Siobhan Davies + Lavinia Greenlaw

“I think of writing a poem as a form of orchestration and that what I'm orchestrating is gesture. Gesture is an aspect of language that we don't take much notice of day to day, but which is far more potent and persuasive, and also destructive, than the simple ordering of words.” Lavinia Greenlaw, Poet / Novelist
  • SD _ Do you recognise choreographic practice in your work?
  • LG _ Yes
  • SD _ Can you say where you think you use it or how you think you use it?
  • LG _ I think of writing a poem as a form of orchestration and that what I’m orchestrating is gesture. Gesture is an aspect of language that we don’t take much notice of day to day, but which is far more potent and persuasive, and also destructive, than the simple ordering of words.
  • SD _ Can you unpick it a little bit more because that was quite dense.
  • LG _ I know. I could write you twenty pages about it, that’s the trouble, It’s so fundamental. Okay, I’ll start with the idea of orchestration: I think that a poem is a form of broken down language and I think of choreography as movement which has been broken down and put together, but it’s broken down first.
  • SD _ Can you tell me more about the words ‘broken down’?
  • LG _ I’m trying to avoid things that have negative constructions on them like taken apart, or broken down, but that’s what I mean.
  • SD _ Out of context?
  • LG _ No, that it’s been opened and its parts have been looked at, and the way the parts work with and against each other has been considered. I prefer to talk in terms of language. What I am doing with language in a poem is stopping and looking at what words do as much as at what they mean, and what they do to each other, and how the contrivance and disturbance of the “natural” ways of using them sensitizes us to their capabilities.
  • SD _ …and in the disturbance reveal something more accurate?
  • LG _ Yes, absolutely. So it is about the unsettling of expectation and also the heightening of aspects that we don’t normally notice. That’s why I come back to the word gesture, because physical gesture tends to suggest something which is reflexive, which is unnoticed, which is insignificant and yet of course it isn’t, and verbal gesture the same. Most of the time we’re not thinking about how something is being said but simply what is being said to us when of course how it’s being said is absolutely part of the meaning we’re receiving.
  • SD _ Dance that has a core vocabulary, for instance classical ballet, is at its most simple seed-like origins based on five positions. Those abstract, formal positions, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th start with the feet on the floor and the arms coordinated. As the back becomes more engaged, these simple moves extend the legs and arms into the space, the limbs directed towards a finished position, but needing various qualities to give resonance to the ‘how’ as well as the ‘where to’ of the movement. Dance actions don’t mean anything unless they stem from gestures, for instance running the hand through the hair, or from everyday movements that have a common usage: walking, sitting, embracing. What happens when dancers move into territory that is not so common and therefore less recognisable? Something is lost by the viewer not having that easy recognition, but something is also gained: the possibility of exploring how each of us exists bodily, the integration of thought, feeling, memory and anticipation. For instance, what can a movement of the vertebrae convey?
  • LG _ I completely recognise that. Two things came to mind when you were talking about the five positions of ballet, which I remember learning. I remember the difficulty of standing still. I think of ballet as first learning to be still and then learning to move. In a sense, learning to write is like that because you have to understand first what language is as it is before you place yourself in tension with it.
  • LG _ What came to mind as you were describing the quality of gesture you might make out of a position was a phrase of T S Eliot’s, ‘a withdrawal from form’, which I think is very much how I write. I don’t believe that poetry can be without form. People talk about poetry that doesn’t have an obvious rhyme scheme as being free, and you can just break it where it sounds good and where it looks good. It’s like somebody picking up an instrument who hasn’t learnt the rules and therefore doesn’t know how to break them. I think you have to have a profound engagement with construction, whether it be of movement or language.
  • LG _ When I’m using words I can’t escape their meaning but I can place myself in tension with meaning. I also recognise the runaway parts of language just as there are runaway parts of movement.
  • SD _ The reason that I say that actions in themselves may not mean anything is to support the audience to have and use more associative ideas. They are not missing the point if each action is not clear in its meaning. When I read a book my own history is part of how I understand it. When someone watches movement their own sensual experiences or imagination, however subliminal, have an impact on how they see and feel.
  • LG _ Can I ask you then if you recognise this: when I read or write a poem, what I’m looking for is not meaning so much meaning as resonance and the resonance is at the level of sensation. I don’t expect somebody reading a poem of mine to have the same surface experience. What I’m trying to do is use my surface experience to set off something almost like an oscillation in them.
  • SD _ A reverberation.
  • LG _ A reverberation, that’s the word yes, of a fundamental experience. Their experiences of say love, loss, sadness, happiness, will have their own coordinates.
  • LG _ So they can bring all their own associations with it as you said, all their own meaning. But what you are in control of is the fundamental sensation you’re evoking in them.
  • SD _ For me, the crux of some of that has been in finding a quite formal approach which if it works well drives the emotion into a distilled form. The structure of the work forces the distillation which I hope then has a clarity that the audience can get hold of even though we’re just moving and sometimes people turn round and say ‘I don’t understand movement’. So the form pushes or expels the sometimes tiny but accurate emotion or sensation.
  • LG _ It’s the essence of emotion.
  • SD _ Yes.
  • LG _ and that’s what I’m saying in a different way. What I’m calling fundamental is the essence, the essential emotion. I’m very interested that you say that it’s the formal approach which produces or releases that essence because I believe that too, that it’s the rigour that I bring to a poem that releases this essence. The poem has to be very carefully constructed in order for that to occur, otherwise it remains at the level of autobiography.
  • SD _ We all use that knowledge of learning through movement. We are informed by childhood falling, social dancing, doing the sweeping or prancing about in private. However, what happens when the movement made for performance interferes with our understanding of our own movement vocabulary? Can the audience recognise movement that has been more objectively made? How can I devise movement that extends beyond the normal use of the body, beyond the pedestrian, but does not tip into the athletic or the enchanted. I try to use forms and patterns that keep the movement material in the mind’s eye, allowing time for the audience to recognise rather than rebuff, so that they have a chance to search for a feeling in the work that matches their own deeply embedded physical history, which may not include formalised movement.
  • LG _ We all learn to sit still and not to run around and how to contain our gestures as we learn how to contain our feelings and how to contain our language. I feel my own memory of growing up and being taught how to contain myself…
  • SD _ which you describe in your book, The Importance of Music to Girls.
  • LG _ Yes, and you learn in good and bad ways. You learn by developing the skills of gesture, as it were formal dance, but you also learn through accidents which I feel I did a lot – I’m surprised I’m still here – and you learn by being told about risk and danger and damage.
  • SD _ This is all particularly fascinating to me at the moment because I’m involved in a primary school project with eight year old children. We don’t teach them steps, instead we ask them to invent movement around certain subjects. Many of the teachers come to us and talk about how those children have no movement experience because the parents are worried about their safety. Playing with danger in the playground is not allowed. Movement is not part of their encouraged experience, so during our lessons we introduce movement as an experiment. Our generation was always told to sit still to learn, but some children need to move in order to absorb information.
  • LG _ I think that whatever you find difficult is what you learn from most and that I’m obsessed with language because I find it so difficult. I find it has so many runaway qualities, it feels like such a potent and uncontrollable force and also, conversely one which is weighed down by meaning. In that case, it’s as if language has been told to sit still and I’m trying to get it to move.
  • SD _ Both of us, probably for the same reasons, enjoy that the formality gives us release.
  • LG _ Yes, absolutely. I am most open when I’m working in containment.
  • SD _ Yes, the dancers I work with and I use a device to edit out preparations from movement to find out how much of a movement was necessary, to contain that movement within a structure.
  • LG _ Can you give me an example?
  • SD _ We made a piece in which each dancer developed a family of single moves (In Plain Clothes 2006). The families were based on ideas like measuring a breath or a single known action such as catching a ball. Let me take as an example the family of breath: nine different moves based on the inhalation or exhalation of breath. Matteo Fargion, the composer we were working with then gave us a written musical score of very simple Italian folk tunes which had eight or nine notes. Each move was allocated a specific note. The quality, timing and clustering of the notes would affect the move, but because the dancers had not seen the score in advance they did not know the order that their moves would follow. Their natural inclination would not have chosen the order they were given. To begin with this limitation was crunchingly irritating and over a period of time fabulously releasing.
  • SD _ Through repetition they reconnected…
  • LG _ …and found it released what?
  • SD _ Well the work revolving around breath began when a heart surgeon called Francis Wells came in to watch rehearsals and spoke to the dancers about the function of the heart and lungs. We spoke about the movement and effect of those organs, both physical and emotional. By the time the dancers had made their nine moves into a phrase using the score, they had the formal musical structure alongside the anatomical comprehension. Resonances from our conversations with Francis took us beyond our first understanding of breath and into more focussed territory. I mentioned earlier that we broke down one natural action into nine separate moves, for instance the catching of a ball. We numbered a progressive sequence and then reordered it according to the score. An observer can understand that it is still a ball catch, but the strangely edited disconnected timing interferes with the relaxed recognition of a known action: the ball catch is discomforted.
  • LG _ So it’s a rearrangement in order to see the parts?
  • SD _ A rearrangement exactly - as you said right at the beginning. An exposing of the movement, an unpicking of the movement, the components reordered to ask us to observe more closely what is in front of us.
  • LG _ That’s what I would say I was doing with a poem. I don’t think I’m showing anybody anything they haven’t seen before but I am hoping to get them to see it as if they haven’t seen it before in order to consider it more deeply.
  • SD _ At the moment I am wrapped up in the process of observing. Time spent looking helps me rearrange my thinking.
  • LG _ It’s also becoming conscious of how our perceptions are conditioned by the technology of our age. We’re often looking through a lens of some sort at the images we receive, and the quality of our concentration and the ways in which we invest an image, are completely different to those of somebody from before the age of mass reproduction.
  • LG _ We look into deep space and we say ‘that nebula looks like a crab or it looks like a spider’ because we can only describe through the familiar, which brings me back to the tension at the heart of movement both verbal and physical, which is between what we assume and what we expect, and what we are trying to articulate in terms of the new and the unknown or the unobserved.
  • SD _ I enjoy trying to trip myself up into the new – new, what’s new – but trip myself up into something in which I feel foreign and I enjoy that foreignness. But how do I bring other people with me to enjoy that different set of thought processes? I don’t necessarily understand where I am at one given moment but I’m enjoying that state of place.
  • LG _ If they sense the relation between what they’re seeing and what they expect to see, they find it easier to come with you, I think. In a poem I will try to create some sense of the familiar in terms of how I am rejecting it so that the starting point has a consciousness of the familiar and so that the reader can enter the poem.
  • SD _ Would it be possible to give an example of that?
  • LG _ Listen In this poem called Hush [from Minsk] I was playing with the idea of lulling and lullaby and disturbance. I wrote it in very simple language using very simple imagery and it suggests an illustration in a children’s picture book. I’m talking about something very complicated, which is why we write and the kind of disturbance we’ve been talking about, but I didn’t want to offer it in a complicated way because I think it is such a simple thing. The sensation I have when I know I’m going to write a poem is physical not intellectual and I’m trying to capture it as disturbance. So I wrote something which musically is lulling and verbally is simple but in terms of meaning is really quite – I don’t know why this word comes to mind – dangerous. It is a dangerous thing, because it’s compelling, so Hush:


    Where the fire of the making of a world
    burns itself out, ash banks and rises.

    Trees lay down their green.
    Roofs lay down their houses.

    A boy with a reed for a backbone
    shakes in his bed.

    It is to him that the mountain has spoken.
    He must write in ash what the mountain said.
  • LG _ I’m also using rhyme to try to suggest that things add up and it’s when things make this peculiar sense, these connections, and you’re not sure of cause and effect and subject and object, that a poem occurs - for me anyway.
  • SD _ What we are making isn’t always immediately recognisable to us.
  • LG _ I often have part of a poem and it can take years to find the other part, but it meets something and then completes itself. I’ll have a part and I’ll think ‘Why isn’t this leaving me alone, oh it’s just a cute observation, it’s just a nice little anecdote, it’s just a frisson, a curiosity...’ and then one day it will connect with something else and I will find out what the poem is. Or I will write some great big long bad poem and a little poem will slip out the side. That happened in a poem I thought of when you asked me to consider choreography. It’s about memory and gesture, and is something which slipped very quickly out of the side of an ungainly piece of writing. It’s called What makes for the fullness and perfection of life and it’s about the mixture of tension and connection, out of which I think movement, choreography, poetry are made:

    What makes for the fullness and perfection of life

    It only came back when I stopped to consider
    the small ways in which a garden holds water
    and paused half way through the door in suspense
    like the dream which, early that morning,
    had flicked its magnificent tail then was gone.
  • SD _ Can we talk about how something physical within you needs to be brought into the real, onto the page? How do you shape the feeling?
  • LG _ For me a poem starts as a sensation and it’s a sensation of acuity and capacity and connection, but I could not tell you what I’m getting at. It’s almost like having a piece of matter which is all crumpled up and in that fragment will be the first few words, which might not be the first line of the poem and they might not even survive the making of the poem, but that first phrase or image I have will carry in it the music of the piece, the meaning of the piece. At first I have to work instinctively: I write to find out what I’m writing about. I don’t know if you move to find out why you’re moving?
  • SD _ I used to. I now transpose myself into the dancers who do the moving and I do the observing.
  • LG _ I can’t just sit down and tell you what I’m doing, but there does come a time when I have to start thinking about what I’m doing and I have to formulate it and then I have to bring all the intellectual tools to bear in order to create the form which will contain and release the essence - as we were saying.
  • LG _ So the process seems to move outwards from a state of receptivity - almost passivity - in which I have to trust and encourage an openness in myself towards what is drawing me. Then I move in and take over and I have to become acutely aware of what it is I’m making and how I’m making it, oddly enough in order to protect the essence. Some people think ‘Oh god if you get all analytical about a poem you’re going to destroy its seed’, but I don’t think that’s what happens, or what should happen. What I’m always striving towards is being able, through thought and technique, to create the lightest possible vessel for this thing.
  • LG _ But you talked about clarifying and that’s very important too. I’m trying to create transparency as well.
  • SD _ That’s a good word, ‘transparency’. I always thought I had to increase my vocabulary. I thought that certain combinations of moves would give me more ways of being descriptive, of finding accuracy. But sometimes I had so many actions that an eye couldn’t see them. They become a list of actions, something an observer couldn’t capture, hold and have tenderness with, so how to find an accurate amount of material without accruing too much. One movement wipes the other movement out if I’m not careful and it seems to me poetry has that brilliant way of discarding the unnecessary. On the other hand I can’t say that some novels have too much unnecessary in them, so are you a very different being as a novel writer than a poetry writer and what is choreographic in the novel?
  • LG _ I didn’t intend to write my first novel. It happened because I was working on a poem out of which a character arose and once I had a character, I had a story. Oddly enough this was tied up with two very physical memories. One is my experience as a child of jumping through a window and the other was of a fire – oh no it was three memories – and then there was running across a ploughed and frozen field at night in which I kept falling and falling. It’s interesting to think that a whole novel came out of physical action and memory as well. It felt just as orchestrated as a poem but it took me eight years to write . A poem is something you can hold in your hands and turn over and look at and so on, and a novel is a world you have to travel around. You can’t have it all there in front of you at once, but you have to know it all. You become utterly absorbed by this world and these characters, and you give up control and then take control as you do with a poem. I don’t feel I’m a different person when I’m writing novels but I think that the novel is a secondary form for me. I identify myself as a poet.
  • SD _ Do you see the whole work before you start? I think my answer to that would be that I sense its identity but I have no idea how I’m going to necessarily get there.
  • LG _ That’s exactly right.
  • SD _ So then I have to start with a single cell in the hope that that single cell will multiply and then form the identity that I sensed.
  • LG _ That’s absolutely the same. I have a sense of the whole thing as I do with a poem, but I can’t particularly articulate it. Also, in working my way towards it, the thing takes on a life of its own. For instance, in my second novel I always thought that I knew what was going to happen at the end, but as the main character developed and came to life and I worked towards it I realised that I know her now, she wouldn’t do this – and I had to allow her to change it . While it is important to learn how to take control of the movement of a work, it is equally important to know when to let the work move on its own, and move towards you and away from you, and to direct that movement.
  • SD _ I have a very fond memory of a dancer called Jeremy James who once said as a joke, ‘my character wouldn’t do that’. He was doing a phrase of movement and I had asked him to introduce new material into it. He disapproved. We all collapsed with laughter, but he was absolutely right, because although in the main I don’t have characters in the work, a certain body of movement starts to belong to the dancer and that dancer knows full well when extra movement is introduced and is simply unacceptable to that particular work. Jeremy James, who sadly died, still turns up in my mind in rehearsals.
  • SD _ You used the word memory a moment ago and memory seems a useful part of the rhythm of poetry. By understanding the rhythm which is set up and then possibly repeats, does that familiarity increase the reader’s sense of recognition?
  • LG _ I think that cadence has many uses in poetry and is the kind of formulation that occurs in song and dance, and which makes all these things potent in memory. For me singing and dancing are formulations of experience, especially in childhood. When I started trying to write about music I found that I had to write about memory because they were bound up together. Just as the repetition of a gesture can return me to the memory of that gesture, the repetition of a rhythm can return me to a phrase, or a phrase can return me to a movement. I think that the capacity of language through its music to imprint itself upon us - and therefore to take its meaning deeper into us - is something that writers tend to forget because we tend to articulate ourselves in less obviously musical language than we used to.
  • SD _ At one point during rehearsals we listened to foreign languages that we couldn’t understand. The different rhythms or for instance a higher intonation in different parts of the phrase would help us break habits in phrasing.
  • LG _ I go to a lot of international literary festivals and quite often find myself listening to hours of poetry in a language I don’t understand, but I come away with so many senses of rhythm and shape.
  • SD _ If I align dance to the structure, rhythm and emotion of heard music I won’t find out how movement has its own qualities. I want to find an expression in the timing of movement as well as in the activity of it.
  • LG _ Do you feel that if you are working with music, the movement is driven by the music, that it’s more responsive than proactive?
  • SD _ Yes, I think there are choreographers who have an extraordinary relationship with music and I’m not trying to interfere with that. I want to develop a rhythmical phrase in silence so that the movement itself has the chance to do everything if it can.
  • LG _ I felt that watching your work: that having movement without music actually makes the movement more vulnerable because we expect the music with the movement. I’m struck by how it enables me to see within your choreography – I want to use ‘a disarrangement’ - a disarray of what we might call ‘ordinary’ gesture and movement. I recognise things but they are in different places and happening at different angles. The action and reaction between individual dancers fascinates me as well. I liked not having the narrative of music.
  • SD _ I’m with you on that. I just made a piece called the Two Quartets (2007) with the composer Matteo Fargion who has a fantastic mind about understanding that we are producing a work together and that by producing excellent, in quotes ‘music’, it could in fact be detracting from the whole work. His use of sound in both those pieces was done with enormous inventiveness and incredible humility. Humility is a weird word, but with no sense of trying to promote himself as an excellent composer although he is. His idea was to produce the necessary sound that would enhance the whole. So in the second half he introduces a banality and then slivers in things which are definitely not banal. It meant that the dancers had the job of completely finding the right and correct rhythm for their movement and they didn’t need to take any notice of the music second for second, rhythm for rhythm.
  • LG _ It takes me back to what you said at the beginning of our conversation about expression. It seemed to me watching your work in silence that music would have imposed an expectation that the dancers would be expressing something. Instead I was watching it as movement rather than meaning.
  • SD _ Yes, yes, not a literal meaning. In Bird Song it was interesting that people had a tendency to become disturbed during the silences.
  • SD _ I talked with Edmund de Waal the ceramicist about the necessity of stillness and emptiness in order to produce the object out of it.
  • LG _ Do you need blankness and stillness in order to arrive at the making of words or is there mess out of which you draw a thread and then find the words?
  • LG _ I need blankness and stillness in myself but what I produce is a mess out of which I draw a thread.
  • SD _ Yes. I go into the big studio and then, you are right, I produce quite often a lot of rubbish and chaos and then we all become alert to something that seems necessary, has a vitality and we start working with that.
  • LG _ The blankness and stillness give you the concentration and capacity to produce the mess and to find your way through it. It interests me that people seem to equate art with ego so much because when in the condition of blankness and stillness, I am using myself, I am leaving myself behind and forgetting myself. The greatest feeling for me is of the movement of a poem through me, and not of me. The greatest release is forgetting myself actually, forgetting I’m, there.
  • SD _ I identify with that. In our case we are a group and it’s incredibly important to me that we find a more vivid expression of how we work as a small community. Although I am the instigator, the observer and the editor, I am encouraging the idea of a group of people bringing all their knowledge into the making of a particular work and in doing that we have both to remember and forget ourselves as part of this process.
  • LG _ It’s being component and also the components arranging themselves in such a way that they become a whole. It’s the thing I quote in my music book, Homer in one of the earliest uses of the word ‘khoreia’ (chorea/choreography etc.) in The Iliad, where he’s describing dancers painted round a vase:

    The Iliad - Book 18
    Sometimes all wound close in a ring, to which as fast they spunne
    As any wheele a Turner makes, being tried how it will runne
    While he is set; and out againe, as full of speed, they wound,
    Not one left fast or breaking hands.
  • LG _ To me that is about achieving equilibrium and the simplest image of it is children in a ring going faster and faster and one not falling because the others are holding it; each part being required, each part being component. You are held but you are moving, you are free but you’re directed. All those things add up and release something.
  • SD _ I have one more question. You said that you occasionally make diagrams or what we would call a sort of score?
  • LG _ Yes. While I’m writing poems I often find that in my notebook, when I don’t have the words for something I might have the shape of it, or I’ll know that there’s an absence within a poem and I’ll know exactly the shape of it but I haven’t yet got to the meaning. I find this particularly useful when I work with composers. When I first worked on a song cycle with the composer Richard Baker, we met and I showed him some words. I was trying to explain to him why a particular song about sudden bright light was called ‘Ah – ’ with a dash and not an exclamation mark or an ellipsis. This dash was the physical gesture of this fierce light pushing me out of what I was trying to look at. He said ‘Can you say more about this?’ and I started drawing the action of the light and the movement of myself being pushed out. As we went on talking, I was drawing various diagrams of the movements these songs were trying to describe, the physical interaction between landscape and person and the movement of the body through the landscape. When we finished the meeting Richard said ‘Could I take those sketches home?’, so I gave them to him. Since then we’ve often communicated through diagrams, through score, because of course we’re sharing a language of dynamics.
  • LG _ It’s a kind of architecture as well, which is of course another form of choreography.
  • SD _ We had the architect of my building, Sarah Wigglesworth come to talk to us. It was part of the same series of talks that the heart surgeon was involved in. Her talk made us more conscious of shaping the air. The dancers are able to get feedback from within their bodies but it is harder for them to measure their impact on the space, to sense how their work massages or recalibrates the air around them or to understand the impact of near and far in a performance area.
  • LG _ Yes, I suppose that I am always working with a sense of space and what I do with that space and with a sense of form. So it’s how I arrange things within that room, I mean stanza - the word ‘stanza’ is a room.
  • SD _ So when you are thinking of space, and here I am thinking of you writing a word on a page, where is the space?
  • LG _ The space is in that first phrase - it’s never a single word - there will be a sense of rhythm and from that I will extrapolate the scale and density and texture of this thing. It will announce its edges quite early on and I’ll work within them. I’ll have a sense that this is a poem of a particular length and character: it’s going to be this tiny little six lines that rhyme very tightly or it’s going to push out in fragments in which the dynamics are about the arrangement of parts rather than a spine or something. I just have a sense of the space I’m working with.
  • SD _ It also feels as if each poem has a different kind of body?
  • LG _ Yes. You are never taking the same steps in the same sequence into the same place.