Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2008

August 19, 2008

Catching up with myself

I haven’t posted for a while. The past month has been busy with preparations for Edinburgh and with the creation of Dialogue, the new collaboration with Xiao Ke and Yin Yi that premiered in Dancehouse at the end of July. It was fascinating to spend time with the Chinese artists and to be confronted with myself, my habits and my deeply held assumptions when confronted by their very different approach.

The temptation is to talk about these differences in a China vs Western framework but to be honest it’s difficult to discern just how typical any of us of the cultures we’d be required to represent in this kind of dichotomy. As we see in the Beiijng Olympics, China has become skilled at delivering a Western audience what it thinks is expected of it (aesthetically pleasing little girl singers for example) so the oppositions are difficult to sustain.

For that reason, I’d presented the work as an encounter between individuals (already a revealing and culturally indicative gesture, I’ll admit), between a tall body and a shorter one, between a man and a woman, between an Irish performer and a Chinese one (Ireland vs China, Ireland + China?). If we were successful, and I think we were, it was in having found a way to allow all of those differences and potential oppositions to co-exist in the space articulated by the dance. We didn’t try to homogenise our movement styles; any unison dancing served only to highlight our differences. In a context where the integration of foreign nationals into Irish society was mentioned, I felt this demonstration of fruitfully co-existing difference had a countervaling weight.

photographs by Jonathan Mitchell

Dialogue was commissioned by the Intercultural Relations Unit of Dublin City Council with support from An Chomhairle Ealaion

July 28, 2008

Michael Seaver in the Irish Times

Thanks to Michael Seaver who wrote an article in today’s Irish Times about my work on bodies and buildings.


Choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir is using the changing face of Dublin as the backdrop to his innovative dance performances, writes Michael Seaver

LOADED WITH political resonance, Tiananmen Square was a popular and high-profile choice for western participants at last year’s Dadao Live Art festival in Beijing. Irish choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir instead chose to perform at the building site of the Olympic Stadium, for him an equally, if not more resonant political setting for his dance.

“Some of the other artists were really surprised that I had got permission to perform there,” says Ó Conchúir. He didn’t. “I did it on the sly. For me, it felt more appropriate. It was about asserting the right of an individual to express himself, perhaps on behalf others, in the shadow of this national governmental symbol.”

The western world seems infatuated by China’s new cityscapes. In this month’s Vanity Fair magazine, Kurt Anderson pays a gushing tribute to Beijing’s new architecture. It’s a typical full-colour glossy reflection of the new architecture (rather predictably titled From Mao to Wow!), with impressive photographs and a convenient narrative. Anderson finds parallels with New York City’s heyday in the early 20th century when the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center marked the city’s cultural significance, which still exists today.

But there is an inconvenient narrative behind Beijing’s new architecture that Ó Conchúir wanted to articulate. “A lot of people had to leave their homes and make way for the new construction. In this context, I felt it was important to make a statement for the individual.” The individual is constantly forgotten in Beijing preparations and even human horse-power is cheap. In the past month, 10,000 soldiers and civilians have cleared algae from the coastal city of Qingdao, which will host the yacht races at the Olympics.

Ó Conchúir agrees with Anderson’s assessment that Beijing’s cultural significance is being defined at present through its architecture. It is also something he sees back in Dublin, where areas of the city are making way for new buildings and a new cityscape is being created that will define Dublin for years to come. As dance-artist-in-residence with Dublin City Council, he has interacted with this changing architecture in rather the same way as he did in Beijing: rather than put dancers in sites of historical interest, he has placed them in building sites and wastelands that precede the bulldozers and cranes.

“The whole rush to create new buildings is, of course, tied to our financial wealth,” he says. “But the change of the physical landscape is also a change of our mental landscape, our history and how we imagine we are at this moment.” Responding to these changes as a dance artist means going into these spaces and finding new ways of moving there, in other words, relating the human scale back to the new building.

“I’m not a luddite,” he is clear to point out. “I’m not against the development. I just want to connect with what was there before, as a way of understanding and humanising the new when it comes along.” New architecture is almost always constructed on top of previous settlements or buildings. “Even the process of building foundations is like opening a grave,” he says. “We have to do something with the memories of the old buildings and find ways to make these new buildings more adapted to exuberant human interaction, even though many are more security conscious and corporatised.”

This doesn’t mean redesigning the buildings, but finding ways to adapt the spaces. There is a wall near where he has been filming off Sheriff Street, which always has people sitting on it, talking. It was built as a barrier, but it is now used as a space for socialising. It is only by the interaction of the human body with the built environment that social spaces are created in unexpected spaces. He sees a similar thing happening because of the smoking ban. Banished outdoors, smokers in the Dockland’s new offices have had to seek out or create social spaces that weren’t in the architect’s plans.

“His work is very significant and relevant to the way the city is developing,” says Jack Gilligan, arts officer for Dublin City Council. “It is great to have someone responding so fluidly to his surroundings. Even since he began working in this area of the north inner city, things have changed.”

Ó CONCHÚIR’S CV IS full of contradictions. A native Irish speaker, he completed degrees in English and European Literature at Magdalen College in Oxford. He then studied dance at London Contemporary Dance School and, now as a choreographer, the self-proclaimed country boy from An Rinn in Waterford is finding artistic resonance in building sites off inner city Dublin’s Sheriff Street.

His first work to connect the performer with his environment was Match, a dance film for the 2006 International Dance Festival Ireland. This duet focussed on the contests in daily life and relationships and featured two tussling male dancers performing in an empty Croke Park.

The towering terraces amplified their battle with resonances that went further than GAA contests, but appeared almost gladiatorial. After that he teamed up with architect Dan Dubowitz and was commissioned by Fingal County Council for a public art project set in the area’s Martello Towers. The public aspect of this is important.

“I am keen to make the work accessible to people,” he says. “When I say accessible, it’s not about changing the content of the work. The work is as strange and idiosyncratic and personal as always. But rather than hide it in a studio, or a theatre where it is marginally a self-selected audience, I want to show it where people can see it. They are not obliged to stay and watch it. But they will see it.”

While in China he teamed up with choreographer Xiao Ke and composer Yin Yi and together they have created Dialogue, which will be performed at Dancehouse on July 30th. As the title suggests, the work is about talking together, but it is not a work about Ireland and China.

“Neither of us wanted that, however, when we come together we embody certain aspects of the places we come from. So we’re going to see how that fits together, but without making a programmatic declaration about inter- cultural relations.”

Another dance, Niche, is directly inspired by the derelict areas awaiting the bulldozers in the Docklands. Ó Conchúir teamed up with James Kelly of Feenish Films and made a dance film in the original location, a setting that is ideal. “My work isn’t polished and glamorous. It’s quite rough and muscular, and it’s that grittiness that gets amplified when its put into an environment that isn’t so pristine.” Later in the year, Niche will transfer to the Project Arts Centre, thanks to a fundraising campaign that, it is hoped, will raise 500 individual donations of €100.

“Niche is about finding a place for ourselves, a niche, in an environment that’s changing all the time. It’s about living in cities with cranes on the skyline, about communities that aren’t like we remember. It’s about excitement and loss and it’s something I think we can all connect to.”

Dialogue will be performed on Wed and Thurs at 8pm at Dancehouse, Corner, Foley St, Dublin, 01- 8558800.


© 2008 The Irish Times

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

July 08, 2008

Filming Three+1 for now

Taking advantage of the sunshine we started filming today on wasteground just off Sherrif St. The builders ignored us after yesterday’s cheers of ‘encouragement’ but today we still felt watched by the circling helicopters and the feral cats. Maybe the people on the cranes saw us too before they lined up their machines at knock off time.

I loved being there and seeing the performers working. The choreography makes sense to me when confronted by the textures of this kind of environment. But broken bottles, babies’ nappies and uneven concrete aren’t so easy for the dancers to negotiate.

July 06, 2008

Ai Weiwei on the politics of Beijing building

Ai Weiwei, celebrity Chinese artist and design collaborator for the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, on the construction boom in Beijing:

While some gasp at Beijing’s extraordinary new skyline, with its statement buildings and rows of cranes, Ai remains singularly unimpressed. ‘It’s like another revolution,’ he says. ‘The speed of it. But if you look at the scale of it, you can tell that no time has been devoted to thinking. It has not been done gracefully. It’s rough and short-sighted and temporary. Cities always reflect human history. We can’t really judge it now but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of saying sorry later. [What we need to know is] who’s building it? How do the developers get the land? It’s so political. In 1949 most properties lost their owners. They were either kicked out or killed. The nation owned the property. Since then the state has just sold it to people who can afford it. So property should be [according to the government] for the whole nation, yet the government takes the profit. No political, philosophical or moral aesthetic is involved. It’s just: let’s be rich first. Except that people are finally starting to question: who is getting rich?’ (The Observer, July 6)

June 12, 2008

Skerries installation

Working in these Martello Towers is quite an experience. There’s the adrenaline rush of scaling the walls, the mental and physical agility required to respond to the tricky terrain on top of the towers but there’s also the human encounters with owners, caretakers, tourists, teenagers and passers-by who turn out to have a long investment in the towers. People have been very generous to us in allowing us access to their towers and in sharing their connections to these unusual buildings.

Through anecdotes we hear of dancehalls near the Skerries tower, of dances prepared for on the top of Rush tower, of Thursday night hauntings when a young man in a white sheet would climb the tower to scare the holiday makers camped below.

How can choreography deal with all this information? It’s hard to articulate but all of these anecdotes do live in the performance I’ve tried to create for and through the towers. They are hauntings, they are playful, they are business-like, absorbed, ordinary and a little strange. They touch bird shit and plasma tvs.

The biggest structural device will be clear from the installation where twelve identical screens sit side by side and the same energy of rotation creates a particular connecting rhythm that belies the differences of the towers’ current state and the particular ‘performers’ that our films notice.

I’ll miss not having an excuse to dance on a tower any more. Thanks to all those people who made it possible.

June 10, 2008

Removing barriers is good for us

An article in today’s Irish Times caught my attention because it acknowledges that not all the architecture of control in the urban space is helpful or as protective as it seems to be.

Transport chief’s Dublin plan: confuse drivers to cut crashes
FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor

TAKE A street in Dublin. Eliminate the footpaths. Get rid of all the “clutter” – traffic lights, direction signs, pedestrian crossings and guard rails, then see what happens.

That’s the experiment John Henry, director of the Dublin Transportation Office, wants to try out in the centre of the city.

“Without any signs, traffic will automatically slow down and there will be fewer accidents because drivers will take more care,” he said confidently.

“The environment is what controls speed, not signs or rules. It’s psychological. Signs like ‘slow’, ‘stop’ and ‘yield’ are often not seen by drivers. If you take the signs and kerb lines away, and say ‘go figure it out yourselves’, you’re creating uncertainty – and that’s safer.”

Evidence from abroad, rather surprisingly, supports Mr Henry’s novel proposal. Five years ago, the Dutch town of Drachten removed signs and traffic lights as part of a “naked streets” experiment – and accident figures plummeted as drivers became more cautious.

Drivers undirected by signs, kerbs or road markings are faced with confusion and ambiguity. Since they do not want to cause accidents at junctions, or damage their cars, they reduce their speed and establish eye contact with other users.”

The article refers to the planning of roads but the construction of fortresses whether luxury apartment blocks or corporate headquarters that seem to protect those who make it inside might be creating the conditions beyond their walls and cctv-monitored precincts that undermine that expensive safety.

Maybe the answer is to encourage confusion and ambiguity and to re-establish eye contact with one another.

June 05, 2008

Ireland’s eye

The Martello towers used to have a gun emplacement on the roof that rotated three hundred and sixty degrees. We’ve got a central camera rotating through three hundred and sixty degrees capturing some of the activity that is placed in the tower. I remember when we first visited, walking around the stony mass of Skerries tower, aware of the heat of the sun on one side and the damp cold of the sunless side and I thought that the tower was like a planet with its light and shade, heat and cold. That planetary motion made me think of life cycles and how brief our human flowering in the light.

In our work, the camera impassively rotates and, for short moments, a figure appears before its lens. The camera moves on regardless of our interest in the figure. The tower is a constant.

This footage is from an early test shot and a bit like a score for a single instrument in a symphony since ultimately there will be twelve such films side by side.

June 01, 2008

‘Tattered Outlaws of History’

I’ve mentioned the Public Art project for Fingal County Council that Dan Dubowitz and I are collaborating on. We’ve been developing the project over year and a half and are on our final phase of shooting this week.

We’re filming a solo performance on top of each of the twelve Martello Towers in Fingal. Of course, ‘performance’ is quite the right word, not only because some of the participants would not think of themselves as performers. They are inhabitants of the towers – people who spend time in those squat and solid buildings, some with recent temporary histories in the towers, others with long associations to them,. Some of the inhabitants have the expanded physicality of dancers, some don’t. Maybe they’re a kind of animus of or in the towers. There’s definitely an encounter between the bodies of the inhabitants and the body of the tower they inhabit.

Some of the towers are derelict,. Others have been renovated to uses other than their original defensive purpose. They are a family of towers, built together as a defensive unit. Having never fulfilled their defensive purpose, each of the towers has accrued its own history. Our project is to tentatively, imaginatively re-establish the family connection.

Yesterday we spent time in the Skerries tower that is being partially cleared out with the council’s help to house our installation of films. Today we went back to the tower near Lough Shinny. When we started this project, the council, in the interest of our health and safety, had us don white overalls and facemasks to enter the Skerries tower. The dust from pigeon droppings is toxic, apparently. The council also said that access to some of the towers like Lough Shinny might be difficult to arrange. However some local boys told us there was a rope fixed to the entrance of the tower that we could use to scale the wall and that’s how we’ve entered the Lough Shinny tower each time we’ve worked there. It’s a different kind of performance that comes from a body that’s climbed it’s way to its performance space.

We’re not the only ones who get in the tower. Broken bottles, condoms and cigarette butts suggest how some people have found their own, unofficial use for this particular tower. It continues to be a safe haven.

But I couldn’t work out what or who brought the thousands of blue rubber bands that cover the inside and roof of the tower today. They make for a strange and beautiful patina on the film. And they allowed new moments of my dance to resonate. The towers have lots of these little surprises

May 30, 2008

Live and animal

An article in today’s Guardian about improvised theatre caught my attention, linking the liveness of exciting theatre/performance and the animal.

“In Improbable,” he {Lee Simpson, co-artistic director} says, “we recently had the thought that really good theatre is like a shy deer you coax onto the stage. But if you ask it the wrong question or even just get an odd feeling, it bolts.

“Now, one way of solving that is just to say, ‘Fuck it. If we shoot it and stuff it, it’ll be on stage every night.’ It’ll be stuffed and dead. But it’ll look like a deer. So that’s the choice. Would you rather have a stuffed deer every single night? Or would you rather try coaxing the living, breathing deer on stage, in the full knowledge that there will be nights when it just runs away and won’t come back?”.


May 17, 2008

A fundraising campaign: 500 people, €100 each

I launched a fundraising campaign recently to raise money to make a new dance piece for the theatre. To make it I’ll use the material I’ve been developing through this residency. This doesn’t mean I’m abandoning the investigation in public spaces; but I am ready to translate the knowledge gained from my research to the conventions of the theatre. There’s a public in there too that I don’t want to neglect. This research was never about undermining the presentation of dance in theatre but about extending its reach by taking the skills and specificity of dance in to environments where they could challenge and be challenged by unfamiliarity.

Or maybe I’m losing my nerve, anxious to maintain my reputation as a choreographer by presenting work in familiar packaging, eventhough the content is the same which ever box I come in.

In any case it’s not an easy translation. The conventions of theatrical experimentation start asserting themselves as soon as I think about making a piece for the stage. What stage? When will it be free? Who will fund the work? Who will light it? What music? etc.

The exhilaration I’ve felt making this work outdoors in public spaces, (though let’s not forget its dependency on the Dublin City Council residency and Arts Council support) derives from its relative spontanaeity and independence. If I make work in a theatre, then how do I retain the integrity of the work, or how, at least, do I find a way to make the architecture of the theatrical presentation a suitable home for this new work?

This fundraising campaign is different way of dealing with the architecture. Here’s a letter I’ve sent out asking for help:

You can help me make a new dance piece.
I am looking for 500 people to donate €100 each.
In return I’ll be inviting you to see the show, celebrating what’s possible with the help of others and, if you want, I’ll be keeping you up to date with how the work in progressing. Of course, I’ll be thanking you a lot too.

This isn’t the usual way that dance performances get made in Ireland.
It’s something different.
It grows out of a failure. I missed an Arts Council application deadline. However, even though I was upset, ashamed and disappointed, I knew that I wanted to make this new piece because it needed to me made and not because I wanted to get some Arts Council funding. So I had to find another way to raise the necessary funds.

I’m asking your help because I think this new piece is important and could be beautiful.

It’s going to be called Niche and it’s about finding a place for ourselves, a niche, in an environment that’s changing all the time. It’s about living in cities with cranes on the skyline, about communities that aren’t like we remember. It’s about excitement and loss and it’s something I think we can all connect to.

It will premiere in Project Arts Centre on 22nd October.

I have four wonderful dancers from around the world whose movement moves me and I want to be able to share their skills with you in this new piece,

If you can contribute €100 to this piece, please send a cheque, making it payable to Project Arts Centre/ Niche, to

Project Arts Centre,
39 East Essex Street,
Temple Bar,
Dublin 2,

If you pass by Project and prefer to drop in, they’ll be able to help you there too.

When you make a contribution, make sure you leave your contact details. Project will issue you with a receipt and also a number so that you know how the appeal is going. And I’ll be in contact.

If you can’t make a contribution, you could pass this information to someone you think might; and please come to see the show.