Working with Siobhan Davies

July 1999 - Sunday Telegraph

It started as nothing more than a comment at a dinner party. Asked what I would like to do next, having worked my way through most of The Royal Ballet repertoire, I said that before I hang up my toe shoes and mothball the tutu, I would really like to work with Siobhan Davies. Siobhan Davies – Sue to her friends - is arguably the UK's foremost contemporary choreographer. Although she has very little experience of the ballet world, I have long suspected that she is one of the few choreographers who could navigate the gulf between classical and contemporary technique and, what's more, make the trip worthwhile. A curly haired, bespectacled man across the table put down his knife and fork and turned his attention to me. It was Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel. 'We'll do that', he said.

Thus it was that two years later, at 9am on a Monday morning, five assorted dancers met – most of them for the first time – at the Mary Ward Centre in Euston. For Matthew Morris (no relation) and Gill Clarke, regular members of the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, it was business as usual. For Peter Abegglen, Jenny Tattersall and me, all of us dancers with The Royal Ballet, it was distinctly foreign ground. The Royal Ballet's West London rehearsal studios may not be the epitome of luxury, but they are at least equipped with sprung floors, changing rooms, showers, on-site physiotherapy and, most importantly, a canteen. We were about to find out how the other 99% of the dance world live.

The Mary Ward Centre is one of those large, red brick institutions in the Tavistock Square area which you pass by without ever really noticing. Built in the last century by the philanthropist whose name it bears, the centre was intended to provide a place where 'in fellowship, mind with mind, workers of this city could turn their minds to things humane'. It is a maze of corridors, meeting rooms, offices and, accessed through the gentleman's toilets, a large hall stretching across the top floor. Sue has rented the space for the last five years: despite her company's status it is still without a permanent home. The hall is light and airy, but the floor, unsprung beneath its worn parquet, is better suited to the Ceroc devotees who use the space in the evenings than the dancers who inhabit it during the day. There are no changing rooms, no canteen and I take my shower when I get home.

The environmental differences were easily dealt with. After all, Royal Ballet dancers may be spoilt on their home turf, but we regularly cope with the most basic of facilities when we dance away, in schools and hospitals around the country. It takes more than the absence of hot and cold running water to put me off my step. No, the real challenge lay in the working process on which we were about to embark: a convergence of disparate worlds which we hoped would prove symbiotic.

Our first day began with two dance classes taking place simultaneously. The ballet dancers – feet sensibly encased in shoes – stood upright at the barre and ran through the pliés, tendus and dégagés which constitute our warm-up. In the absence of a pianist, I meted out the rhythm in a monotonous, droning voice: 'plié-two-three, stretch-two-three'. The moderns, feet bare, lay on the floor at the other side of the room, Gill verbalising the exercise as it progressed: 'Picture the greater trochanter as the body hinges forward'. Peter, Jenny and I wondered just where our greater trochanters might be. An hour later, though our methods could not have been more diverse, we were all drenched with sweat and ready to work.

Sue arrived, her arms laden with books: designs, patterns, pictures, anything to spark the imagination and provide us with a starting point. She suggested we choose a motif from amongst their pages and set about recreating it in dance. Next, loading a CD into the stereo system, she asked us to absorb the music in our bodies and allow it to inspire sequences of movement reflecting its rhythms and contours. She then left us to get on with it while the CD played its entire repertoire at least three times.

You cannot imagine how unusual this is for a ballet dancer. Most rehearsals I've ever been in have started with something along the lines of 'You enter stage left and stand on your right leg'. While classical choreographers will occasionally invite the dancer to suggest what might come next - which way, for instance, the body would naturally turn – they never, ever ask us to come up with the raw material. Ballet dancers are essentially re-creators, not creators. Our job is to give life to other people's ideas, not to spend time exploring our own.

I knew a little about what to expect. Jenny and Peter stood there blankly. My week of 'Oh-my-God-I-can't-possibly-do-this' took place a year ago, when Sue and I worked together for the first time in a church hall in North London. I remember selecting a motif – a simple, curlicue figure – and dumbly tracing the letter S with my toe for what seemed like hours. It was only when I was well and truly fed up with reaching the same, predictable conclusions that I finally hit upon the notion of producing the shape with some other part of my body.

In classical ballet, there are rules about what arms and legs can and can't do. Those rules are regularly stretched to breaking point, but new ballet choreography is still, in essence, the use of an existing language in a fresh and original way. In contemporary dance, where there are no such rules to be observed, new choreography can create a new language altogether. Feet can behave like hands, or arms play the part of legs. Imagination is the only limit to innovation.

Without rules, movement takes on a different quality. Traditional ballet places a high value on picture-perfect poses. The route between them, while important, is less significant than the end position and the effort involved is always concealed: 'Too much kitchen', my Russian répétiteur at The Royal Ballet is apt to complain. By contrast, in contemporary technique, the journey and the effort it takes are every bit as relevant as the destination. If classical ballet keeps its kitchen firmly below stairs, contemporary dance, like the Centre Georges Pompidou, wears its workings proudly on the outside.

It has been a lot to learn in a short space of time. I have had to shake off old habits and consciously side-step predictable behaviour. Sometimes, towards the end of the day, my mind would go blank and despite thirty years of dancing, I couldn't come up with a single idea. Sue would gently intervene, prompting a route out of the impasse which, once suggested, seemed transparently obvious. Across the studio, Matthew quietly folded his limbs into shapes of unlikely beauty as if he were a sculptor moulding clay. Gill, deep in concentration, teased complex swirling patterns, delicate interwoven lines and rhythmic subtleties from parts of her body which, according to anatomy, are immobile. Not for nothing has she been described as the human equivalent of a Jackson Pollock.

Over time, the moments of despair became less frequent and a common and healthy curiosity drew our two worlds closer. Jenny was the first to kick off her ballet shoes and dance bare-foot and, despite a painful crop of blisters, Peter and I soon followed suit. I knew the frontiers were finally breached when I arrived late one morning and found Jenny and Peter lying on the floor alongside Matthew and Gill, locating their greater trochanters for the first time in their dancing lives.

I hope that this integration will be reflected in the audiences who come to see us. Siobhan Davies regulars who want to catch her latest piece will, perhaps for the first time, see The Royal Ballet at work. Ballet-goers who might not, under normal circumstances, venture east of Covent Garden will find the trip to Brick Lane expands much more than their geographical horizons. The Atlantis Gallery, its vast space criss-crossed by interconnecting runways, provides a new landscape for Siobhan Davies' work and reveals the dancing body from a different perspective. Aside from that, 13 Different Keys offers a rare opportunity to see ballet dancers as you've never seen them before; no proscenium arch, no conventions and, of course, no shoes.

The Royal Ballet's founder, Dame Ninette de Valois, once asserted that classically trained dancers could turn their hands (or should that be their toes?) to any other discipline, that once a dancer had mastered ballet technique everything else would fall easily into place. That may, long ago, have been the case, when the alternatives to Covent Garden were a summer season on Skegness pier or a stint at the Moulin Rouge. If Dame Ninette had seen Gill Clarke in performance, she might have changed her mind.