Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2009

September 26, 2009

Dancing in Liverpool

I visited Liverpool this week to find out whether my work could have a place there. I’d been invited to participate in a roundtable discussion at FACT between arts organisations, artists and the NHS. Liverpool is trying to rebalance the health inequalities in the city and to improve its very poor health statistics. The aims are laudable, as is the desire to acknowledge the value of the arts in helping to achieve some of those outcomes. However, as I confessed to the gathering, when I make work, improving health or increasing well-being is not a starting point I usually choose. I am also concerned that the drive to achieve well-being suggests that ill-health, or unhappiness don’t have any place in a good life. For me, it is important to learn how those low points fit in to a bigger picture, how understanding our unhappiness can teach us something that may help us leave that unhappiness behind or at least accept its place in our lives while we search for happiness in other parts.

I walked around the city a lot and got a tour from a community artist who spoke of his own experiences in care, in the navy, in prison and in rehab. As we looked at the ugly buildings on Liverpool’s Albert Dock, he remarked that the windowless holding-cells of the courthouse next door are far uglier. He reminded me how partial my experience of the city is, how protected I am.

But the only thing I really know is how to work from myself out towards others, to work on what I think is right and offer it to others to engage with. I’m not a proselytizer and that may be a short-coming.

So after all the talking, I danced.

I’d seen some teenagers hanging out in one of the alcoves on the outside of the Metropolitan Cathedral and when I returned later, it seemed like a place where I could work for a bit.

August 30, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Last day

To mark Heritage week and to see the ending of the Tattered Outlaws installation, Caroline Cowley invited me back to speak about how Dan and I made the piece.

I’m used to trusting my work to performers to give it life but it was strange and delightful to see how the installation, not a live performance, has developed since we left in July. I notice the visitors’ book damp from its time in the tower, a ‘G’ wiped off the lettering on the door, an extra lamp from the home of one of the invigilators added to make the space more friendly.

Those invigilators have been a huge asset, heaving in and out the generator, nimbly negotiating the planks to remove the protective plastic bags from the screens and helping visitors to understand the installation. Seeing how they invested in the piece, committing time, energy and creativity to making it possible, has been an inspiration. I see the work which Dan and I made grow through them and through the visitors who have engaged with the work. This growth is not ancillary to the work. It is a fleshing out of potential inherent in the piece, but potential that is unrealised in many works of art that don’t find the right context.

It is impossible to determine what the outcome of the work has been but if nothing else it has been an occasion for connections to be re-established, not only between these towers, but also between people:

When Senator Fergal Quinn spoke today about how his father built the Red Island holiday camp that incorporated the Skerries tower, he mentioned in passing the last caretaker who lived in the building grafted at that time on to the tower. As it turned out, the widow and daughter of the caretaker were in the audience and proud to reconnect their personal history of the tower with a bigger narrative.

The board we left with the question ‘What next?’ is covered in suggestions about what the tower could be used for (a scout hut, a museum, a swimming pool, a chic wine bar…). The board prompted someone from DIT to suggest that the tower could be used as a live project for his architecture students. They propose to do feasability studies on a number of ideas that the public have contributed and so the work continues.

All of which prompts me to ask, not in a masochistic way, whether the connections and creativity that has issued from the project needed our work at all? Would it have been just as effective to open the tower and maybe put some historical material about the towers inside?

But I think that, more than a historical account of the towers, our work sanctions and invites the personal response to these buildings that liberates people from feeling they have to be experts to contribute. All kinds of responses, no matter how idiosyncratic, are given shelter within the structure that Tattered Outlaws creates: the woman who described her tomboy derring do playing inside the tower is already in the performances of Zach and Eva (and Bernadette and me); Fergal Quinn’s account of dressing in a sheet to stand on the roof on the Skerries’ Tower to play the part of the Banshee whom the conga line of dancers from the holiday camp would serenade at the end of the night, is somehow connected to the ghost performances of mine on the roofs and to the lines of visitors that snake out the door to see Tattered Outlaws. The piece anticipates and welcomes all the memories that visitors have brought.

Tattered Outlaws honours the individual while providing a context for that individuality to connect to others. And it gives expression – incarnation – to the stuff that people don’t articulate in words: it remembers those that have passed away, and reminds us of our inevitable passing.

August 23, 2009

Persepolis 2.0 – amateurs and professionals

This post isn’t about dance but having just performed in Edinburgh alongside the very talented Matthias Sperling whose Riff deliberately samples and reworks excerpts from the choreography of William Forsythe, Shobana Jeyasingh and Laila Diallo, I have been thinking about influence, mimicry, borrowing, plagiarism, and creative appropriation. In the age of audience engagement, mash-ups and user-generated content, I think there’s something I need to work out as an artist about my role in all this.

Persepolis came to my attention when the graphic-novel by Iranian-French emigré Marjane Satrapi, about her early life in Iran at the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution, was turned into an Oscar-nominated cartoon/film.

Persepolis 2.0 uses Satrapi’s black and white drawings but reorders them and adds new captions to tell the story of the disputed presidential elections in Iran and the protests which followed. The new version culminates in the death of the young protester, Neda Agha-Soltan.

The reworking effectively samples Satrapi’s original and uses it to tell a new, though not unrelated, story. It was done by two Iranians who live in Shanghai and Satrapi gave her permission for the reuse without actually endorsing the project.

I’m not sure whether the authors of Persepolis 2.0 (even the word author becomes anxiety-ridden in this context) are professional graphic artists or whether they are ‘amateurs’ who have been able to appropriate the skilled and evocative drawings of Satrapi, but as we know since Duchamp displayed the ready-made urinal, the artist is not defined by the skill of the maker.

Persepolis 2.0 is available to view and download at www.spreadpersepolis.com


August 20, 2009

Dialogue in Edinburgh: Photos

photos by Maria Falconer

August 07, 2009

Dialogue in Edinburgh: First review in The Skinny

Posted by Rebecca King, Fri 07 Aug 2009

Rebecca King enjoys a thoughtful dance-chat.

Fearghus O Conchuir studied at Oxford University before going to London Contemporary Dance School; this is an unconventional way of training as a dancer and indeed Conchuir’s Dialogue is an unconventional piece. O Conchuir works with musician Yin Yi and fellow dancer and choreographer Li Ke to create a relaxed, tranquil piece which utilises technology to the full.

When the audience enters, the dancers and sound artist are pre-set onstage, sitting around a small table which also holds Yi’s laptop, which will generate the music for the show. There is also a portable video camera and a projector, and at one point Ke films the contours of her own body from her own perspective, live footage of which is projected above the dancers, making for striking, memorable viewing.

Footage of both moving dancers is projected along with their dancing shadows. Dialogue is not only a danced and verbal conversation between three people, but also an exchange of ideas between different media. You won’t be blown away by virtuoso tricks but you will be struck by the intelligent, experimental nature of the piece – this is essential viewing for those who like their dance thoughtful, quirky and intimate.

August 06, 2009

Dialogue in Edinburgh: Article in The Skinny


Posted by Gareth K Vile & Iwona Wilk, Thu 06 Aug 2009

China is currently at the forefront of artistic interest. Gareth K Vile meets an Irish choreographer who wants to communicate.

Dialogue is the creation of one Irish and one Chinese dancer, with input from a Chinese composer. While not a debate about inherent differences between East and West, or a simple act of cultural tourism, it uses the dance traditions of Europe and Asia to conjure a yi jing, or contemplative atmosphere.
Fearghus O Conchuir, who developed and dances Dialogue along with Xiao Ke, brought a clear concept to the project. Rather than trying to make grand social statements, he began with the two separate visions of performance.
“The impetus for the piece didn’t come from a desire to break taboos. We wanted to work out how we, as very different artists from very different backgrounds, could create a common ground,” he says. This was further defined by the specific characters of the two dancers. “I am very keen that our differences are recognised. I am tall and lanky and angular. Xiao Ke (which means ‘little precious stone’) is small, grounded and sinuous. She’s a woman. I’m a man. These are the bodies we inhabit and, short of gender re-assignment and extreme body modification, these differences are fixed but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work together.”
Dialogue is an experiment in how different people can work together, despite the almost opposing approaches that they represent. “While I usually design quite specifically my choreographic material, Xiao Ke is more accustomed to improvising,” O Conchuir elaborates. “The choreographic structure we arrived at is a framework for us to continue investigating and negotiating our relationship. The structure allows to understand better each other and, unexpectedly, ourselves, so that the piece is something that develops and grows with us.”
In this sense, ‘dialogue’ is a fitting title for the performance, where dance replaces verbal communication and strives towards a deeper appreciation of both shared and diverging perspectives. This organic process allows the piece to take a fresh look at intercultural exchange, and has directly grown out of O Conchuir’s professional relationship with Xiao Ke.
“I saw Xiao Ke perform when I was in Beijing in 2006. She was with the ZuHe Niao collective. I spoke to her after the show and arranged to meet again in Shanghai. After that first encounter, I went back to Shanghai in 2007 to spend some time working together.”
This led to a series of duets that consolidated their bond. “We did a long improvised performance in a studio and that was the first time we tried to figure out what physical language would make sense between us. We just tried something and went with our instinct, but it was useful to look at the footage afterwards as we could see what connected us.” Gradually, they integrated their movement, seeking to reconcile “the designed, muscular roughness” of O Conchuir’s style with Xiao Ke’s “grounded, flowing, improvised approach.”

The Orient provided the foundation for Dialogue, as the pair used elements of traditional Chinese philosophy to guide the structure of the piece.

“We’ve explored the energy states associated with fire, metal, earth, water and wood and we’ve referred to the grid system of Luo Shu to structure our use of the space.” Yet even such a precise inspiration is only part of what the dance seeks to demonstrate. “The idea that informs the piece is inseparable from this history of our working together, exploring a potential relationship between us,” O Conchuir insists. “These influences serve only to underpin the relationship between us that evolves in performance.”
Once again, dance serves as a far more effective method of communicating a relationship than language. Any sort of dialogue based on words would have to negotiate translation, either allowing one tongue to dominate (perhaps depending on the performance’s venue) or leaving the performers speaking in different languages. The body, however, can be trusted to explain itself through a sympathy between the dancers and shared dance techniques. The question becomes one of possibility and union, rather than a struggle to impose one form upon the other, as O Conchur confirms.
“In choreographic terms, it becomes an interesting challenge to work out, in a formal way, how two different bodies can share the space. Can we do unison material? Can we do partnering? What can we risk? What do we avoid? The process is not to eliminate differences but to work through them. What starts to emerge, when we’ve done that, is the quality that draws us together, that connects us despite our differences, but recognising that connections will never diminish the differences between us. Nor should harmony depend on diminishing difference.”
In recent years, the ongoing migration of art and thoughts between Europe and China has become critical, as both cultures expand and explore the other’s ideas. In its early stages, this migration runs the risk of being imperialistic or exploitative, and it is a sign of maturing interplay that allows works like Dialogue to be more than decorative chinoiserie or blunt political comment.
Dance becomes a way of suggesting fruitful collaboration; a strategy to build a commonality without excluding or oppressing either party. As a study in communication, Dialogue is peaceable, inclusive. That it strives to conjure a contemplative rather than combatative atmosphere is a natural expression of the work’s personal and historical genesis.

Photographer:Jonathan Mitchell

August 03, 2009

I won’t be taking the lead.

Thank you for your submission to Artists taking the lead.
I am sorry to inform you that your idea has not been shortlisted.
We received in excess of 2,000 submissions and the artist advisor panels faced a real challenge in deciding a shortlist of just 60, as there are were many exceptional ideas to choose from.

We understand that you will be disappointed by this outcome.

We hope this may be the beginning of a journey for your project, and we wish you every success in the future.

It’s easy to write about the successful projects that get national media coverage but I thought it might be worth sharing an unsuccessful application.

I was excited to think about submitting a project for the Northern Ireland Taking the Lead Olympic commission. The idea is one that came to me a couple of years ago when I visited the pssquared space in Belfast and during my trip there got to see the Thompson Dry Dock where the Olympic class liners, that included the Titanic, were built. The fact that shipbuilding connected Northern Ireland to the world, seemed like a good starting point for an Olympic idea. The other thing that struck me when I saw the dock was that it was bisected by a low wall on which the ship’s keel would have rested. This bisecting wall has particular resonance in Northern Ireland but it also made me think about individuals and groups, men and women. I imagined a single older male dancer on one side and hundreds of young female Irish dancers on the other. I imagined the girls with angle-grinders. You can see that it mightn’t have been the most attractive option for the artist advisors, but there’s still something in it that I want to work out.

Maybe the dry docks won’t have me but there’s still a place for the solo man and the hordes of Irish dancing girls and their angle grinders.

July 29, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Irish Times Review

Michael Seaver’s review of Tattered Outlaws of History pleases me not only because it is sympathetic but because it recognises the choreography in the work that extends beyond the steps.

July 24, 2009

Toyo Ito: An architect for individuals

“I sometimes feel that we are losing an intuitive sense of our own bodies,” Mr. Ito lamented at one point during my visit. “Children don’t run around outside as much as they did. They sit in front of computer games. Some architects have been trying to find a language for this new generation, with very minimalist spaces. I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body.”

“The in between,” he added, “is more interesting to me.”

Nicolai Ourousoff’s essay in the New York Times on Japanese architect Toyo Ito caught my attention because it contrasts the ‘unassuming’ Ito to the ‘diva’ Zaha Hadid and ‘intimidating’ Rem Koolhaas. The essay paints

Looking for a way forward Mr. Ito was drawn to the work of Kazuo Shinohara, a vocal critic of the Metabolists who believed that if architecture could change the world at all, it would do so not by promoting radical social visions but by creating small, modest spaces to nurture and protect the individual spirit. His houses, mostly build it in the 1960s and 1970s, were conceived as private utopias, with delicate interiors supported by muscular concrete pillars that seemed designed to resist the outside pressures of a corrupting society.

But eventually this vision seemed as limiting … and Mr. Ito would locate his architecture in the space between two extremes: the social idealism of late Modernism and the inwardness of Shinohara’s work.

Much as I am a guardian of the individual spirit and an advocate for the protected spaces that nurture that spirit, I acknowledge the need to connect individuals through their idiosyncrasy. I’ve been imagining how we could create public spaces which support people to be alone with themselves – among others. Perhaps it’s something like a cloister where there is traffic and passage but which have a contemplative quality that allow people to reflect and revive.

I guess I was also attracted by the comparison drawn between Ito’s latest design for a new opera house in Taichung and a choreography that acknowledges the complex contradictory quality of humanity.

The sense of inside and out, of stillness and motion, becomes a complex, carefully composed dance.

It is a striking vision, as beautiful as anything built in the past decade. And it sums up Mr. Ito’s philosophy about both architecture and life, about the need to accommodate the many contradictions that make us human.

July 21, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Choreography

I suppose I was concerned that the TV coverage of Tattered Outlaws didn’t really mention anything about the choreography. But then I realised that by focusing on the opportunity for people to get inside the towers and to reflect on what that heritage means, the coverage is acknowledging the most important aspects of the choreographic work. For the people who enter the tower, the experience is a structured physical experience. They shift from the relative warmth of the outdoors to the towers cool damp interior. Their eyes must adjust to the interior gloom. They may queue until it’s time to stoop carefully to climb the switch-back stairs we’ve built until the arrive on the viewing platform in front of the screen. Only six adults can fit on the small platform at a time – it’s a dance which many can experience but not as a big group. Standing in front of the screens, the viewers are encouraged to connect beyond the immediate physical experience of the Skerries tower (they rain my drip on them) to the other towers and to performances glimpsed on them.

This experience of visiting the installation corresponds to my own physical engagement with the tower. They came alive to me when, on the advice of some passing schoolboys, I was able to climb in to the tower at Loughshinny and make my way on to the roof. The physical buzz of climbing into the towers, the nervousness of making my way around the spiral staircase in the dark, the emergence on to the roofs which open to the sea and the surrounding coast, dark, light, sunshine, rain, all fed in to the dances I made for the films.

After those initial visits to the towers I went back to the studio to develop some physical material, phrases of movement that had enough nooks and crannies for me to explore each time I danced them. I brought that material to the towers for the filming and adapted it to each tower, the conditions I found there and the feelings evoked in me by the encounter between my movement and the place.

When you dance in a studio and on a stage, for the most part, there is a relationship between the movement and the space that you can take for granted. The floor will be even, with a particular texture. Dancing on the towers is a constant dialogue between the movement I’d prepared and what the tower offered. For the most part, I danced in the derelict towers. There’s broken glass, rough stone, grass, bird shit, steps, wind, rain. So each time I put my foot down and slid and rolled, my intention was challenged by the tower. In an instant, I had to adapt and a whole new set of images, memories, feelings flooded my body. I may have prepared the material but there was nothing predictable when I brought it to the tower. Though the tower is strong and my interaction with it temporary , I leave traces of myself on it, small bits of my DNA scraped off, pebbles shifted, grass disturbed – small, impermanent traces – but tokens of my presence nonethless.

Bernadette’s encounter with Balcarrick followed the same process. Her material is prepared but transformed by what she finds in the tower. Her DNA in the smeared in spit on the surfaces of the tower.

And why the other people? Zach and Eva play, a kind of connection between imagination and physical exploration that I think is a good way to help people understand what the ‘dancers’ are doing. Dorothy tells the story of her personal history with the tower. Hers is a process by which memory becomes movingly present, a process we can read in her body as she circles the tower to keep up with the camera, making sure that it hears what she wants remembered. Joe, at his bench calls each of the towers in turn with his Morse code. We know there will be no response but the gesture of calling is important nonetheless.

And Tom, reading his book, silently, is also a renowned broadcaster. He is the owner of the tower but his background in communication makes him an appropriate presence. I read in his stillness a calmness and self-assuredness that provides a counterpoint to the fretful physical explorations elsewhere in the films.