Gardening, it is said, represents the ultimate form of hope. A tiny seed lies dormant in the cold, dark ground, entirely at the mercy of the elements, its ultimate survival a hair’s breadth removed its withering away on the vine. And so it is with an unborn child, waiting patiently in the womb for many months, hoping for safe and healthy passage into the world.
These two parallel threads meet and merge with an altogether more menacing presence in this challenging new dance piece, created as a result of a combination of circumstances few people would wish to experience.
When she began researching her latest commission for Belfast’s Maiden Voyage Dance company, choreographer Suzannah McCreight was mother to a lively toddler and happily pregnant with her second child. But life has a habit of creeping up and hitting you over the head when you least expect it. At a time of professional and personal fulfilment, McCreight was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and forced to confront the horrifying prospect of both wanted and unwanted growth flourishing, unseen, within her body.
Instead of going to ground and bailing on the commission, the artist in her was struck by the vivid metaphor of her condition. Her instinctive response was to direct that metaphor into her work, using the motif of a garden filled with deadly weeds and flowering plants, at once toxic and brimming with earthly delights.
The result is Plants and Hopes, an admirably courageous expression of both optimism and despair, a strangely compelling symbiosis of music and movement, physical introspection and factual commentary.
Five dancers enter the performance space, completely empty but for a dramatic wooden slatted structure, which can be moved smoothly to offer both a place of shelter and refuge and an arena for intimate medical examination and invasive surgery. The expressionless figures initially register as strange, otherworldly creatures sprung from the earth, costumed by Llinos Griffiths in soft, natural shades and textures, fabrics and fibres. Ciaran Bagnall’s mellow, golden, subtly changing lighting creates an atmosphere of growth and fecundity, as the dancers set about a formalised ritual of planting and nurturing small seedlings that will hopefully grow into strong plants and flowers.
During these early sections, lyrical though they may be in theme and in the context of Brian Irvine’s gorgeous, flowing score, the choreography is a little too literal, tending more towards mime than dance. The deliberately bizarre interventions of a set of recorded verbal commentaries on the subjects of tending and pruning add a humorous note but do not sit easily with one’s wary apprehension of what lies ahead.
But slowly the content moves closer to the heart of the human condition, punctuated by clinically accurate descriptions of scanning a foetus and a cancerous growth. A window seems to open for the dancers to flex their bodies and imaginations as the choreography expands and translates into sequences involving delicate touching and feeling, supporting and sharing, all leading to the moment when the cutting process will inevitably begin. There is nothing remotely queasy in McCreight’s interpretation, however; rather a strange beauty emerges through the respective human interactions.
There is a memorable pas de deux between the two strong male dancers, with the slighter figure of Ryan O’Neill, carrying, encouraging, almost breathing for his partner, the rangy, outwardly healthy David Ogle. And there is real poignancy, too, in O’Neill’s support for Carmen Fuentes Guaza’s frail, expressive patient, torn between devotion to her newborn baby and the need to attend to her own body.
One is moved not only by the testing narrative emerging through dance, but also by the instinctive trust evolving between the performers, as they morph seamlessly between human and plant life, never allowing McCreight’s central conceit to fade from view. Thankfully, there is a happy ending, as is, indeed, the case in real life. And the whole uplifting journey is reflected in Irvine’s music, which shifts from reflective to melancholy to joyous to positively jaunty. The sun comes out, new life thrives, and a happy tangle of rambling plants climbs and twists and reaches for the light in glorious profusion.
Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who regularly contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.