What makes you happy? What makes you sad?
Questions that seem simple enough, yet which stumped members of the Irish population when choreographer David Bolger posed them as part of his research for CoisCéim’s current work, Touch Me. The responses, featuring much ‘eh-ing’ and ‘ah-ing’, form part of the soundtrack of a piece which positions itself firmly in a modern Ireland amid the rubble of the recent economic collapse.
This end-of-days milieu is pictured by Monica Frawley’s post-apocalyptic stage set, with shredded wallpaper and a forlornly-abandoned washing machine, whilst saxophonist Kenneth Edge ramps up the nostalgia with a careening live score. The retrospective bent is underscored when the six dancers of the work enter dressed in contemporary clothing, looking startlingly modern against the shabby chaos of the room.
The conclusion of Bolger’s interviews, with individuals from ‘all walks of life’, helped shape Touch Me, which became an examination of both the emotional responses to the events that led us, as a country, to where we are today, and what is important in our lives in the wake of the current economic fall-out.
Through a variety of cues, our attention is very deliberately drawn to those themes that have become inescapable in recent times. Miniature glowing houses, fashioned by the dancers onstage from coloured paper and handled reverently as though fragile and impermanent, point to the heady inflation of the construction bubble. Later, an impeccably-timed sequence sees the performers playing pass the parcel with bunches of keys, appearing at moments mesmerised by the jangling trinkets, later dropping them to the floor, resulting in a scrabble for ownership.
This mixture of reverence, desperation and tangible symbols of property bluntly communicates a message: beware the dangers of blindly pursuing the holy grail of home ownership to the detriment of economic security. But while there is condemnation for this behaviour evident in Bolger’s choreography, there is also sympathy for, and understanding of, the emotional force driving it: the very basic desire to create a home. We witness intimations of this in a scene, both protective and tender, in which dancers Jen Fleenor and Nick McGough kneel opposite each another, shadowing one of the glowing, friable paper houses between their knees.
In a more overtly political turn, Eamon De Valera makes a cameo as a sort of puppet-master, a recording of his 1943 speech ‘The Ireland That We Dreamed Of’ pulling the dancers into involuntary poses and gestures (including a particularly hilarious heroic contortion from Robert Jackson) that mirror his words with pastiche, implying we are a long way from the idyllic state being outlined (schmaltzy as Dev’s original ideation of it may have been).
Also satirically harking back to a ‘simpler time’ in Ireland’s history, a chorus of ‘toora-loora-loora’ frames one of the most striking scenes of the performance, wherein the intrepid McGough concludes an impressively athletic mid-air sequence, suspended on a dangling rope, by dramatically dropping to hang, limp, by his feet. Emma O´Kane covers up the spectacle with a plastic curtain and an ironic smile, leaving us with the feeling that the dead body of national pride is being bundled into a closet under cover of forced jollity.
The themes in Touch Me are very literally drawn for us, and this is where it falls down. It’s all too easy for an Irish audience to smirk knowingly at O’Kane’s mouthing of Mary Harney’s assertion “… we did it with the economy, and now we’ll do it with health as well”. This is comfortable and familiar territory that asks nothing of us. Instead, the things we already know are presented uncritically, confirming our previous assumptions. Yes, people were given mortgages that were wildly disproportionate to their means; yes, politicians are perhaps not the most reliable of human beings; yes, we became greedy and acquisitive.
Touch Me is restricted by the limits it sets itself. Just as the dancers seem unhappily shackled by the words of De Valera’s speech, the performance cannot get beyond a certain well-worn set of opinions. While the closing moments gesture towards the hope for future recovery that can be found in non-material things, in our relationships with others, there is a lack of conviction in the exuberant twirling and hammed-up gazing in wonder at bubbles (an interpretation of human happiness that tends towards the facile) which communicate this.
Where the piece is strongest is in its treatment of the fragility of the personal relationships that are inextricably bound up with a country in economic uproar. There is an understated duet, with McGough and Fleenor again paired, that takes place across, over and under a table, with gradually disappearing chairs, and which pictures the strain that uncertainty, the threat of a loss of support, can have on a relationship.
In his speech, De Valera prescribes the conditions for an ‘ideal’ Ireland, “The home… of a people living the life that God desires that men should live”. But the parameters of happiness cannot be prescribed for an entire nation; what Touch Me points to is the need to promote a spirit of openness and adventure that, hopefully, will allow new and vital ideas to grow.
Rachel Donnelly is a Dublin-based freelance writer and editor