Siobhan Davies and the Metaphor of Choreography:
A Dialogue in Eight Movements.

By Francis Hodgson

All art forms have technical terms. Jargon provides clarity for insiders, at the same time as keeping outsiders at a distance. It would be easy to get off on the wrong foot with the texts assembled here by thinking of them as jargon. Emphatically, that is not what they are. But they take an unusual form: it is fair to ask what else they are.

I think the reason that Siobhan Davies hoped that I might be able to write about these dialogues has to do with the peculiar position of my own ‘home’ medium, photography. Photography has been (certainly throughout the latter part of the twentieth century) the dominant medium of communication. It has overshadowed even prose in the immediate transcultural vigour of its messaging, and it has spawned, in film and video and computer imaging, all the main communication media of today. Yet photography, so omnipresent, so central to our twenty-first century ways of thought, has suffered even in its prime from a catastrophic failure which I think of as a failure of trickle-down. For all the good academic thinking about photography, for all the expertise of its practitioners, photography has never managed to acquire ordinary currency in conversation. Among its consumers, even among professional users, discussion of photography is limited to the desperately basic. Yet I take it as axiomatic that photography is an ordinary cultural activity. One of the marks of those, one of the essentials whereby they stand or fall, is that cultural practices must be capable of analysis. If a performance or a representation or a building or a film can’t be tested against thought, it probably isn’t worth keeping. All the more so for an art form itself. I know, because I have been working against it all my adult life, that photography is alleged to be ‘intuitive’. Greatness will force itself upon us, we are assured, without standards of comparison or a sense of history or a developed vocabulary by which to welcome it. That’s a nonsense, of course. Theatre and novel writing flourish in a world where there is a mulch of theatre-culture or fiction-thinking to protect and encourage each new piece. Bad films are necessary for the proper appreciation of good films, and the regular conversations of ordinary cinema- goers on their way out of the movies are the most basic expression of successful trickle-down.

I think I recognise the syndrome in these conversations with Siobhan Davies. It looks like even the most basic technical terms of her trade are still open for interpretation. There’s comparatively little published analysis on dance (indeed, comparatively little dance is available at all in archive form), with the result that practitioners cannot be sure that what they take for granted is taken for granted by their audiences. In other words, the solid foundation of a shared culture may be missing or at least doubtful. Siobhan Davies is perhaps the most distinguished choreographer that we have. How extraordinary that even she should feel the very term which defines her activity to be still improperly parsed. If Siobhan Davies isn’t quite sure what choreography is or how far it reaches, what hope, she implies, for its healthy propagation? And conversely, how admirable that such a senior practitioner can look at such a basic term of the trade to seek to expand its currency.

The conversations assembled here are Socratic dialogues. Siobhan Davies might have written a block of text of her own, but prefers to work collaboratively. The individual participants have much to contribute. Readers will have their own favourites: a few of the interviewees seem unable or slow to play the game compared to a few others who dive in with curiosity on fire. But it is Davies who leads them her merry dance. Davies - the word can hardly be a surprise - choreographs the responses to her questions with her lovely combination of finesse and firmness. “I’d quite like to extend my meaning of choreography through other people’s practice”, she says at one point 1 and we can be certain that she does. If ever there was a failure of trickle down, it has been in choreography. These conversations are part of an ongoing attempt to counter that. I suppose that I situate them for my own mental mapping as a latest extra chapter in Johan Huizinga’s pioneering and still exciting Homo Ludens 2, the masterful argument that much of culture is driven originally by a games-playing impulse. The dialogues are an invitation to extend analysis in unexpected and stimulating directions.

Analysis works in different ways. Many artists make their work to illustrate an analysis which is already in their mind complete. Contemporary artists, in particular, in many fields are in the habit of making art self-consciously as a criticism of art which has gone before. Others respond more viscerally and analyse after the event. The conversations here present wonderfully varied responses to the need for analysis, but they are all rooted in the technical obligations of making work. From Molly Dineen talking so clearly about being tethered to a sound recordist, to Edmund de Waal making sense of his habit of making lists, the artists here start from precise description. The mechanics of their working practices become the jumping-off point for some more or less broad generalities about what working in such ways might come to mean. Nobody could read these discussions without being moved, but in every case, it is Davies herself who is probing for - encouraging - certain ideas to come forward.

In all the swirl of interesting thoughts that she invites her speakers to touch on through the dialogues, there are two very central ones which return.

The first is the notion of style and form. It is no great revelation to hear that artists need the certainties of forms shared with their audiences. Artists have enjoyed stretching forms for as long as there has been art. But formal constraints have been unfashionable of late, and it is revealing to hear so many participants here in unison on the role they play. I found myself reading these dialogues with a copy of the great musicologist Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style open at my elbow. “To a certain extent [the arts] create their own fields of research; their universe is the language they have shaped, whose nature and limits they explore, and in exploring, transform 3.” As Siobhan Davies puts it to Tim Crouch, “I sense in you an enormous desire for a well thought out structure giving liberation and I do think that you have made terrific open structures. So your commitment to freedom genuinely springs from the idea that the structure is going to give us freedom... 4 ” Remember the passionate lecture on Beethoven’s great last piano sonata (in C minor, op.111) given by Kretzschmar in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus? “Do you hear the conventions that are left in? Here - the language - is no longer - purified of the flourishes - but the flourishes - of the appearance - of their subjective - domination - the appearance - of art is thrown off - at last... 5 ”. I hear in these dialogues the same idea - that only by great respect for form can you hope to break form - reappearing at last.

A second, huge strand running through the dialogues deals with metaphor. Every one of the artists here seeks to communicate with their audiences. But they all use (and seek) different levels of precision. Some want to allow their audiences (as it were) to move themselves, with only a little midwifery from an author. Others strive to offer a relatively precise emotional menu for the delectation of their consumers. They operate, collectively, a kind of sliding scale of metaphor. For a poet, it is relatively straightforward. Poetry is known to deal in metaphor, and poets hardly need to alert us to their use of it. For a documentary film maker, it is not so straightforward. How to mix secondary and tertiary meanings in a medium supposedly tied to fact? It is not just that Siobhan Davies is making an enquiry into metaphor - the very nature of Davies’ method here is metaphorical. She is not expecting her interlocutors to tell her in practice that they move in a choreographed way. It’s a bonus when some of them do. But she is advancing choreography itself as a possible metaphorical language in which to treat some of the tensions that they each routinely have to negotiate in their work. It’s boldly original thinking, and much of the excitement of the dialogues comes from it. You can see the light bulbs come on above the heads of some of the participants, and so they did for this reader, at least.

As a single example among many, Davies repeatedly tells us of her own search for the original single-cell of movements that she wishes to work with. That in itself is metaphorical, of course. It reminds me (perhaps rather too literally) of the work of the late Helen Chadwick, who in her explorations of sickness tried to blend plain factual scientific thought with more obviously allusive elements 6. We could all see that Chadwick’s single-cells were often more poetical and her big broad sweeps often more factual than their pictorial origins indicated. So with Siobhan Davies: the technical habit of looking for the most elemental version is both a paring down and an invitation to spring up.

And so it is with this entire exercise. There are rough patches in the dialogues, and no doubt many others were edited out. But they should be left rough: it is by the marks of conversation that we know that we are privileged to hear thinking actually taking place. It’s immensely valuable. There’s an admirable seriousness of commitment rooted in the respect of the interviewer for her interviewees and theirs in turn for their art forms. There are rich nuggets here for searchers to pick over for many years to come, whatever their own discipline. And there’s a little foot-note: for anybody who cares about culture, it’s really quite fun to find dialogues where so many sparks fly in quite so many directions. Huizinga would have noticed that.

Explore the conversations ›

  1. Katie Mitchell dialogue, 12.21
  2. Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga, (originally 1938) English transl. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1949
  3. Rosen, Charles, The Classical Style, Faber, 1971, revised 1977, p. 445.
  4. Tim Crouch dialogue at 17.35
  5. Mann, Thomas, Doctor Faustus (translation H.T. Lowe-Porter), Everyman’s Library (Alfred A. Knopf), New York 1992, p. 52.
  6. Chadwick, Helen, Ego Geometria Sum and Viral Landscapes, both published in Enfleshings, with an essay by Marina Warner, Secker and Warburg, London 1989