspicion that dance couldn't carry a sophisticated storyline was voiced by one of the most notorious balletomanes, Theophile Gautier, who thought that 'the literature of legs' was 'little adapted to rendering metaphysical themes'. This century, George Balanchine noted dance's limited dramatic scope with the sally that 'there are no mothers-in-law in ballet'. And Merce Cunningham took the argument to its limits by insisting that dance is purely 'an activity in space and time'.

Choreographers like Cunningham who have freed dance from an expressive agenda have actually created some of the most physically eloquent movement this century. But there have also been those who believe that dance not only can, but should explore the workings of human minds and hearts. Martha Graham, Kenneth MacMillan and Lloyd Newson have all committed their work to the world beyond the studio, making the body dance in new and even shocking ways in their determination to strip the art form of its dramatic innocence. Incest, sexual politics, greed - their subject matter has moved way beyond the fairy tale simplicities of the old ballet scenarios.

At the moment, dramatic dance is definitely in vogue. Audiences seem to yearn for gut communication even if they don't necessarily want plots to follow. And in this year's Dance Umbrella, at which Davies's work has its London premiere, there are plenty of choreographers to provide it. David Rousseve explores sexual oppression and racism in America, Victoria Marks's Dick is a response to the Gulf war, while Nigel Charnock deals with yet more sex and violence in a work that claims to be 'more slap than tickle, more S than M'.

Davies's own choreography - sensuous, inquiring but tending towards emotional reticence - doesn't sit easily within this rash of issue-hungry work. In fact, she feels trapped by the current tendency to polarise work into abstract or narrative. As her partner and designer David Buckland notes, 'dance is never abstract in the way art can be, like painting pure colour on colour. If you have a body on stage it can't help but be human'. Yet, though Davies has become increasingly interested in making movement that 'provides more human information', she's never wanted to restrict herself to working with a specific theme or plot.

She feels, too, that there are only certain subjects that dance can take on board. 'If I was going to talk about feminism I wouldn't use dance.' This goes against all that's most politically correct within current New Dance thinking. And Davies is perplexed by how often she has to defend herself against the idea that it's somehow retarded to indulge in dance for its own pleasures and meaning.

So Wanting to Tell Stories is a private inquiry into the whole issue of narrative dance. It's not a leap into characterisation or tub thumping. But it tries to examine how dance communicates at its most basic level. What makes movement more than a pleasing arrangement of arms and legs? What is its special gift for activating the senses, the nerves, the imagination?

Her original starting point was simply the 'rich set of feelings that dancers get as they make a dance' - the tenderness they might feel was instinct in a certain gesture, the abandonment within a certain jump. (This on the principle that most movements carry with them some kind of dramatic sub-text - the 'heroic' leap, the 'despairing' fall.) In many rehearsal situations the dancers may keep those feelings to themselves, in a plotless work they may go against the choreographer's intentions. But in this piece, Davies was keen to keep them alive. So, as she made the material, she didn't just progress by throwing out movement problems for the dancers to solve; by prodding steps to see how they might develop; by editing and combining phrases. She also looked for ways of crystallising the emotions that seemed inherent in the movement. As the dancers built up the choreography they thus began telling stories - sometimes the movement initiated the drama, sometimes the reverse.

Vital to the piece was getting the dancers to use their experience and their own natural movement as the choreography's raw material. And, though Davies never gave them or herself any specific scenario to work around, she says: 'You get a very clear taste for what you are heading towards; there's no other way of expressing it. These aren't stories that can be told in any other way than through this dance.' For the viewer there isn't anything finally to 'get' in terms of plot or message, just a series of danced encounters where the movement is emotionally loaded, rich in suggestion, ripe for whatever anyone wants to read into it.

Those readings will be influenced by other elements in the work too. David Buckland's set, for instance, consists of two huge screens which revolve and track across the stage. According to their position, they not only affect the composition of the dancers but also the situations in which they 'find themselves'. Two dancers pressed in a tight corner by a large screen look and feel very different from a group shooting through unimpeded space.

The music, composed for Davies by Kevin Volans, structures and colours the piece - as well as provides its title. Volans borrowed the phrase from the American painter Phillip Gaston who, after 20 years of pure abstraction, devastated his public by starting to paint images. Gaston's explanation was simply that he'd come around to 'wanting to tell stories' in his art.

Volans is as intrigued as Davies by the question of whether art should bother itself with the narrative impulse. In his own work he's quick to dissociate himself from 'Romantic' composers and claims to 'go along with Stravinsky's line that music isn't capable of expressing anything - even while not believing that for a minute'. What he means is that the more actively a composer tries to express something, the less significant the work is likely to be, while 'the closer you get to pure surface, the more profound the music gets'. So, he insists that, while he's not trying to say anything, 'listeners can read what they like into the music'. When Antony McDonald (Stories' costume designer) heard the score, he found it loaded with atmosphere ('very American, very urban'). At the same time, he found Davies's choreography 'very tender, very personal, about the nerve endings of relationships'. In combination, dance and music made him think 'about the world you get in the paintings of Edward Hopper'.

In all innocence, McDonald suggested this to Davies. But nail a work too vigorously and the artist is likely to scream. A horrified Davies said: 'Oh God, you make it sound like West Side Story'; while Volans quotes his favourite cartoon as a warning against the perils of getting too heavy in your art. 'There's this woman who's composing a dance for spring and she lists to herself all the wonderful things she's going to express through it. Then you see her dancing it, and there are two little boys watching and one looks puzzled and asks 'What's she doing?' and the other says 'I think she's trying to lose weight.' '

At the QEH, 15-17 Oct (071-928 8800).

(Photograph omitted)