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Playing to the gallery

Dance and visual art are blended in new ways by a leading choreographer

In 1967, a young art student called Siobhan Davies went along to some classes in contemporary dance. At the time, modern dance had just begun to take root in the country, seeded largely by American influences – both established choreographers such as Martha Graham and newer experimental trends such as the interdisciplinary Judson Dance Theatre. In Britain, with no established modern dance scene to speak of, this meant that the “mainstream” and “fringe” started out together, and often comprised the same people.

So it was with Davies, who still remembers the creative buzz of the time. She quickly became an acclaimed dancer and choreographer, working in both the growing mainstream and the smaller-scale independent sector. She founded her own company in 1988 and continues to be a pre-eminent choreographer in British contemporary dance, a scene that is far bigger, more plural and more professionalised than it was four decades ago.

Recently, she seems to have been undergoing one of her periodic phases of self-questioning. Since 2002 she has moved her work off the regular theatre circuit, and last year she hosted a series of talks by visual artists, looking at the crossovers between dance and visual art. Those talks left me baffled – do all visual artists speak as if they were in a postgraduate seminar? – but I did get the sense that Davies was hankering for some of that creative spark of her early years, and to match it to her accumulated experience.

Thankfully, talk was followed by action. This year’s project, “The Collection”, hosted jointly at the Siobhan Davies Studios and the Victoria Miro Gallery, is an exhibition themed on the connections (sometimes tenuous) between dance and visual arts. At Davies’s studios, Conrad Shawcross’s line drawings – a kind of arrested motion, like traces left by sound waves – are a preliminary to his Slow Arc Inside a Cube III, a moving bulb inside a wire cage that casts a shifting mesh of light across the room. It is momentarily striking, but ultimately less engaging than the marvellous building itself (by the architect Sarah Wigglesworth).

It might have worked better in the context of the larger part of “The Collection”, at the Victoria Miro Gallery (another fine building). The most sensual pieces here are both by Yayoi Kusama. In the surreally enchanting Narcissus Garden, a mass of metallic spheres floats on the canal, tinkling as they herd or drift according to currents of water or wind. Gleaming Lights of the Souls is a Tardis-like cubicle inside which coloured light bulbs are reflected to infinity by mirrors and water, so that you feel suspended in some inner cosmos.

Upstairs, the dancer Sarah Warsop features in Lying in Wait, a video collaboration with Idris Khan. On a triptych of screens, Warsop appears as a stern, monochrome figure in a library, her image flickering like riffled pages. Downstairs, Alex Hartley’s Come Into My Sleep splices sequences from classic films, showing the body in vertiginous or claustrophobic extremes: men (mostly) scaling the sides of buildings, crawling through tunnels, diving down shafts. It is wildly gripping, like an endless series of cliffhangers. Sarah Sze’s Notes on Circumstance – an artful little composition of clutter, like a messy desk that’s been rearranged by elves while you were out – is engrossing in a way that Roman Signer’s banal Table With Ventilator (the title says it all) really is not.

The centrepiece, for dance-goers and gallery spectators alike, is Davies’s Minutes, which juxtaposes three living “exhibits” in the upper gallery over an hourly cycle, with Davies herself seated like a gallery attendant, counting off the minutes. Deborah Saxon and Henry Montes form one unit, a couple involved in little games of lead and follow, mirror and interrupt, lean and tug. Catherine Bennett and Matteo Fargion are another unit, singing a series of word scrabbles – phrases such as “She’s dancing”, “Is this working?” and “Oh no, fuck, no” chopped into units and recombined into fiendish rhythms, to which the couple also move. Finally there is Matthias Sperling, an unsettled, solitary figure accompanied only by his metronome, who breathes and sighs, hands occasionally flicking or fingers snapping as if batting away flies. I saw these as three choreographic registers – one communicative/behavioural, one formal/compositional, one interior or reflexive. It’s much more theatrical than most visual art, but also more object-like than most choreography. It certainly takes Davies away from the main currents of British contemporary dance into fresh territory; time will tell whether this new step will open a new path for her – but if she wanted to shift the ground beneath her feet, this does it.

The Collection
Siobhan Davies Studios,
London SE1, and Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009