Errol White and Davina Givan on art, life, work, and “Worn”
I am in a dance studio I have danced in for nearly 12 years. I am watching Errol White and Davina Givan show an excerpt from their upcoming work, “Worn.” The studio lights are up. Errol and Davina are wearing their practice clothes, recognisable from the classes they teach. A married couple, they perform an intense duet born from a close embrace that morphs into weaving, fiercely connected patterns.
I know them both first and foremost as teachers: theirs was one of the first professional intensives I participated in when I moved back to Scotland. As I sit here, watching a couple I know dance in a space I am intimately familiar with, I am struck by the specificity of this moment, the specificity of time, space, and physicality. I watch their movement not simply as a created entity: I notice aspects of performance, strength and technique they pass onto me when they teach. I watch their closeness knowing how they chat over each other when teach class. “Worn” will be performed in theatres, but there is a validity in this moment where we are gathered on a rainy Friday afternoon to witness Errol and Davina move, a moment that will not happen again. And that is ok. In fact, it seems more than ok. In a world where it feels like you are constantly racing towards the next thing or constantly justifying things as “useful” and “productive,” being present seems in some way vital and important.
Anyone who has danced in Scotland in the last
decade or so has probably come into contact with Errol and Davina. Their
professional technique class for dancers is always the same, formed through
years of creating exercises that they feel best keeps their technique in check.
It is exact and rigorous: in the first sequence, you stand with your feet in
parallel and hang over in an upper back curve for 16 counts. You repeat this
several times in parallel, first, and second position. Errol and Davina do this
class each day in their living room at home.
If you’ve been to these classes, you’ll have heard them both talk about “knowledge.” It’s the first thing we dive straight into when we meet in a café two weeks after the above sharing, after I casually mention that I’ve just seen Acosta Danza perform Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster.” I love “Rooster,” but I was struck by the slight datedness of the technique, contrasted with the need to keep it alive as part of our heritage. In environments where freelance dancers can struggle to access regular and consistent class, Errol and Davina see their class as information that can be taken on or left by the dancer—but it’s important that it’s there as an option. Technique is information, context, history.
“It’s about trying to find a way to impart knowledge that allows the individual to make choices, and I think that’s very difficult because we’re all fighting for space,” Errol explains. “But I think it’s up to us, especially mature artists, to understand that it’s not colonial, we’re not building an empire here, we’re just custodians of knowledge.” As in a lot of dance, when Errol and Davina stop, the knowledge stops with them. Respect is key: “when we observe another form or mechanism, we can respect that way of working,” Errol continues. “I think sometimes we’re so quick to judge: ‘that’s not what I do.’” They don’t want to present their way as the only way, nor that things don’t adapt (“it’s not about going back to the ’80s, we’re not living there anymore”). And that key, consistent physical contact time in the studio is irreplaceable for a dancer. “People who are not dancers look at me like I’m insane when I say I just need to be in the studio, I just need to flush something through my body. It’s almost seen as an extra, you don’t really need it.”
Davina’s thirst for this knowledge and information is defined by a desire to be open. “Obviously I’m passionate about [dance],” she begins, “but it’s a relationship with all that information, all that technique. I love it and hate it at the same time, because it’s really difficult!” She continues, “but I’m quite greedy, I like to be challenged to try lots of different things, to be more versatile and open about information.” She speaks with particular reverence for Richard Alston: “I remember thinking I wanted a bit more refinement and then I went to see the company performing and I thought: that’s where it lives. And it was hard, but I did end up understanding refinement. I was really scared because I knew Richard was renowned for musicality. But he was so musical, that it wasn’t scary—sometimes the counts were difficult, but actually his musicality was in the in-between.”
Errol and Davina performed separately and together with numerous repertoire companies, including Richard Alston Dance Company, National Dance Company of Wales, Phoenix Dance Theatre, and Scottish Dance Theatre, before deciding to go independent. They are outspoken in their criticism of the ways in which independent artists have to work. There is no safety net for freelancers, Errol says, the artist is at the mercy of funders. “You get to a point and you can’t go beyond it, and now there is less money—.” “I disagree,” cuts in Davina. “I think there’s always money out there but there’s a reluctance to pay artists. It’s almost a privilege to be paid.” The one-off fee might cover the performance—does that reflect the years of constant training?
They point out that this precarious state is not always that different to repertoire companies. Errol talks of being on eight-month contracts: in those few months of the year when you have nothing, how can you expect to keep your accommodation, your lives going? For things to change, we have to have honest, open conversations about money: “As mature artists, we have been at the heart of developing the next generation at youth level, and I find it more and more difficult. We are encouraging young artists to make the choice to come into our field—.” “And then you go and sign on for universal credit,” finishes Davina. “It’s not right, is it?” Both come from working class backgrounds and have nothing to fall back on. And while both are extremely thankful for the in-kind support that is out there, in-kind doesn’t pay the bills.
A comment that’s been levelled at Errol is that “this is your choice.” “That’s quite damning,” says Davina. She continues, “that’s the thing as an independent, as an artist, [art] is made to feel frivolous, it’s a God-given talent. But it’s not, it’s not easy. You find people saying ‘you’re such a natural dancer,’ but it’s really really hard work.” Equity at the table is what we need, says Errol. Not a salaried person meeting an independent artist, but independent, front-line artists placed in organisations. “There’s a lot of dance artists,” says Davina “who have serious mental issues that we didn’t even know we had until after [the fact], because we are resilient. But without that support, not just the money, but feeling appreciated . . . There’s a lot in our industry who really suffer.”
We’ve realised we’ve spent the better of the hour discussing freelance working conditions, so we move to talk about “Worn,” although “I think it underpins where we are with the work” says Errol. “Worn” was born from previous creations. They had made “I AM” in 2012 with a company of dancers: in that process, they found that they were interested in exploring the quality of touch, especially when you’ve been with someone for a number of years, so they “selfishly” stepped back and made a duet together titled “Breathe.” “Worn” subsequently came from that. They were interested in a life lived, how things transform over time, and how that is marked in the body. The body can hold the past, present, and future, all intertwined, says Davina. “A memory can be somewhere in your body, and the way you recall and remember things is always different each time you remember it because you’re in a different time—you see details that you didn’t see before . . . I think it’s about that acceptance of who you are, what you are, and what you hold in your heart and mind.”
Their process always starts with the body, or “finding out things that stimulate the need to work physically,” says Errol. Their work isn’t linear or narrative. “I think of these works as events, a question to the audience. They’re not trying to take away the illusion we’re in a theatre,” he adds. As a ‘logical’ thinker, Errol finds it terrifying working in this way, trusting in the process rather than being dictated by a clear end goal or image. But that’s where that all-important studio knowledge comes in: things happen in the studio that you can’t explain or plan for. Are they worried that the piece will come across as just process? How do they communicate? “I am always aware that we’re being watched,” says Davina. And while there were original thematic or personal intentions that informed the movement, when they’re performing “there’s a very technical delivery emphasis, it’s quite precise: how your hands touch the floor, how slow something is.”
“Worn” is a monster, they both laugh, a just under an hour tour-de-force with the two of them on stage, a specially made floor from set designer Yvonne Buskie, and a live score from longtime collaborator Tiago Cerqueira. “Worn” is not at all like what they thought it would be: “I feel I’m a servant of the work,” says Davina. Throughout the whole interview, while they are critical, informed, and extremely knowledgeable about dance (“we could tell you some stories” says Davina), it is never because they are despondent about the art form: far from it. “The life changing possibilities of dance are massive. I always equate it to the Olympics, to something like cycling and the effect of Chris Hoy winning all those medals: not everybody is going to be a cyclist, not everybody is going to be an Olympic cyclist, but that change in society, to do with fitness and health—all of those things came with an elite sport.” Perhaps, most of all, there is hope.