Different moves, same old news - no one tops the subtle Siobhan

Siobhan Davies Dance Co | Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture

Like autumn rains and leaves on the line, the annual arrival of a new work by Siobhan Davies has become a predictable season marker. There will be a poster with a blurry, atmospheric photo on it. There'll be a title that gives nothing away. There'll be the high-class collaborators - Peter Mumford the lighting wizard, artist David Buckland on design, and some up-and-coming composer whose score you instantly want to buy on CD. You will see the show, thinking: she's blown it this time, it's just too difficult/ esoteric/ obscure. You'll mull it over, sleep on it, then wake convinced that Siobhan Davies is the subtlest, most original, most rewarding creative dance talent we have.

Like autumn rains and leaves on the line, the annual arrival of a new work by Siobhan Davies has become a predictable season marker. There will be a poster with a blurry, atmospheric photo on it. There'll be a title that gives nothing away. There'll be the high-class collaborators - Peter Mumford the lighting wizard, artist David Buckland on design, and some up-and-coming composer whose score you instantly want to buy on CD. You will see the show, thinking: she's blown it this time, it's just too difficult/ esoteric/ obscure. You'll mull it over, sleep on it, then wake convinced that Siobhan Davies is the subtlest, most original, most rewarding creative dance talent we have.

Of oil and water is the latest to follow this pattern, though the company is to take a sabbatical after the current tour. The piece opens on a stage so dimly lit you almost doubt it has started. It ends in near darkness with a couple simply standing side by side. What happens during the 60 minutes in between is mysterious, full of arcane and impenetrable detail, and frankly undramatic. Yet the mass of darkly fleeting impressions builds to create a deeply affecting whole. You feel you have travelled somewhere, learned something, and are the richer for it.

Orlando Gough's pre-recorded score seems to be the motivating force. Rhythmic riffs and single shards of sound are strung together to make a surging counterpoint: the slow, cracked speaking voice of an ancient Transvaal woman, the urgent gabble of a young Hispanic, an angelic, folksy soprano, chugging keyboards and a burbling, edgy sax. Meanwhile Davies' eight dancers, in various combinations of solos and ensembles, articulate their bodies into unending flickering forms, coloured by the music's conflicting suggestions of youth, age, energy and exhaustion, wild empty space and city pressure.

Deborah Saxon - a tall, angular, yet strangely impassive presence on stage - repeatedly swings out a hip, defines her side profile with one swift, complicated motion of one hand, and squiggles her torso in its wake. As a motif in itself it's meaningless, yet Davies works her material in such a way that this calligraphic phrase becomes part of a larger picture, insinuating ideas about selfhood and dealings with the world. Synchronised groups alternate in either fidgety or wide-flung routines, but there is always one individual doing something different. Like oil and water, these are elements that mingle but do not mix.

As so often in Davies' work, you could watch five times and see something different at each sitting, which is not to say that the eye is distracted, but that the tapestry is rich in detail: David Buckton's back wall projection, a faintly luminous gash in the dark, like a spy hole, shows vague monochrome views of objects and buildings; Peter Mumford's livid lighting scheme bisects the floor into bands of magenta and orange, or the wall into striped shadows. A narrow moving walkway conveys single dancers casually in and out of the action - but it's possible to miss this sophistication, so much else is going on.

The serene hub of the work, for me, is the duetting of Saxon and Henry Montes, the only dancers in the company who get to touch. Yet when one lounges against the other, there is a shiver of resistance, as if skin were a repellent membrane. Tenderness is constantly compromised by an apparent need to break free. The final image is of each slowly extending and retracting their arms in turn so as to obliterate the other. Not a hopeful image of a modern couple, perhaps, but very honest.

Siobhan Davies Dance Company: Lowry Centre, Salford (0161 876 2000), 9 & 10 November; Haymarket, Leicester (0116 253 9797), 17 & 18 November; Maltings, Snape (01728 687110), 24 & 25 November

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