HOW WE MET

SIOBHAN DAVIES AND RICHARD ALSTON
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The Independent Culture
Siobhan Davies MBE, 47, is Britain's first lady of contemporary dance. For 15 years she was a leading dancer and choreographer for London Contemporary Dance and since 1992 has directed her own company, gaining two Olivier awards. Like Davies, Richard Alston, 48, was also one of the original students at the LCD School, choreographing his first piece there in 1968. He went on to create no less than 25 works for Ballet Rambert, where he spent six years as artistic director. He now heads both his own company and the Contemporary Dance Trust

SIOBHAN DAVIES: The first image I have of Richard is from 1967, of him sitting in a studio in Berners Place. This was the origin of the London School of Contemporary Dance, and the first class in Britain to teach the new form; it attracted all sorts of people, including some like me who'd never danced before, and they all had a different way of warming up. You'd get actors doing their heavy breathing, classical dancers limbering up at the barre, others doing yoga - and then there was this young man reading a book in the middle of the floor, determined not to show off. That made me instantly curious.

It turned out we were both signed up full-time at art school, but I was more drawn to him by the fact that he had wonderful legs - which were quite often clad in very beautiful aquamarine tights. Dancewear was hard to get hold of in those days. You had to go to Mrs Freed in Cecil Court, who was accustomed to ballerinas, not these great, gangly men and women coming in for their first tights and leotards. It was very intimidating; Richard and I used to go there together to give each other courage.

The thing that really brought us together was the end of the class, when each of us had to perform a sequence of all the things we'd learnt that morning. Somehow or other Richard and I were always last in line, and because we were both tall and limby and enjoying ourselves we would thrash across the floor with enormous enthusiasm and probably very little technique. Our teachers often laughed at us, but they believed in us none the less. We two seemed to be singled out as students who would go somewhere.

We became very fond of each other. At 18 I wasn't terribly sexually aware, so the fact that Richard was gay didn't register with me then. Having a friendship seemed far more important. Once we went to the South of France together, to see Merce Cunningham's company perform. We stayed for a week, on very little money, and shared a room in a pension to economise. Madame, of course, thought we were newly married, and very sweetly kept slipping us little extras at supper. It was about then that we discovered a shared capacity for food. Both of us could eat a great deal - only I could eat faster than Richard, which really shocked him.

We were both very struck by seeing Cunningham's dances. The originality and beauty of the movement was like seeing a great shaft of light; so even though the piece provoked much disapproval from the audience - there was a lot of booing - Richard and I would stand up and cheer. It was all very rousing.

After that our careers wove in and out of each other. By the mid-Eighties Richard was artistic director of Rambert, but for me things had somehow dropped away. I'd had two babies and closed down my dance company; and then my husband David fell seriously ill. He nearly didn't make it. That was when Richard showed his support in a most generous and gentle way. There I was at home with a sick husband and no work, when Richard rang me up and suggested perhaps I should come in and use Rambert's dancers and studio. He was so tactful about it. "You may not come up with anything," he said. "But just come in and see what happens." We both know the incredible life that exists in a studio between yourself and the dancers in the making of a dance. It was that spark, that energy, that got me going again. But that's Richard: one of the kindest, most generous human beings I know.

RICHARD ALSTON: I couldn't help noticing Sue (she's Sue to all her friends) because at our dance class she was the one who took the register and rushed out to get lunch for everybody afterwards. She wasn't a goody-goody, just enthusiastic. As I remember it, our first conversation was about the fact that I was going to drop out of art college to study contemporary dance full-time, and Sue had just started at a college and was only going to take dance class in the mornings.

We really became chums when she was singled out to perform in the first ever season of the London Contemporary Dance Company. I was helping backstage, so we would sit together in the wings and gaze at all these great Martha Graham stars who we were then besotted with. A year later Viola Farber from the Merce Cunningham company came to teach us; she swears that everyone else at the school wanted to stick with Graham movement, but Sue and I were two beacons of support for Cunningham's radical techniques.

In the summer of 1969 we made a sort of pilgrimage together to see the Cunningham company in the South of France. It was thrilling. The theatre was a huge inflatable outdoor bubble, in which these giant silver helium pillows would waft into the audience as part of the show. It was very avant-garde, and all these elegant French women who'd just had their hair done in Cannes were very put out by having great balloons bumping into them. Typical students, we'd arrived without money or anywhere to stay, and the hotels were all Riviera versions of the Ritz. After hours of tramping around we were eventually taken in at a village post office, which also happened to serve food. It turned out that Madame's husband was an ace chef, and that night, as we were having our pension meal, Merce Cunningham and John Cage turned up there to eat. I was dumbstruck, but Sue, who was always much bolder than I was, went over to say what fans we were and please could we see some rehearsals.

Meals have always been a big feature of my friendship with Sue. We both love food. Not only is she the only person I know who eats faster than me, but she also has the disarming habit of pecking politely but quite forcefully at your food as well, even sometimes pinching bits from other tables. But unlike me she never puts on an ounce of fat.

When we started out, dance was all so new, there was masses of opportunity. As early as 1970 I had made a piece for Sue and four other students which was almost immediately taken into the company repertoire. You could learn very quickly, and Sue was always there, enthusing and suggesting new ideas for my pieces, which really encouraged me. Then she went off on tour with LCDC as a dancer and I started my own company, Strider, so our paths diverged for a few years. But by the time I was directing Rambert in the Eighties she had changed tack and I was able to bring her in as associate choreographer.

She has helped me through good times and bad. When the Rambert board sacked me I was shocked and numb, but she was absolutely livid. I remember her going round the building slamming doors and shouting: "How dare they!" I'm sure I had that anger in me, but it was her who voiced it at the time. Then, quite unbeknown to me, she got together this amazing letter to The Independent - signed by about 24 composers, artists and choreographers from all over the world who'd worked for Rambert since I'd been there. It was quite a list: Merce Cunningham, Howard Hodgkin, Harrison Birtwistle ... at a very low point it gave me back some pride. And it meant so much to me that Sue had organised this letter - it was a huge gesture of support.

As friends and sometime-colleagues I'm keen that she comes to see my work and I make sure I see hers. But neither of us expects the other to make a verdict. That would put too great an onus on the friendship. As artists we share exactly the same insecurities, though I don't get into quite such a state as she does. Every time you ask how a new piece is coming along she'll say: "This one's just frightful, it's gone all wrong." But I now realise that the more upset and worried she is, the greater the chance it'll be her finest piece yet.

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