John Scott's Irish Modern Dance Theatre is twenty-one this year, although he choreographed previously with Dublin City Ballet, Irish Theatre Ballet and as an independent artist. It's an artistic career that has displayed consistent regard for disparate influences, going beneath the surface movement and finding truth.
Scott's artistic heroes and sheroes come from all sorts of disciplines, so that the emotional landscape of Edgar Allen Poe might have a stronger aesthetic presence than any movement reference in any particular dance. Although the movement vocabulary in his earliest work showed a strong classical bias, it was also infused with the ideals of Meredith Monk and Robert Wilson. Also, visual movement references were often taped onto the walls of the old Project Arts Centre for audiences to peruse before the dance began. Neither was choreographic influence hidden or denied: if Scott was inspired by a choreographer, he didn't disguise their movement within his own dance. He simply invited them to work with his company.
Through the years he has happily distilled these influences to create an individual worldview and approach to choreography that has been consistent, but not without its landmark works. These represented, not just a new departure, but an intensification of his beliefs. Macalla from 1996 took Scott away from theatrical trappings into a promenade world of possibilities in the RHA gallery, where the audience roamed around the different spatial configurations that framed his typically multi-sectioned constructions. Scott's Bowing Dance (2002) is another landmark work, probably the purest example of his aesthetic. A solo that combines text and movement, it features Scott simultaneously giving directions to himself and describing what is happening to the audience in the simplest terms. For example, he says ”I bow” and bows. He then says, “you bow” and walks to a different place and bows.
This duality is reproduced in his latest work Body Duet, performed by IMDT stalwart Philip Connaughton and New York-based Michelle Boulé. They begin by standing facing the audience – like Scott did in Bowing Dance – and in turn saying “him” and “her”. It at once invites the audience to become a witness and mediator for the struggles that follow and immediately sets up a disconnect between the two performers, where they only refer to each other in the third-person.
As ever Scott is dismissive of even a hint narrative and confidently allows his various images to coalesce into a coherent whole. At times there are suggestions that the male-female partnership are lovers. Reading from a iPad, (a third party onstage that seems to contain a chronicle of their dysfunction) they recite lines like “How could you fuck someone else while I was at my aunt's funeral?” and “You embarrass me in front of my friends.” At other times the relationship is less clear, but what emerges is a more general duality, again similar to that in Bowing Dance.
This is also reflected in the stereo-panning soundscape by Blackfish (James Everest and Joel Pickart) and Eric Würtz's lighting design which dramatically pits a cluster of overhead lights in one corner of the stage against a bank of floor lights diagonally opposite.
Movements range from simple twitches, gestures and awkward duets delivered with a dead pan matter-of-factness that suggests that the performers are acted upon by the choreographers hand rather than playing out their own logical sequence of events. It's a viewpoint that has metaphoric resonance in notion of duality at the heart of the work. Neither performer can act as an individual, but must remain in emotional and physical balance with the other. Transcendency – a word uttered at times – seems illusive for both, and however they try to break from each other they are spun back by some emotional force.
And what performances. Connaughton ranges from aggressive, flailing movement to side-splitting multidimensional caricature, while Boulé maintains a concentrated intensity throughout the hour with an ability to change from absurdly comic to absurdly tragic within a moment.
Nowithstanding a sudden (and almost forced) ending, Body Duet is a probably Scott's most successful combination of the physical and the conceptual, where both in constant service to the other. There is a feeling that the twenty-one-plus years of Scott's disparate choreographic life are being distilled into a single and singular vision of what it means to dance and what it means to live.
Michael Seaver is dance critic with The Irish Times