Siobhan Davies Dance Company, Upper Heyford, Oxford

Nadine Meisner
Saturday 11 January 2014 03:06
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Two thirds into Siobhan Davies' new piece, Plants and Ghosts, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, so forceful was the impact of Deborah Saxon's solo, set to an eight-minute text by Caryl Churchill. "She bit her lip..." the voice starts, and from there it builds a verbal choreography of reiterated, enlarged and accreted phrases that gradually reveal Churchill's complete scenario – from the detail of a bitten lip to the bigger picture of a disintegrating romance. In the same way, Saxon constructs her sequence out of multiplied gestures (Davies returning, after several years, to Sign Language). She repeats this first in one direction, then another, so that each half of the audience, seated opposite across a central stage, can see.

Also like Churchill's text, the rationale behind Davies' piece only progressively emerges from the accumulation of patterns and effects. Plants and Ghosts is quintessential Davies in its subtle structures, its lens expanding and contracting, zooming in on individuals, then drawing back to take in couples or groups. Against this pulsating canvas, themes emerge. The dancers spilling out in a single weaving line to crouch intently on the stage's edge might be on a beach, staring at lacy white surf against shingle, because at this point, Max Eastley's "sound sculpture" fills the space with the noise of waves. Equally, the dancers seem rooted in their physicality – or "planted", in accordance with the title.

That sense of rootedness is confirmed by Henry Montes' solo, in which from a low position he pulls and strains as if trying to lift himself free. But then the dancers are not only planted, they grow like plants. Their costumes (fetchingly designed by Genevieve Bennett and Sasha Keir) blossom with extra details. Their bodies develop new appendages – lengths of wire that are manipulated into extraneous curves, stilts that elongate their legs, poles that add extra lines to the geometric composition. These fresh possibilities have, of course, emanated from the choreographer's mind – an enterprising, imaginative spirit that can soar beyond physical limitations and is the ghost of the title.

Moreover, when Catherine James and Laurent Cavanna pick their way delicately on stilts, they themselves seem to have become ghosts, products of pure imagination, their unblinking, impervious stare focused upwards. And when Sarah Warsop returns equipped with both poles and stilts, she is perhaps the ultimate ghost, a contrast to the nearby, earth-bound presence of Henry Montes.

So, here is a piece about human duality: an ambitious subject, perhaps too ambitious, because the complexities of Davies' choreographic vision rather obscure the issue. As always, though, Davies' eight experienced and individual dancers are consummate, collaborative interpreters. The aircraft hangar in Heyford Park – launching a tour using non-theatre spaces – proved an atmospheric setting that offered an intimate rapport with the stage, while allowing enough perspective. True, the stage's catwalk proportions meant you couldn't always see everything, but that happens at the Royal Opera House, at £73 a throw.

At the Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1, 10-18 Oct, then touring to 16 November (0870 730 0223)

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