From Emma Martin’s opening salvo to Liv O Donoghue’s gentle, textured duet at the close, there was a note of confidence emanating from the two programmes in Re-Presenting Ireland, part of Dublin Dance Festival (DDF). These internationally curated programmes have become a regular feature of the festival: co-hosted by Dance Ireland, Culture Ireland and DDF, they are designed to showcase the diverse range of dance making in Ireland, and they subtly blended into the overall festival programming this year.
There were two Mixed Bills with three works apiece: solos, duets and ensemble works, with one male choreographer among this strong showing by women choreographers. If you were to seek a common strand in these distinct works it is probably the sense of exploring territory or place in its many guises – physical, spiritual and cultural. There was a strong dynamic of the private and the public in contradiction, in harmony or in discourse in these short pieces that ranged from excerpts of completed projects to fragments of works in progress.
Sometimes the strands ran their separate courses, at other times they reverberated one off the other. The movement was for the most part intensely physical and engaged, with the solo works, in particular, offering various discourses: between choreography and performance or an interrogation of space. This year, both ballet and traditional Irish dance featured, offering the fruits of a dialogue between these disciplines and contemporary dance, where not only the differing techniques but the neighbouring aesthetics were explored.
Listowel Syndrome was the most finished offering of the two programmes, benefiting from its previous life as a longer work seen during the Absolut Fringe Festival in Dublin last year. The extract here is the abstracted choreographic element separated from the original, which included spoken text while the musical collaboration, composed and played live by Tom Lane and Bryan O’Connell, remained. The notion of the territorial was very strong, not just in a sense of place being protected but in its dramatic narrative, where an insider is transformed into an outsider. It was all underlined by the strong physicality of the dance, as one figure could literally shoulder out another, or a forceful intervention is witnessed and the dancers hang back. We realise this is not only because of being outside any geographical or physical borders but because one figure has involuntarily become estranged from the cultural and spiritual cohesion of the group that had formerly embraced her.
Choreographer Emma Martin confidently harnesses her fine ensemble of dancers (Michael Cooper, Justine Cooper, Karen Gleeson, Megan Kennedy) and loses none of the ensuing theatrical energy, as the dancers are constantly on the move and the contrasting group and solo positioning seals the message. Some images stand out: the dancers on their knees, spinning across the floor with speed, then with embracing arm movements a circle is closed, the ostracised figure simply excluded
In contrast, Connect For from Chrysalis Dance was all about being outside a shared space and figuring out how to enter. This time it is not a solo dancer who is the odd one out; it’s the whole group who seem to be set apart. Their android style costuming reinforces the idea of alienation, or suggests visitors from a separate emotional planet, seeking how to relate, to belong. Initial gestures and shapes with hand and arms curved over heads and crouched bodies are mindful of retreating animals or defensive humans, but were less dynamic than later phases. The work really came to life when all five dancers were engaged and choreographer Judith Sibley released the shared energy that lit up the piece. As the dancers rose as one, legs extended in modern ballet style and with sweeping movements, bodies now erect and vertical, they danced in harmony, creating a place of safe communal encounter.
A territorial claim, as choreographer Mary Nunan’s piece of the same name once suggested, is not only about physical space but also about cultural inheritance and boundaries. In An Rinceóir/The Dancer, Bridget Madden investigates such a concept, excavating layers of her traditional Irish step-dance roots and training and introducing them to contemporary movement to see where that combination might lead. There’s a nice festival programming connection too, with Balbir Singh’s Decreasing Infinity, which brought classical Kathak and modern dance together. Here the journey begins with a barefoot Madden, her hands bound with rope behind her back, as if to emphasise a body in bondage to a particular movement pattern, which, as we know in Irish dance, keeps the hands firmly fastened to the sides of the body. So when they are released, it is as if the performer is watching herself take off in another direction, recalling Jean Butler’s foray into the same new territory. Madden (from Derry and currently dancing with Echo Echo Dance Theatre) sets her arms and fingers free and reels around the space, still fleet of foot and light of touch, instinctively twisting her ankles, or batting one foot off the other but now dancing to a different percussive sound. Even her fingers playfully demonstrate an intricate step of a slip jig, up and down her arm.
In Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company’s Gad gad, vazo gadati the territory being explored is language, both verbal and physical. Stripped to the waist and robed like a monk ready for ritual, Steve Batts presents a solo dance that is all about presentation, in muscular, disciplined controlled movement. The upper exposed torso (so static, for instance, in traditional Irish dance) is under constant siege here in move and gesture. The soundscape is an excerpt from Saussure, composed and voiced by Vincent Barras and Jacques Demierre. Just as the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure related to sound systems and block building in language acquisition, so Batts translates these to a body movement in response to the vocal sounds – pausing, phrasing, repeating and then rising to a crescendo as sound and movement gather pace at mesmeric speed. With touches of the intense focus of Sufi dance, the work also had resonances of Transire, performed during the festival by the French Compagnie Sui Generis, which similarly explored relationships between the voice and movement.
That sense of control over the body, of marshalling inner movement in a disciplined and coherent way also figured in Maria Nilsson Waller’s short, almost transparent, solo Walker. She is attuning to the relationship between music and movement that was a continuous thread through the festival overall. Here Steve Reich’s familiar discordant sound, beloved of contemporary dance, is the soundscape, as the dance-maker and performer’s body jerkily reacted to jangled electronic notes. At first her sheaf of dark hair completely veiled her face, emphasising an anonymous and effacing presence. This dissolved slowly, and building from some lovely rhythmic, lilting movement with her feet she finally emerged, face exposed, full body, confidently dancing in the space
There is supremely quiet confidence seeping through choreographer and performer Liv O’Donoghue’s Ten: white/grey studies in movement. She assuredly inhabits her territory, using swathes of gentle, reflective and accessible movement as she embraces the space, sometimes pushing against the ground as if to test its robustness. The soundscape is again provided by Tom Lane: a continuous, almost inaudible whispering, with hints of birdsong or distant waves as if the sound is intermittently running up and down the bodies of the dancers. Watching her duet with Maria Nilsson Waller gave a sense of being washed with movement, shadow and light, where even the sand being scattered or heaped in a small pile is both controlled and seductive. Final circular moves from the two dancers low to the ground seemed like stones softly skimming a pool of water.
The Re-Presenting Ireland showcases will be performed again on Friday 27 May and Saturday 28 May, Dance House, Dublin, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. A post-show discussion will be held with the choreographers on Saturday 28 May. www.dublindancefestival.ie
Seona MacRéamoinn is a dance critic based in Dublin. She is a judge this year for the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards 2011.