Smooth amalgam of opposites

Siobhan Davies | Oxford Playhouse
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The Independent Culture

Siobhan Davies is a difficult choreographer to write about. Not because of any doubt about her quality. I came out of her new work, Of Oil and Water, knowing that I had as usual experienced a really good time watching it. The difficulty is simply to explain exactly what is so attractive about it, and that is caused by Davies's prodigality of invention.

Siobhan Davies is a difficult choreographer to write about. Not because of any doubt about her quality. I came out of her new work, Of Oil and Water, knowing that I had as usual experienced a really good time watching it. The difficulty is simply to explain exactly what is so attractive about it, and that is caused by Davies's prodigality of invention.

The surface level offers what we would be grateful enough for with most choreographers: beautiful dancing, handsome groupings, a marvellous care for relations with the music. But with Davies there is so much more: depth upon depth, subtleties abounding. Always I feel that I need to see it over again before believing that I have really begun to get to grips with it. Luckily, the first impression is good enough to make that a welcome prospect.

The curtain goes up on a line of dancers lying side by side at the front of a mainly dark stage. One by one they rise and go towards the back. They remain separate members of a group, neither a small-scale corps de ballet nor conventional ducts. Here is Davies's fundamental concept at work, of layers that (like oil and water) may come together but will not merge. It is made explicit early on when Deborah Saxon and Henry Montes have found themselves on the opposite side of the stage from the other dancers. He walks towards her, but at the moment when you expect them to touch, she turns away, separating although not distancing herself.

Certain patterns begin to emerge in the dancing, for instance sequences started by one dancer alone, who is joined by another and again another until you have a whole line performing related movements.

There is a low platform at the back which incorporates a moving section so that dancers on it may travel without any physical locomotion, or walk yet remain on the spot. (Coincidentally, Heinz Spoerli's Mozart ballet recently at Sadler's Wells had a similar device but different in effect.)

There is a wide range of dance styles, from acrobatic entries for Matthew Morris to cool sexy solos for Sarah Warsop. But Davies's liking for drawing personal qualities from every performer makes them all distinctive. She also imposes overall moods, for instance a loose, relaxed jazzy manner (surprising from her) in response to some sections of Orlando Gough's score, whereas similar music later finds her much more formally reserved, using the long straight arms that are a motif throughout.

Gough says he has adopted Davies's practice of letting the performers contribute to the composing process, with Melanie Pappenheim's vocal improvisations and Rob Townsend's saxophone playing. Words in various languages are incorporated; you do not need to understand them any more than, I guess, you are meant to concentrate too much on the shifting photographic images (as disparate as buildings or birds) that are part of David Buckland's setting - red floor, black background. With Antony McDonald's varied dark costumes and Peter Mumford's atmospheric lighting, Davies has a wholly familiar team all working well. The Oxford premiere last weekend starts a two-month tour. Try not to miss it.

6, 7 Oct Cheltenham; 10-12 Oct Brighton; 18-21 Oct London; 9, 10 Nov Salford; 17, 18 Nov Leicester; 24, 25 Nov Snape Maltings. Information: 020-7250 3030

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