LIGHT THROUGH MATERIAL
By Sanjoy Roy
“When I was a child, I played exquisite corpses.” So begins Transparent, a three-part film by dance artist and choreographer Siobhan Davies, in collaboration with film-makers David Hinton and Hugo Glendinning. Davies is pictured here lying on her side, legs bent inwards, one folded arm pillowing her head – an almost childlike position, though the white hair and lined face indicate an aged, if not yet elderly woman. With these words and this image, you might think that this will be a portrait of the artist, or a story of her life and work; but nothing about this luminous, unclassifiable film, at once intimate and expansive, is as simple or as singular as that. Transparent, you discover, becomes a web of images, words, sounds and ideas, shimmering with synaptic connections that form and fade like memory itself. Davies and her works are a constant presence – but a transparent one. The film looks not at them, but through them.
Thus it passes swiftly through that once-upon-a-time beginning (“when I was a child”) towards the wider idea of exquisite corpses: that surrealist game of chance and consequence which divides the human figure into three zones – head, body, legs – and marvels at the outcomes when they are drawn separately, then combined into some strange semblance of a whole. Transparent is itself something of an exquisite corpse: three distinct parts, joined in sequence. What kind of whole do they make?
The question is central to the first section, titled Animal Origins. Here, Davies recalls a moment as a young dancer when, instead of experiencing her body as an articulated set of moving parts, she fleetingly felt “gloriously whole”. She found that she could recreate some of this sensation by abandoning her upright, bipedal human habit and attuning herself to a more primordial, four-legged body, spine elongating forward and back as if into snout and tail (the discovery was to lead to her 1977 solo Sphinx, for London Contemporary Dance Theatre). “It was as if my body became known to me,” she says, and it is this knowledge – that of a dance artist, at once re-membering the body and incorporating the imagination – that shines through the whole of Transparent, like light through material.
The second section, A Lived-In Circle, returns to our human, two-legged gait, and spirals around a much later work: Rotorfrom 2010, with its central motif of four people moving in concentric circles. Instead of finding connections within the body, the film now steps out, tracing pathways and patterns between bodies – and beyond them, to landscapes, even to the abstractions of geometry, or writing. Other connections form as well: Davies had invited several artists to put their own spin on Rotor in 2010, and here you catch a glimpse of two of them, ceramicist Clare Twomey and poet Alice Oswald.
These are just two of many references to artworks (understood in the widest sense) by others which Davies found formative – works by Annie Albers, Francis Bacon or designer-makers Glithero, for example, as well as the renderings of imaging science and the performances of dancers and tennis players. Yet for all this, these two sections are not “about” Davies, her works and influences. Rather, they join and scatter images and sounds in montages, split screens, and overlays of found footage and archive photos, sequenced in subtle rhythms and arrayed in ways that are discontinuous enough to startle, yet close enough for your mind to leap freely from one to the next (an exquisite, hallucinatory style developed with David Hinton in her 2012 film All This Can Happen). To watch such finely attuned footage is to sense a quickening of connections between image, sound and word; it makes you feel active and alert, alive to ideas and sensations.
The final section, titled Transparency, shifts to a different, more documentary register – and yet remains of a piece with the trilogy, like a photorealist head suddenly appearing atop a surreal body and legs. Davies comes directly into the frame, a woman now closer to death than to birth, walking through present-day London, and walking us through her process of contemplating transparencies: sliding, superimposing and layering the images (many of which we have just seen in parts 1 and 2), until they ignite some spark of significance or reveal some ephemeral wonder. “Two images,” she explains, “and I, or another observer, become the hinge between them.”
Other observers? That’s us, and this is the process we’ve been enacting all along; of course it is. Our brains and bodies and beings lacing image to sound to word to sense to sensation, until we find ourselves becoming part not only of the “connective tissue” of this quiet, light-filled film, but of a wider, more ungraspable corpus of connectivity that we might, reaching for words, call an exquisite body.
Sanjoy Roy writes on dance for The Guardian and other publications, and is editor of Springback Magazine of European contemporary dance