Siobhan Davies, a dancer and choreographer originally trained in visual art, established Siobhan Davies Dance Company in 1988.
I first went into a dance studio in 1967. An empty space save for people moving in ways I could not recognize. I knew nothing about what I might learn there or what it would lead me to. I had been invited into this space by an art school friend. I was eighteen, and within a few months I had left art school and committed myself to dancing. Almost immediately I took a small part in the first performances of the newly formed London Contemporary Dance Theatre. The studio and the stage were the schools where I simultaneously learned to move and to perform. The teachers who taught me in class were often the performers I was dancing next to onstage that night. I was in a feedback loop between these two environments. What I learned during the day supported me at night. The exposure to an evening’s audience revealed flaws and possibilities to be examined the next day in the studio. Whenever I moved, regardless of whether I was preparing or performing, I had to try my hardest to fully embody the movement. This loop of learning continued even when I stopped performing. But when I did stop, I was shocked by the loss of information I felt when observing dance only from the auditorium. Where were the delicate shifts of energy or timing, or the heft of movement as it passes across a space? Where were the many human traits and responses to change, which I had seen close-up in the studio? I experienced the invisibility of the studio condition as a loss to the performed work.
Fast-forward nearly thirty years, and after choreographing and touring with my company, I was given the opportunity to commission a permanent home for my practice. In 2006 the architect Sarah Wigglesworth designed Siobhan Davies Studios in a converted school building. The body of the old school is still visible and now crowned with a dance studio.
Sarah and I worked hard on teasing out the relationship between the textures of building materials and those of the body, between dancers’ use of gravity and a suspended staircase, between dancers arching up and the undulations of our studio’s beautiful roof.
The uncluttered natural form of the studio creates a tranquil atmosphere, which supports creative making. Yet it can also be intimidating to those involved in the chaotic acts of making. We are used to images of artists’ studios filled with various materials and debris, scattered with sketches and abandoned projects. In our dance studio we—the dancers—are the mess and evidence of our creative process. Each day we enter the studio full of the experiences of action and thoughts written into our bodies.
In my most recent work, however, the studio had to change radically. In early 2013 I created the work Manual with the dancer Helka Kaski. Commissioned by the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art for its exhibition “The Everyday,” Manual was intended to expose the complexity and sophistication of everyday movement. We conceived a work in which the performer interacts directly with audience members. We devised a question that the performer would ask the visitors to the exhibition. “This work is called Manual; can you help me to complete the work?” If the visitor replied yes, the performer explained the process. She would, for instance, lie down on the floor and ask the visitor to give her verbal instructions to help her rise to a standing position. Many visitors asked for large movements, for example, “Can you please roll over?” The dancer replied that that was quite a complex movement and asked if they could break it down more specifically. Every movement instruction from then on was encouraged to be as detailed as the individual could articulate.
The process of creating Manual inevitably required the knowledge and help of potential audiences. We invited more than fifty people to our studio to test out our proposition. We still needed our studio in order to prepare the work, but only by opening it up to a constant stream of people coming in to test what we wanted to do. The studio became a new performing area; it ceased to be the space where the work was conceived before being “released” to an audience. The work was being created and performed simultaneously. The distinction between studio and stage, as well as that between rehearsal and performance, was erased.
Equally, the visitors to the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art played an active part in each manifestation of Manual. This was not choreography practiced and rehearsed in one location and transported to another; rather, sited within the gallery, the choreographic process acquired a studio-like condition of instruction and learning of movement.
This introduction of direct interaction with audience members liberates the studio and the stage from being spatially defined. The liveness of the studio condition, which I so missed when watching performances, the studio’s indeterminacy and its expectant promise, are now manifested as a one-to-one encounter between performer and audience. The studio has become a home for dynamic relationship systems.
Jonathan Cole, Pride and a Daily Marathon (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
Tania Kovats, The Drawing Book (London: Black Dog, 2005).
Clare Twomey, Is it madnesss. Is it beauty, 2010. Siobhan Davies Studios, London.
Marcus Coates, Vision Quest: A Ritual for Elephant & Castle, 2012.
Gill Clarke, series of “Movement and Meaning” talks presented by Independent Dance and Performing Arts Lab at Siobhan Davies Studios.