The latest dance by the British choreographer Siobhan Davies, entitled Bird Song, is shaped by its settings. It is performed in the round, the dancers surrounded by the audience and by David Ward's brilliant designs. Light scrolls across the stage, over the dancers, like a cloud shadow. Bright spots shiver on the floor, as if shaken by wind.
The central ideais the call of the Australian pied butcher bird. Andy Pink's score includes the bird's song, mixed with other fragments of sound - wind, music, scrambled electronic sound. The dance itself is the quietest element.
Davies's last piece, Plants and Ghosts, toured to non-theatrical spaces: an aircraft hangar, a former textile mill. She's back in theatres for Bird Song but still concerned with space; the dance is made for intimate performance. This London premiere, part of Dance Umbrella, used the Linbury at the Royal Opera House. The audience needs to be close: the piece isn't made to project far.
Early on, the dancers rush into a line, arms outstretched. They move as a group, but Davies doesn't give us the weight of collective movement, the sharp resolution of a corps floor-pattern. This is soft-edged, more loosely grouped. Davies is interested in small gestures, and details that stay small.
That modesty of scale can look meek. Still, there are strong, direct performances. A solo for Henry Montes, danced to the bird's call, is the centre of the piece. He folds his arms, circles his elbows, sending shakes up and down his body. This is almost eccentric dancing, emphasising his long silhouette. It gives Montes new force and presence. He takes the stage grandly; maybe Bird Song would reach the gallery.
The other big solo is for Deborah Saxon. Where Montes twitches, Saxon rolls - lifting and swinging her shoulders, letting the movement pull her off balance and back again.
There are other bold moments. Several dancers prowl across the stage on hands and knees, like cats. When Mariusz Raczynksi lifts a hand, he gives it a feline curve of the wrist.
Pink's score starts with layers of sound, working up to the simple bird call, then back into multiple sounds. The dance has a similar structure, returning to the opening material - that cat prowl. It gives Bird Song several false endings, and the last 15 minutes are the weakest.
Bird Song is at its best when Davies works most closely with her collaborators. Ward's patterns of colour and shadow keep changing, and change the dance. In one sequence, lines of light divide the dancers, cutting the stage in four. In one quarter, two dancers lie down, swinging their arms as if making snow angels. In another, a group wait, then start to dance. The snow angels start a duet, huddled together in their space. Even when the lit squares vanish, you're aware of dancers crossing lines no longer there.
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