Digitizing Siobhan Davies Dance


This paper outlines progress so far on an AHRC-funded project led by researchers at Coventry University to create a digital archive of the work of British choreographer, Siobhan Davies. The paper will discuss how the processes involved in translating the ‘live’ or the analogue recording to the digitised have raised questions around the nature of representation and the curatorial process. In working collaboratively with Davies and her company, the methods being employed are aiming to make clear the ‘living’ nature of the archive, thereby opening up new possibilities for the digital interface with dance and dance making.

How to Cite

Whatley, S., Allender, P. and Varney, R., 2008. Digitizing Siobhan Davies Dance. Body, Space & Technology, 7(2). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/bst.143


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This paper presents a progress report on a 30-month, AHRC-funded project which aims to digitize and present online the collected outputs of the British choreographer, Siobhan Davies, plus a variety of other resources associated with the company. The latter will include press reviews, programme notes, scholarly articles and films of workshops amongst a number of other primary source materials that would otherwise remain inaccessible or invisible for the general audience. The project is focusing particularly on Davies’ work since she formed her own company in 1988, but will include material prior to that date where it is thought to be particularly significant and have influence on the later period1. The paper will focus upon what has been achieved so far and discuss some of the major conceptual and artistic issues that are fundamental in the development of the archive, thereby providing insights to the particular challenges of this project.

Siobhan Davies is widely regarded as one of the most ‘prolific and successful choreographers practicing today’ (deLahunta and Zuniga Shaw, 2006: 54). Her career spans more than thirty years and thereby reflects the major shifts and turns in the development of modern or ‘contemporary’ dance in Britain. Davies has always been committed to finding ways for more people to access her work, believing fundamentally in the valuable role that dance plays in people’s lives. This runs in parallel to a rigorous research process in her dance making that seeks to continually question her own creative process, deliberately plays with the boundaries of the form, and which explores the intelligence that is at the core of the dance. Having always acknowledged the contribution to her process of her dancers and other artist-collaborators, Davies has recently joined forces with leading practitioners in a wide range of different disciplines to explore other responses to her work as well as its broader cultural and social impact, and to offer up different ways to perceive and experience her dance2. As her outputs continue to diversify and to be of interest to researchers, the creation of the digital archive will provide access to her collected materials in a way that has not been possible before.


In these early stages of the development of the archive, the research team at Coventry University3 is engaged in tracking down and finding ways to preserve dance materials. In so doing, the team is confronting the challenges involved in capturing and documenting dance objects, whilst engaging with the ongoing debates about what constitutes a valuable resource for the research community. Dance has always been an interesting site for researchers who are fascinated with the necessary ephemerality of the dance event and the extent to which ‘the materiality of dance is inextricably bound up with its own immaterial dimension’ (deLahunta and Zuniga Shaw 2006: 53). As a live form, it continues to be difficult to access for sustained periods and for research/study purposes. New technological interventions have presented dance makers and researchers with valuable tools for creating work and generating records of these process and products. These further the philosophical debates about the very nature of dance, and about what constitutes an authoritative ‘hard copy’, if such a thing is possible.

As dance continues to unearth its own history and celebrate its heritage, the archive project is a further extension to the growing number of projects that are principally dealing with reconstructions of past or lost works, offering up a new dimension to what Helen Thomas has described as a minor dance preservation industry (2004: 32). In contrast to many of those other projects, this one is working directly with a dance maker who continues to generate work, reflect on her own creative process and indeed participate herself in the revival or restaging of her own works4, all of which will play a role in how the archive is constructed and populated. Moreover, by working within a digital environment, the archive aims to challenge notions of what might be seen as the monolithic status of the archive as a stable, definitive or permanent record. This will be achieved by providing an interpretative framework that allows space for the user to create his/her own story, and which allows access to Davies’ process and outputs in imaginative ways by making clear the ‘living’ nature of the archive. In this way the project seeks to respond to those who question the benevolent nature of the archive as a form that fixes and reinforces the social and cultural status quo by focussing upon the voices of the already powerful, while ignoring those without a voice.

By working in close collaboration with Davies and her company members through the creation of the archive, the research team is necessarily dealing with the translation from the ‘live’ or the analogue recording to the digitised. This opens up the space for dialogue around the nature of representation, the question of authorial integrity and of whose ‘voice’ is privileged in the creation of the archive. The research team’s aim is to invite critical engagement with the work, share lessons learnt from our methodology and establish a good working relationship with Davies and her company to ensure that we can complete the project on time. We also see ourselves as creative partners in the project, bringing a collective intelligence to bear on all stages of the development of the archive and being active in the selection, curation and populating of the archive materials, in order to create a new lens through which Davies’ work can be viewed, and one that opens up fresh possibilities for the digital interface with dance and dance making.

It is anticipated that approximately 150hrs of video footage (primarily analogue VHS and 8mm video cassette), 2500 still images (comprising photographs, negatives, flyers, sketches, artwork), 60hrs of audio (cassette tape and digitally recorded interviews) and a variety of props, programs, objects, costumes and other artefacts will be digitised5.

Besides the more straightforward aim of bringing together the work in an attractive, easily accessible and navigable way, the team’s interest is in how the collected materials offer new methods for analysing dance and new opportunities for developing pedagogical tools. Even more importantly, the interest is in how having access to dance in this way might enable it to have a more forceful presence in performance studies in a wider sense, as well as extend its reach into other research disciplines (anthropology, sociology, historiography, for example). Only by attempting to capture and preserve, the team is confronting the challenge of the ‘how’, to make space for exploring the tension between the permanent and the provisional, to allow new opportunities for engaging with the dance to emerge. In time this might well impact on the work itself, not only Davies’ work, but dance in general.


The idea for the project began when Sarah Whatley, Principal Investigator for the project6, found difficulty in accessing resources for her own research into Davies’ work. A number of conversations and meetings with Davies followed, resulting in a successful bid to the AHRC to support the development of the digital archive. Work began in January 2007 and will continue until the end of June 2009, when the archive will go ‘live’ - although there will be a pilot phase prior to the launch. The project will see the creation of the first digital archive of a dance company in Britain and is the first collaboration between Siobhan Davies Dance and Coventry University. All are enthusiastic about what the archive can achieve, and, as stated on the Company website, believe that the process of digitisation will present ‘tremendous opportunities to develop imaginative and creative approaches to the concept of an archive, whilst raising the profile of contemporary dance in the UK and preserving it for future generations’. (http://siobhandavies.com/index.php/parent/67/item/481)

Work in the early stages has concentrated on the ‘groundwork’ for the archive. This has involved spending a considerable period of time on establishing collaborative working methods and protocols, sourcing and purchasing a suitable Digital Asset Management (DAM) system, investigating copyright issues, putting out calls for materials for the archive, exploring the digitisation process and devising the metadata standard for the archive. The team has also canvassed opinion about the look, feel and purpose of the archive as well carrying out a survey of potential users to find out what they would wish to see incorporated within the archive. Work has also begun to generate new primary materials, including interviews, filmed records of rehearsals, ‘get-ins’, associated educational workshops and so on. The research process has therefore moved between identifying the scope and range of materials, and how the archival process can reveal more about Davies’ creative methods whilst simultaneously challenging the traditional view of how dance is transmitted, disseminated and interpreted.


The metadata issue presents the team with the task of creating appropriate and meaningful metadata for dance, based upon a framework using the Dublin Core Standard. This process is being developed collaboratively with Siobhan Davies Dance and Cambridge Imaging Systems, the company that has provided the DAM system which provides the ‘backbone’ for the archive. Devising the metadata has presented challenges: the aim is to devise a comprehensive and representative standard, but one which simultaneously allows for the generalities and particularities of the dance object. Moreover, our intention is to respect the distinctive aspects of Davies’ dance process and choreographic outputs, yet create a set of metadata that is potentially transferable and has wider application as a dance standard.

The main function of metadata is to facilitate the smooth and apparently seamless online searching of the archive by any user at any time. A user needs to be able to search the archive for a particular item and all of the relevant materials should be displayed. Hence, the task for the team is to develop a method for searching that is fundamentally accurate and descriptive, and which achieves consensus in its description.

Metadata, as data about data, is the digital equivalent of a library classification system. It is information which describes an object in terms of (for example) how, when, and by whom it was received, created, accessed, and/or formatted and how it is formatted. Some metadata is seen by users, other metadata can be hidden or is embedded. Whilst some of the factual detail is relatively easy to construct for dance objects, some aspects of metadata are more complex, can be contested, and have needed lengthy discussion to decide what “titles” to begin with and how these branch out into series titles and fields. These decisions require consensus, broad knowledge of the range of objects and some sense of how the user will need to access material. This relies on the contribution of those who have created and embodied the work (Davies, her dancers and other collaborators), those who have an analytical perspective on the collection (the researchers) and those who deal with the translation to the metadata format (the technologists).

Most significantly in terms of research process, gathering the raw materials is fundamental to establishing the metadata structure. This is made more difficult when working with dance objects. Dance, as an art form, has gathered relatively little in the way of ‘hard copy’ records of itself. Frequently the information required to populate the fields is not ‘written down’, so accessing the information requires time spent directly with individual company members (past and present), and a very clear method for gathering the information to minimise mistakes or ambiguities. Consequently, the metadata ranges from very simple fields such as the titles of particular works and the dancers who performed the work, through to more complex and openly interpretative fields including ‘analysis’ and ‘relation’: the former containing a number of different analyses of a particular performance from different perspectives and people; and the latter containing some conceptual and choreographic themes that run through Davies’ work. It appears that this may be the first time that metadata specifically relating to contemporary dance has been developed in the UK so offers a model for future projects although will always need some level of adaptation in response to the particularities of the archival collection.


The intention has always been for the project to be collaborative. Although this presents challenges in terms of how two organisations can work together when working within very different operational structures, it ensures that the ambition for it to be a ‘living archive’ is more easily realised. The team is committed to finding ways to represent the work in an interactive form so that the archive is perceived as extending and complementing the company’s current work rather than merely as a record or ‘back catalogue’ of its past work. The archive will be comprehensive and is likely to include many versions of one work to provide multiple perspectives on particular choreographies. The decision about which version to use is made collectively so as to ensure that individual subjectivities or bias are not dictating the selection of works, or versions of works, for inclusion. These decisions need to take account of the living form and the contribution of those who have created the work, to ensure individuals are not misrepresented and that the integrity of the work is not undermined.

Gaining trust at an early stage of the project proved essential and now the research team is working closely with Davies and the company to gather existing materials and to generate new materials. A digital archive is, by its very nature, at least twice removed from the ‘original’ instantiation of a dance event. The recording of any performance is a representation of it, the camera operator, director and editor making crucial decisions about what is included and what is left out. No recording is therefore neutral and raises the issue of authorial power. In digitizing this recording, whether it is moving or still image, another representation is created. A digital representation of a VHS recording (for example) looks and feels different. There may also be some further editing needed. The object is thus third generation, or ‘twice removed’.

Being involved in the filming of current projects and hereafter throughout the lifetime of the project enables the team to gather confidence in gaining authority and curatorial responsibility. Being directly involved in the activity of the company brings about sensitivity to the creative process and its discursive and non-linear nature. Any new work generated in this way will be discussed by both the researchers and the company to ensure that they are comfortable with how the new material may be representing Davies’ work. Gaining trust in this way has also opened up the possibility for other collaborations between the Company and the researchers at Coventry. As predicted, additional creative possibilities have emerged through the early stages of the creation of the archive and might well lead to engaging with other digital processes to generate new work. Nonetheless, archival projects that require such a close working relationship with those who are the subject of the archive, and are continuing to be active in creating work, require clear communications, agreement about responsibilities and ‘boundaries’, and a common vision about the primary purpose of the resource development.

Any project that deals with collecting materials that are owned by others opens up the area of copyright. Many materials are owned by the company so present no difficulties, but otherwise negotiations are underway to determine what might be secured for the archive. Fortunately, the team has already secured access to a large collection of photographic images. A number of prominent photographers have documented Davies’ work over many years. Being able to include this work in the archive will help to build a more complete picture of Davies’ work whilst also offering increased access to the work of the photographers.


A fundamental issue that is at the core of the digitization process is the tension between attempting to capture the essential identifying components of a dance object (what is the ‘it’ that defines it as being what it is) whilst taking advantage of the technologies that can (re)present the object in a way that makes it more accessible and more immediate to engage with, precisely because of technological intervention. In simple terms, how can the original object be enhanced rather than compromised by the digitization process? And how might the digitization process provide the user with some access, within an online environment, to the creative, often intuitive impulse that gave rise to that object?

Digitization continues to be a contentious and much debated area, with the goalposts of technological development in a state of constant evolution and questions of authenticity and preservation rightly calling for a balance between digitization and preservation; it should be seen as part of a wider intervention strategy when creating a repository such as this. But digitization does enable the potential global distribution of representations of fragile or rare materials to those who might never otherwise be able to access such information.

Practically, the prime concern when digitising any object is to ensure that the resulting digital object retains the optimum amount of detail and information for its pertained use, whilst also ensuring that this is both financially and practically feasible within the project’s limitations and that it will not jeopardise the digital object’s future use and accessibility. Simple but effective measures, such as the use of open standard media formats as opposed to proprietary formats that often offer size or quality benefits but are not widely established, are an effective way to give digital media the best chance of longevity. However, Sony’s proprietary DVCAM digital tape format has been selected to migrate the analogue video collection. This is partly due to budgetary constraints, which do not allow the use of DigiBeta or a similar true archival video format; and also the decision to use digital Mpeg2 files as the lossless archival master, which has negated the requirement for full reliance upon a tape backup. DVCAM uses the same technology as standard DV tape whilst offering a lower drop out and artefacting rate. Plus, as evidenced by Sony’s very successful roll out of the BetaCam format and its derivatives, there is enough evidence to suggest this will be an accessible format for the foreseeable future.

The digitization process might well be seen to be a challenge to the ‘liveness’ of the dance event, yet it also provides opportunities for how dance can be both generated and experienced in new ways. Whilst it constitutes an inevitable translation or transformation of the ‘original’ artefact that might be seen to be reductive, the idea is to offer up ways in which the user can have some access to the context in which the ‘original’ emerged, whilst also opening up space for seeing how an object can be reframed or recontextualised and used generatively to augment the creative process. In this way, the intention is to explore how the digitization process brings about a user interface with the archive that makes space for an alternative ‘choreographic’ experience. Still in the early stages, the aim is to include an interactive dimension that offers another way in to accessing the choreographic process, one that could be seen as ‘experiential’ in how the user makes selection, employs manipulation and editing techniques (etc) to engage with Davies’ work, albeit always through the viewing of the digital object on computer.

Davies has already demonstrated an active interest in the possibilities of working with new technologies. In 2006, Scott DeLaHunta took his Rotosketch Interactive Choreographic Sketchbook to the company’s Jerwood Bank project based around In Plain Clothes. Rotosketch is ‘an intuitive tool for sketching, doodling and notating on top of video, such that the marks that are made are linked in time with the video. This allows the user to draw strokes along the axis of time, as well as the normal x and y axes, and for those strokes to augment, analyze, interpret, or even obliterate a video sequence’ (http://thesystemis.com/rotosketch/)7. Discussions are underway with Scott deLahunta to explore how Rotosketch might be incorporated within the archive as an interactive element. Other opportunities are also in discussion that draw on a range of new technologies and fit well with the archive’s ‘playing’ with creative and technological experimentation.


The process of digitisation and preservation is a key challenge throughout the project. It is one that requires efficient time management and thorough investigation concerning the currently accepted archival standards and formats. Although the Siobhan Davies Dance Online project is primarily concerned with collection, digitisation and dissemination, with a relatively small percentage of the overall budget dedicated to preservation, it offers the most opportune time to intervene and migrate a collection that is currently housed on unstable, near redundant and often inadequately stored hard copy formats.

Digitising the collection, which is of relatively small scale, will remain a challenging task within an 18 month period for a small team. Whilst many of the digitisation tasks will be streamlined to allow a degree of automation with the given equipment, there will necessarily be a large amount of manual work involved in the completion of the tasks, with consistency and quality being the prime concerns. The overriding advice to anyone undertaking a similar project is that it is essential to have an effective and considered implementation strategy in place before beginning a large scale digitisation project, as any errors of judgement made at the initial stages could have a potentially huge destabilising effect on the project’s schedule and operating budget if reassessment is necessary at a later date.

The team hopes that the archive will offer up a useful site for those who question the intrinsic value of the archive and for researchers who continue to be fascinated by the elusive presence of the dance. In escaping any fully translatable record of itself, the dance remains for many an art of self-erasure8. This project aims to capture the wealth of artistic investment that is ‘behind’ Davies’ choreographic output without losing what Lepecki describes as ‘the mourning force that movement as presence and presence as absence propose’ (2004: 129).

Already, the research process has given rise to considerations about how the project can stimulate thinking around ownership and identity in relation to dance objects. This is something that choreographers have been attempting to address for many years but with little success. The archiving process offers up potential solutions to how choreographed material can be cited and the source/s properly acknowledged. This has implications that go far beyond Davies’ work, as does the possibility for new research areas because of the bringing together of varying dance-related materials in new ways. Such examples include opportunities to trace particular developments in dance documentation (programme content, reviews etc) and to explore the impact of new technologies on design for dance over the last two decades.

Whilst the project is still in the early stages, the team is confident that the project can make a significant contribution to the small but growing number of archival performance projects, some of which are realising their archival possibilities as a by-product of the creative or choreographic process9. Perhaps the difference here is that the archiving of Davies’ work has the potential, once created, to be used generatively, to imagine new responses to Davies’ work as well as new choreographic projects because of the archive itself. This is perhaps the excitement of what lies ahead.


Sarah Whatley

Sarah Whatley is Professor in Dance and Director of the Applied Research Centre for Media Arts and Performance at Coventry University. She was Head of the Performing Arts Department for 9 years until summer 2007, establishing a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, whilst retaining her practice as performer and choreographer. She is leading a number of research projects, including the Siobhan Davies Dance Online project. Other projects focus on dance analysis, dance pedagogies, and dance and the moving image.

Paul Allender

Paul Allender has a degree in Fine Art, a Masters in Politics and Sociology and a PhD in Politics. In 2006, after ten years working as a social science academic, he decided to return to the arts and is currently working as Senior Research Fellow on the Siobhan Davies Dance Online project. His plans, once the project is completed, are to research and teach Performance Studies and to set up an experimental performance company in his hometown of Sheffield.

Ross Varney

Ross Varney is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Media Arts and Performance (CeMAP) and is currently working on the Siobhan Davies Dance Online project. Ross’ expertise lies in the area of multimedia production and digital archiving. Prior to his joining CeMAP in July 2006, he worked as a freelance filmmaker in the Coventry area working with a number of local arts organisations and performance groups such as Talking Birds, Belgrade Youth Theatre, Blue Eyed Soul and Acting Out.


deLahunta, Scott, and Norah Zuniga Shaw (2006) ‘Constructing Memories: Creation of the choreographic resource’, pp. 53-62 in Performance Research, Vol. 11, No. 4.

Lepecki, Andre (2004), ‘Inscribing Dance’, pp. 124-139 in Lepecki, A. (ed) Of the Presence of the Body, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Thomas, H. (2004) ‘Reconstruction and Dance as Embodied Textual Practice’, pp. 32-45 in Carter, A. (ed). Rethinking Dance History: A Reader, London and New York: Routledge.

Whatley, S. (2005) ‘Dance Identity, Authenticity and Issues of Interpretation with Specific Reference to the Choreography of Siobhan Davies’, pp. 87-105 in Dance Research; Vol. 23.2.




1 The title of the archive is Siobhan Davies Dance Online.

2 Since moving into a new building at the start of 2006, Davies has actively collaborated with specialists in other disciplines to explore her own choreographic work. In Plain Clothes (2006) and Two Quartets (2007) were created through dialogue with external collaborators. See http://www.siobhandavies.com/ for more information.

3 The team is Sarah Whatley, Paul Allender and Ross Varney. All work within the Applied Research Centre for Media Arts and Performance (CeMAP) at Coventry University; http://www.coventry.ac.uk/researchnet/d/196

4 For further discussion on the theme of dance reconstruction in general, see Thomas (2004). For more on this theme in relation to Davies' work, see also Whatley (2005).

5 In the case of each analogue or hard copy object we digitise, we have drawn upon a number of useful online guides provided by bodies such as the Technical Advisory Service for Images (www.tasi.ac.uk), AHDS advice on creating digital resources ( http://ahds.ac.uk/creating/index.htm) and the Digital Preservation Coalition (http://www.dpconline.org/graphics/) amongst others in order to determine the most relevant formats and specifications.

6 Sarah Whatley has been researching Davies' work for many years. Davies' choreography was the subject of Whatley's doctoral thesis and she has a number of publications relating to Davies' work.

7 See DeLahunta and Zuniga Shaw (2006) for further discussion about this project.

8 Andre Lepecki (2004) uses this expression in discussing Jean-Georges Noverre's perception of dance (in 1760) in which Noverre despairs the disappearance of dance works.

9 See for example William Forsythe's CD-Rom Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Eye, the Entity interdisciplinary research project (for background on this project and previous projects see http://www.oftheheart.org/ and http://www.openendedgroup.com/



Sarah Whatley
Paul Allender
Ross Varney





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