Siobhan Davies explores body, movement, gesture

Dancers and artists move in measured motion around installations, projections and academic text in The Curve gallery at the Barbican Centre. It is the opening night of material/rearranged/to/be, an ambitious new performance work by Siobhan Davies Dance. The touring exhibition is a continuous moving landscape exploring non-verbal communication and gesture through a diverse group of choreographers, dancers, artists, designers and scientists. It is being called ‘investigative arts’ for it fits no rigid category.

This is the 70th project by contemporary dancer and choreographer Siobhan Davies. The artists here were asked to observe the work of Aby Warburg and his findings at the Warburg Institute. In the early part of the last century the German art historian and cultural theorist collected diverse images of gestures from different times and places and positioned them side-by-side to reveal previously-hidden relationships.

The collection at the Warburg Institute in London may at first glance seem disparate, yet over time you begin to see the connection. Davies says the dancers were struck by this idea of pre-and afterlife here. Dancers, she said later in an interview with BBC Radio 4, are interested in afterlife as a performance is such a temporary concept.

She involved scientists in the project to look at the narrative of science, explore neurological impairment. For instance, what it is like to live without certain movements. As language takes centre stage in our modern world, small movements and gestures are forgotten – here they find their own expression.

Dancer Andreas Buckley, for instance, isolates the movement of her feet. Elsewhere, Charlie Morrissey’s Actions from the Encyclopaedia of Experience is a speculative taxonomy of actions which has the dance choreographer performing in relation to categories, from the basic to the bizarre, he projects on a screen.

Collectively, the performances are asking us to look at the body, to look at movement and posture in another way. Davies says as the mind is so often the focus of celebration, we forget we’re in this body, ‘a body that radiates information outwards and brings information back in… it is an informative tool,’ she says in the Radio 4 interview, adding ‘the body is so deliciously complex’.

For three decades Davies has been broadening contemporary dance to include other art forms, continuously collaborating with those from outside the confines of dance. She is unlike so many others, seduced by the allure of the more sensational side of dance, and the crowds they attract. It means her work is not always easy to digest – you have to work hard here, gathering the ‘shards of ideas’ as Davies puts it. She calls her latest work ‘performative installation’.

The arts such as music, dance, design create the possibility to make us more human for they guide us to see things differently, to explore the world in unique ways – often ever-so subtly. As we enter this rather dark period in modern politics, it may seem trivial to discuss the arts as a vehicle for change. Yet more than ever it is vital to defend the right to free expression and use the arts to help make change happen.

Nargess Banks

material/rearranged/to/be will be travelling the UK until 9 July and should not be missed. Find out more here.

Nargess Banks

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