There’s a sense of something deeply and personally held in this film, which illustrates a golden thread of enquiry weaving its way through the course of a lifetime’s practice. It journeys through a rich archive dating back to the choreographer’s childhood, gathering with it a plethora of artefacts, illustrations, animation and film, with which to share the notion that shifting the kinaesthesia of the human body might stir a sense of connection to our ancient, animal selves.

Dame Siobhan Davies DBE is an icon; a key contributor to the development of UK modern dance, working at the vanguard of somatic practice for many years, very much continuing to do so. Her film, despite this somewhat intimidating pedigree, is warm and inherently playful, although it’s taken on with rigour and captivating sincerity. It’s a pleasure to be drawn into such a clearly articulated enquiry about somatic practice when it opens up the possibility of re-framing and understanding our own modern bodies.

A shot from Animal Origins by Siobhan Davies

An unassuming Davies narrates, elucidating with quiet enthusiasm and clarity. She describes an early, personal sense of disembodiment – a feeling that growing up, she might be ‘half horse, half girl’. In her dance training and in the wider world she feels she comprises an assemblage of body parts to be considered and developed individually, rather than a holistic one. Davies contrasts the uncomfortable disconnect between her limbs with observations of the sleek, fluid movement of the animals and sports people she watches, particularly her pet whippet Pip who seems to exude to her a natural co-ordination, an effortless flow. She goes on to share a formative experience in her training; a single, fleeting sense of being “glorious whole. As if my body became known to me. And then it disassembled again”. This brief moment of clarity draws her forward in pursuit of what might be described as ‘re-embodiment’; a search for movement that is authentic to her whole body, bringing forth a closer affinity with her animal self.

There’s a tangible shift in the tone and pace of the sound world as we step with Davies into unchartered territory; the inclusion of birdsong and soft animal sounds align with line drawings and photography to muster an animal element, marking out a new adventure. Davies describes how she began by simply leaning forward, knocking on an unseen door; this brings her head forward which in turn distributes her weight differently, better connected to her spine. Everything changes, even her sense of taste is altered. She continues forward and eventually downward onto all fours and, from here, Davies finds that her limbs no longer feel decorative or awkwardly disconnected but ‘in service’, her spine stretching close to the floor. Images of her in this ‘animal’ state provide a fascinating glimpse inside the discovery.

We understand that this tangible, physical shift unearths a different sensation, a somatic knowledge with deep roots. We look at the photographs differently – we detect in images of Davies and the dancers she works with an embodied sense of ‘wholeness’, of movement and motion rather than static shapes or ‘arranged’ body parts. The practice has become low, weighted differently, giving rise to an entirely different kinesthesia. Perhaps we can understand Davies’ approach as antithesis to the disembodiment described earlier, which resonates strongly in a society where body commodification is the norm and where dance training can feel like a giant, contortionist game of Twister (right hand here, left leg there etc). Davies’ determination to challenge her training, to alter her self-perception from the inside out allows her not only to will an ancient memory into being, a glimpse of pre-human times, but to develop an approach that is personally liberating. She ‘stays here’ with her practice for a significant time – perhaps over years, perhaps her entire career – images of her as a young woman are replaced with her as a more mature figure; kneeling, still imagining and willing that ‘animal’ into being.

As Davies describes the ever-present ‘other’ hovering inside herself and the sense of freedom unlocked by manifesting it, perhaps it’s possible to draw a parallel with todays’ discourse around self-identity. Davies’ journey to express that which lies dormant within her certainly liberates and fascinates. Perhaps more significantly, though, is that it allows her to build focus around her ability to stay with the state of ‘becoming’ she so profoundly experiences, rather than ever seeking to arrive. You get the sense that the principle of questioning rather than answering is the real revelation here. It’s not only part of an extraordinary practice, it threads together an entire lifetime’s work.

This material was created within the project Translation on Air – a section dedicated to dance for the screen or screendance. Every month we invite the professional and amateur audience, tempted by this intriguing symbiosis between cinema and dance, to join our readings, conversations, and discussions with active practitioners and choreographers in this field from the country and abroad.

The project Translation on Air is implemented with the financial support of the National Fund Culture under the program Audiences 2020 and One-Year Grant 2021.

Lydia Wharf is an independent producer working in contemporary dance theatre, specialising in practices of care, access and inclusion. She works directly with artists, supporting them across a range of inter/nationally significant initiatives. Currently working with Dance Umbrella, Julie Cunningham & Company, Stuart Waters, Rhiannon Faith Company and Stephanie Handjiiska, Lydia has a long, twisty relationship with dance; as performer, writer, advocate and producer.