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Science in culture: Form becomes feeling

Naturevolume 441page410 (2006) | Download Citation


Siobhan Davies looks to science to shape her dance.

Credit: L. LEWIS

Why does Siobhan Davies expose her dancers to an informal academy of thinkers from diverse worlds, including science and medicine? The answer lies in the depth and power of our instinctive response to body language — a response that choreographers and dancers are adept at exploiting — and her desire to reconstitute and refresh its stock vocabulary.

Her idea is to unsettle the automatic habits and patterns of our responses, especially those involved with dance, refreshing our perceptions by refreshing theirs. The wonder of the complexity of familiar acts, something we take for granted, emerges anew.

For her current programme, In Plain Clothes, performed recently in her own stunning dance space and now touring England, she drew in a set of luminaries for her academy. Most notable are the architect Sarah Wigglesworth, the heart surgeon Francis Wells (see Nature 430, 19; 2004), the linguist Susan Hitch and the landscape designer Dan Pearson.

Davies and her dancers witnessed one of Wells's operations. There was no set agenda and no set outcome, other than to promote new shared and individual insights into the human body. The dancers, who are immersed daily in the physical process of dance as a kind of athletic performance, were jolted into a world of new perceptions and thoughts.

The dancers were impressed by the profound stillness of the limbs, torso and head of the anaesthetized patient during the operation, while the surgeon and his team acted out their own choreographed moves. A heart operation is a highly technical performance, like a dance, but it also has deep emotional resonance for those who bear witness to a life saved. It serves as an analogy for the relationship of form to emotion in dance.

There is also an element of unpredictability in every operation. Davies' work thrives on the confrontation between control and the unpredictable, between imposed order and the unexpected.

In Plain Clothes — the title conveys the direct and unadorned nature of the dance, costumes and setting — began with the structured score of Italian folk songs in a composition by Matteo Fargion. Each dancer was given one of the tunes and asked separately to assign a movement to each note. This surprisingly literal approach is intended, Davies declares, “to cut out all the fat”. It also introduces a random element that sets a challenge for the subsequent ordering of the dancers as an ensemble.

What follows is a phase in which disorder and order fight for formal dominance. There is a process akin to the self-organization of a complex physical process as it settles into a pattern, with the important qualification that intentional choices here guide the emergence of certain orders.

The process is in essence highly formal and abstract. The final result is highly structured, centring on a line of dancers walking laterally across the performance space, casting off and re-absorbing pairs and larger numbers of virtuoso dancers as the piece progresses.

Structure “releases invention”, Davies says. Here it creates trigger points at which emotion is released. As in a sonnet, the four-bar blues and folk songs, it is the tightness of the form that allows our perception of the exceptional. Body language works like this in everyday life, with the unexpected — something that departs from the anticipated pattern — jolting us into another level of awareness.

The songs in the piece are about memory, the familiar, departure and loss. Davies does not literally tell their stories. But she uses form as a vehicle to convey the deep elements of their emotional charge.

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  1. professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 1PT, UK

    • Martin Kemp


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