I walk into a large, roomy space. Clustered in the middle is a group of people; there’s quiet murmuring, some sounds of scraping chalk. Around the edges are bags and coats, and some simple stools dotted about the space. I feel like I’ve just joined a rehearsal, perhaps even a laboratory. I drop my things by the side of the room and walk over to join the small crowd. Around a large, roughly-built table, white with chalk-dust, I begin to identify the performers, engaged in plotting out their next moves. One of them picks up a piece of chalk and scribbles something on the table. “So I’m going to start here… then I’ll be going round in large arcs round the side of the table, all the way over to this corner, avoiding Charlie… I’ll do a bit of it here … and then I’ll come back and finish… just here, at the corner”.
I have joined Siobhan Davies’ Table of Contents, a “live performance and installation” which “sets up a shared space between audience and dancers, inviting the audience into a live dialogue”. The work’s pattern sees the dancers spend 20 minutes or so at the table, planning their next piece’s route around the space and each other. Each 20-minute section of dance (mostly solos, sometimes duets) explores a particular idea or previous choreography, resonating either with a piece of Siobhan Davies’ archive work, or something from their own individual histories – either as dancers or choreographers. The surface of the table represents the performance and installation space, and they use it to create a visual map of what we’re about to witness over the following 20 minutes or so.
As Charlie Morrissey and Andrea Buckley finish chalking their route on the table, there’s a general movement towards preparation. Audience members scatter around the space, picking stools on which to perch, sitting by the side of the room, or standing, as I do, somewhere in the middle, waiting to see it unfold around me. I watch Rachel Krische lay out some headphones around the room. I notice that Matthias Sperling has, without ceremony, started his ‘bit’; balancing, prone, his body is splayed out, with different points of his anatomy supported on about ten plastic cups. He begins a slow, purposeful, slightly dreamy journey, whereby none of his body touches the floor, moving the cups one by one, a sort of stepping stones game. It’s quiet in the room as people, some sitting, some standing, watch Matthias’ slow progress, but it’s not oppressively still. Some people move about a bit. Matthias explores the ways in which his body can balance, and change its weight. Once, a cup falls out from underneath him, and when he manages to retrieve it, stretching his arm out precariously, there’s a very small, cheer-like murmur. It’s quite a mesmerising thing to watch, as Matthias explores what his body can and can’t do, slowly sectioning his route through the space.
The dancers are trying to notice in the moment
what is happening with their bodies, exploring the
embodied knowledge that normally simply exists.
The other dancers gradually follow, overlapping with each other. Rachel Krische dons headphones and does an improvisational piece whilst listening to a talk given by late dance artist Gill Clarke. Some of us listen along with her, using the headphones. Rachel describes her movement as an extended way of listening to Gill’s talk; she uses the rhythms as well as some of the meanings within the speech to inform her energetic dance. Charlie and Andrea begin a contact improvisation piece, each talking over the other to describe what they’re feeling physically in that very moment. Later, Charlie explains that they’re trying to notice in the moment what is happening with their bodies, exploring the embodied knowledge that normally simply exists and which they would otherwise not be consciously aware of. Why is it that at this moment, Andrea feels she’ll do a luscious backflip over Charlie’s shoulder before he lifts her in a thigh-to-thigh lean? Having reached a pause in momentum, what is the impetus that will take them forward again? All the while, Matthias gradually follows his pre-mapped arrow right the way down the space. I wander around, as invited, looking at the co-existing pieces from different angles, getting different information from their varied coincidence in my visual field. Before I know it there is applause; they’ve all come to a stop. It feels like something has been made, created, explored. And we’ve done it together.
This is the pattern of the days that the dancers have been spending at the ICA during their twelve-day residency/installation/performance. Plan and plot, dance. Plan and plot, dance. They perform small, improvisatory exploration, often inspired by Siobhan Davies’ canon, or by their own choreographic history. In their introduction, the group writes about the aim of this project being to explore the past by the present. Every dancer, they say, holds layers of archival material within their body. Each choreography learned and performed, each technique class visited, leaves its imprint within the muscle memory and has an impact on the choices the dancer makes in future dance-making. By exploring both the histories of the performers and that of Siobhan Davies, Table of Contents is a means of exploring this physical, unique archive. In the process it becomes something visible, allowing the dancers to be conscious of it, allowing an audience access.
Archiving dance material is a contentious subject; rarely notated, it has perhaps the most ephemeral existence of all the artforms, especially contemporary dance, which is Siobhan Davies’ genre. I don’t know of any contemporary choreographer who, like a composer or playwright perhaps, would sit alone, making up dance, and then hand it over to a company of dancers to learn and perform. The choreographer makes dance on the spot, with the bodies of the dancers in the company at that time; more often than not, especially in contemporary dance, the dancers are themselves co-choreographers (and are often acknowledged as such in the credits). Thus, as Ramsay Burt points out in his essay Dancers and/as archives, published in the accompanying booklet Table of Contents: Memory and Presence, “the dancer is a living archive, and is the archivist of her or his own archive”. He goes on to say that the history of any given dance piece cannot be extricated from the experience of the live performance; it is the audience, almost as much as the particular dancer at that particular time, who endows a work with its meaning.
This is something you’d never normally
have the opportunity of taking part in
as a mere audience member.
Siobhan Davies has presented work in gallery settings over the past few years, exploring the difference that the expectation of use of space might have on an audience and on the work. In Table of Contents, Burt posits that “working in a room designed for showing visual art opens up the potential to interact with beholders in a more intimate way”. Having experienced a section of the work, this is the aspect that I find the most intriguing. The performers set the space up to be inclusive; the scene I walked in on was something you’d never normally have the opportunity of taking part in as a mere audience member. But I was interested to note that as the afternoon went on, and the audience grew in size, from perhaps 30 to more like 60, the dichotomy between audience and performer was increasingly tangible through the use of space. When the dancers began performing, audience members mostly scattered to the sides of the room, sitting up against the walls, setting out the stools to make a performance space in the midst of which the dancers performed. During the second section that I viewed, almost everyone stayed where they were throughout, despite being invited by the dancers to move around during the performance.
I don’t know whether this audience behaviour is something that manifested throughout their residency at the ICA, and how much it depended on whether the audience was more used to watching performance than viewing exhibitions. But it seemed that the audience themselves exploded the fragile sense of collaboration, of co-exploration that Siobhan Davies and the dancers were seeking to find in the gallery setting. I walked out of the room and into the more traditionally-used gallery spaces towards the exit, feeling the difference between the visual art installation, and what I had just witnessed, in my own body’s movement.
Table of Contents is an intelligent and thoughtful piece of work, and it does offer an insight into the role of a dancer’s physical history in the choreographic process that you’d be hard put to find elsewhere outside of the studio. But the experimental, laboratory feeling that’s set up in the space is the very entrance point to the choreographic process that the dancers are trying to share. And if you go as an audience member, there’s as much onus on you as on the work to uphold it.
Table of Contents is at Tramway, Glasgow until 9th February and then at Arnolfini, Bristol from 24th to 27th April.
Photo by Pari Naderi.