Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2010

August 05, 2010

Fort Camden Site Visit

I was in Ireland recently on a site visit as part of the application process to create a public art commission for the magical, Fort Camden.  Fort Camden is a former military fortification near Crosshaven at the mouth of Cork Harbour.  It’s been in the ownership of Cork County Council for a many years but finally the council, with the support of a local Rescue Camden group,  has begun a process of reviving the site.

A number of artists gathered to be guided through the extensive buildings.  It has the quality of a fairytale castle, with its fortifications overgrown by brambles and exuberant weeds.  The sense of fairytale is reinforced by the fact that the majority of the site is underground with long dark stairways and tunnels that we explored by torch light.

This ratio of hidden to revealed reminded me of icebergs, perhaps because the Titanic was not far from my mind: it had anchored off Crosshaven before setting off across the Atlantic.  Its last passengers joined under the watch of the fort.

The Fort has been vandalised over the years and as a result there is a zero tolerance policy towards trespassing at the moment.  Even those who used to make their way in to the fort to fish from its openings to the sea are now resolutely barred.  This concern to police the boundaries continues the history of the fort and its vigilance over frontiers and yet those boundaries have always been porous.  Eventhough the fort was largely self sufficient with its own vegetable grounds and abbatoir, it also had a dance hall where locals and soldiers could meet.  The soldiers weren’t entirely self-sufficient.

So I’ve proposed a dance film where a female (a balance to the masculinity of the fort and an alternative to the prince who penetrates the thickets of Sleeping Beauty’s overgrown castle) journeys from the sea through the tunnels of the fort and emerges in the open parade ground at the heart of the site to dance it back to life.  It’s a fairytale journey and a metaphor for regeneration.  Let’s see if the commissioners like it.

August 05, 2010

Xiao Ke at the World Expo

I was surprised to find an article in China Daily about my friend and collaborator, Xiao Ke.  As I’ve written before, she wasn’t entirely comfortable performing in the Expo context when we were there together, mostly because it doesn’t feel like an authentic experience of China or of the world it purports to represent there.  (I wonder if that lack of ‘authenticity’, the enforced ‘best foot forward’ is an authentic, revelatory experience).  However, as the article communicates, she has nonetheless performed in three separate projects within the Expo context, joining artists from the UK, Germany and of course, Ireland.

What interests me is that the article transmits her dissatisfaction at not being able to perform, officially at least, much of her work in China because of its ‘sensitive’ content.

On the current situation of China’s contemporary dance, Li said she worries about its future. “Most of my works can’t be shown in my home country due to the sensitive subjects they encompass,” she said. “I think it’s pathetic that the art someone creates is not supported by their homeland. I can only perform overseas.”

And I’m glad to have the opportunity to know at first hand the journey of artists like her to change that situation in China.

Meanwhile, she told me that she was thwarted by EXPO recently in her attempt to eat watermelon: she went to the supermarket to buy a knife to cut her watermelon but could find no knife there or in any of the local markets.  When she asked where she could buy a knife she was told she’d have to go to a special shop with her ID card because the authorities were controlling sale of knives during EXPO.  So she couldn’t eat watermelon that day because of Shanghai’s EXPO.

July 14, 2010

Kings Cross Solos

I’ve just finished a project with five second year BA students at London Contemporary Dance School. I’ve been encouraging/facilitating/mentoring them to think about context when they are developing their choreography. In particular, I’ve focused their attention on Kings Cross, where the school is based, and which is the biggest city centre regeneration project in Europe at the moment.

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Mostly they had no idea of how the area is being transformed.

I decided to do this project, called Kings Cross solos, after attending Choreoforum last year. At that annual conference for choreographers, the recipients of the Raine Fellowships spoke about their experiences spending time in other contexts (for example Rosie Kay spent time with an army regiment and Kate Flatt in hospices for the terminally ill). They were inspiring but I was uncomfortable that the audience was so amazed that choreographers might have a relationship with these other contexts, might have something to learn from and something to contribute to them. It bothered me that people would think it took the magic of a Raine Fellowship for such a connection to be made.

But then I realised that students of dance focus on quite a narrow set of career options that usually involve performing or making work for theatre. It’s not that they don’t have other experiences of the world outside of dance training but they don’t have a specific opportunity for allowing those other experiences to relate to their dance practice. In that respect, my late coming to dance meant that I began my career with a sense of other worlds, other ways of thinking, other sets of priorities.

The narrow focus of much dance training in no way corresponds to the diversity of opportunities and practices that exist for contemporary dance artists. So I decided to pitch an idea for a context-conscious project to LCDS and Kirsty Alexander, Deputy Director of the school, was very welcoming of such an approach.

The project was an interesting challenge for me since I wanted to share some of my amassed knowledge and the approaches I’ve developed from this bodies and buildings research but I didn’t want to choreograph on the students. Instead I wanted to encourage these young artists to develop their own voices, but to do so by answering in their own way questions about context that I posed them.

One of the things that I clarified for myself is that my work isn’t so much site-specific as it is an encounter between individual and site. That encounter is an I-thou relationship that acknowledges the integrity of both parties in the meeting.

I introduced the students to Gill Henderson of CreateKX, an organisation that brings together the cultural organisations of the Kings Cross area (The Place, British Library, Wellcome Trust…) to work to for cultural provision within the area’s redevelopment. I also invited the journalist and social historian Alan Dein to tell the students some of the human stories that he’s gathered in the area. His audio tour of the Caledonian Road is available here.

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The contextual information was initially overwhelming and I was struck that some of them felt a guilt or responsibility to embody the stories they heard. But I didn’t expect them to channel Kings Cross. We had six days for the project and besides there are an infinite number of stories you could tell about this or any area, an infinite number of contexts one could address. In fact one of the most interesting things to ask oneself when working in context is ‘who defines this context?’.

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Faced with that infinity, I felt the only choice was for the students to clarify their own expressive voices and to place themselves and their investigations in that wider context, allowing themselves to be informed by and to contribute to that developing context. The work then develops from the encounter, an encounter that may illuminate both parties in the meeting.

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The work of one of the students, Anja, isn’t shown here because my video of her work was too bad.

June 04, 2010

EXPO visit: Niche at the Irish Pavilion

Because Matthew was coming to do Match with me, and since Stéphane was already in Shanghai with his Australian partner, I offered Culture Ireland and the Pavilion that we could do some of the Niche material as an additional performance. Of course it wouldn’t really be Niche without Mikel and Bernadette but I hoped the material would survive its being juxtaposed with the strange Expo environment.

As an acknowledgment of Expo’s superficial glamour, I decided we should recostume the piece in something more colourful than our usual sombre work-gear. Uniqlo provided the candy-coloured clothes that stood out in the cool neutrality of the Pavilion.

I thought a lot about what Niche could mean at Expo. After all, it should make sense there: I started bodies and buildings research in Shanghai in 2007.

Looking back at the material I worked on (some of which was developed for Tattered Outlaws), I can see that I felt then the juxtaposition of Shanghai’s extraordinary urban development with the large scale urban destruction that attended it. The shiny facades are constructed on ruins of other lives.

Xiao Ke’s discomfort at being in EXPO was born of a similar awareness of the ugliness of the controlling authority behind the exuberant One World architectural regalia.

As we prepared to perform Niche in the courtyard of the Irish Pavilion, builders gathered around a misplaced pole, dug up the pristine grass in an action that reminded me of all the labour that has gone in to creating and sustaining the Expo illusion. I was pleased to see this group of men, their nonchalant choreography, their bouts of activity and waiting, all of which reminded me of Niche. It gave me a reason to be showing the work there.

But when we performed for the audience in that space, I doubted again the value of presenting work to a group of people who are primarily collecting stamps in their Expo passports. They really don’t expect to see contemporary dance – mostly because they have no idea what contemporary dance is. They clap at anything that looks like a trick. They come and go as their attention span dictates. It’s pretty humbling and demands that you have your own sources of confidence and validation.

When rain dictated that we move our performance indoors to the marble-floored temporary exhibition space, what we lost in audience numbers (100-150 outside, 60 inside), we gained in focus. The enclosed space meant that people watched our dancing with attention. I know we made an impact on some people, because they came to talk about the work, to thank us and to have our photograph taken.

Our photograph made the front page of the Expo website and several newspapers.

The fact that we used no music seemed to be the most noteworthy aspect of our performance. The media coverage felt like an achievement, a recognition of our work that could so easily have been lost in the din of competing national day pageants. What did we communicate? That Ireland is willing to support the individual artist, to foster innovation and experimentation, to allow talent to be expressed in unconventional ways? I’d like to think so.

June 03, 2010

EXPO visit: Match at the Irish Pavilion

It was sad to say goodbye to Xiao Ke, He Long and Feng Hao at the end of our series of Dialogue performances in Shanghai. The challenges we faced cemented our relationship and made the piece stronger. But I did have the consolation of familiarity: Matthew and Stéphane were around for me second week in Shanghai so that we could perform Match and some of the Niche material at the Irish Pavilion at EXPO.

Match was specially requested. It had appeared from the architect’s drawings that there would be a big grass area on the roof of the Pavilion and it seemed like a good idea to present Match there with its GAA references. My April visit revealed that there was lots of grass on the sides of the Pavilion, the roof was covered in sedum. So performing Match there was not going to be so easy.

In fact the sedum wasn’t the real challenge. The main problem was that the sedum was planted in plastic hexagons with sharp edges the protruded from the ground, making it uncomfortable and dangerous to work on. Why, oh why do I do that? Why didn’t I say it was impossible to work on? It’s important to me to bring my choreography to environments that challenge it, but this seemed foolhardy. And yet I didn’t say no. A mixture of cowardice (not wanting to disappoint) and courage (thinking we could pull it off) spurred me – that and the fact that we would only show the piece once.

I bought protective gloves, let Matthew wear his track pants to protect his legs and decided not to take our tops off as we usually do. And we did a great performance which was more physically expansive than I’d hoped under the circumstances and which looked pretty good on the roof in the middle of the EXPO.

But it did cost. Matthew wore track pants but I wore football shorts and my knees got pretty cut from the plastic. And the physical risk we took didn’t feel satisfying in the way that performing on the Martello Towers was satisfying. With the Towers, the environment was clearly challenging and an audience could read the encounter between body and building as a process of accommodation. But on the surface of it, the Pavilion is beautiful, modern and though pretty inhospitable to the kind of physicality of my choreography, it’s not obviously so. I’m not sure an audience will have seen or felt the friction between our bodies and the environment. So while I’m pleased we did a good job, pleased our bodies can still engage with the effort and shove of Match, I’m not sure I was really satisfied with it there.

May 28, 2010

Dialogue in Shanghai: Downstream Garage

Downstream Garage is an important venue for what we would call fringe performance in Shanghai. It is a place where young artists can meet, rehearse and perform, all free of charge since no tickets can be sold as the venue has no performance licence.

I visited it on my first trip to China and helped then to buy a dance floor for the venue. It was good to be able to dance on that floor last week (the first time in four weeks to take Dialogue off concrete and my joints were grateful) when we performed Dialogue there. Of course it wasn’t a performance, since that would be illegal. It was an ‘event/workshop’. In fact we hadn’t intended to do a proper performance of Dialogue at Downstream since we knew the venue’s technical facilities were limited and we expected we would have already performed three times in Shanghai. However when we sae the effort that Mr Wang, Downstream’s presiding spirit, had put in to tidying the space for us (he’s in the middle of messy renovations) we felt it would be rude not to do the piece as best we could.

It was a great performance as far as the audience were concerned. The venue was full and many who were there were coming to see the piece for a second time. They even preferred the Downstream Garage performance because of the intimate focus of the space.
Perhaps for Xiao Ke and I, we weren’t as happy by the performance. I was aware that it was our last performance together and anticipating the sadness of leaving had already put some distance between myself and the work. But the audience didn’t mind.
Again they stayed for a long discussion after the show and we involved them in improvisations based on elements of the piece.

I’m proud of this version of Dialogue. Until now, I knew the collaboration was important for me. It taught me something and I wanted to share the journey that I was on with audiences since I felt the process was relevant to how we deal with difference and otherness in general. However, while I know that Dialogue can continue to develop, I know we’ve arrived somewhere solid now. Something has changed in my movement and more importantly, Xiao Ke and I have a friendship that has deepened and strengthened through our creative process.

For this, I am grateful to the Shanghai Expo and to Culture Ireland for supporting us to work here.

May 28, 2010

Dialogue in Shanghai: Ke Arts Center

We were looking forward to performing in the Ke Arts Center as part of the Shanghai Repertory Theatre’s International Spring Festival.

Our producer, Zhang Yuan, got us a slot in the festival and I was very happy as it gave us a context for our performance and a potential audience.

The Ke Center is a well established space, originally for visual art but increasingly for performance and the festival was providing a black box environment so we could put on a polished performance.

It was all going well. Then the Cultural Bureau struck. On the day of our opening performance, the Bureau denied the performance licence to the festival, apparently on the grounds that the SRT used the word ‘international’ in the title and the use of this word needs approval from Beijing. Also the use of the word ‘festival’ brought adverse attention when the word for ‘season’ would not have. It was so annoying, disappointing and sadly, not surprising.

I felt worse for the Chinese artists because while I can leave next week and use the words I want and expect that my performances will not need to be licensed by the state, they are stuck with this situation.

This being China, there are ways around the problem, Instead of having a ‘performance’, we had a ‘final rehearsal’ for ‘friends’, some of whom made a donation to the Festival. No tickets could be sold but for us the priority was sharing the work with an interested audience. And most were interested enough to stay around for an hour after to discuss the piece.

Xiao Ke has been having a tough time in her personal life and our performance was inflected by that trouble. But it made for an emotional and energetic version of our Dialogue. I’ve been pleased to notice in myself that the softer physicality I started to explore two years ago is finally becoming natural for me. This version of Dialogue has allowed me to feel comfortable in improvising with that movement quality while allowing space also for the movement skills I’ve known for longer.

This Dialogue for me was less about learning something new than noticing the journey Xiao Ke and I have been on together, how that has changed us and how we could use the energy of new collaborators to refine what we wanted to share with an audience.

May 28, 2010

Dialogue in Shanghai: Irish Pavilion in the World Expo

Performing at the Irish Pavilion in the Expo wasn’t easy. I think Xiao Ke, Feng Hao and He Long felt a little weird in the Expo environment as they felt it to be a manifestation of the Chinese government and its desire to present an image of harmony and success to the world.

The Disney-style parade that passes through the Expo each day sings over and over the message ‘One World’, but my Chinese colleagues can’t really buy in to that government-enforced optimism. Most of the Chinese artists I’ve met in Beijing and Shanghai roll their eyes at the mention of Expo and are amused that they are co-opted to be part of international projects in the various pavilions. Xiao Ke will be back at Expo next month performing with Janice Claxtion at the British Pavilion.

Of course I’d like to think Dialogue is different, particularly because it is based on a friendship. I am very happy to count Xiao Ke as a friend now and through her I have met collaborators, He Long and Feng Hao, who are good artists and good people. Though we haven’t worked together long as a team, the adversity we faced in Shanghai has made us pull together and support one another.

The Irish Pavilion had prepared a 9m x 4.5m stage in its courtyard that was suitable for the traditional Irish music and dance show that was performed there, but not right for Dialogue. It took a bit of effort but we managed to get the technical support to have the performance at the top of the courtyard as I’d originally agreed after my visit in April. We didn’t have theatrical light but the shifting LED lighting in the courtyard walls was beautiful and the piece looked good there.

May 25, 2010

Mo mhórchoir féin: the film

Until I upload my own copy to Youtube or Facebook here’s a link to RTÉ’s Dance on the Box website where all the dance films are available to view.


It is amusing to reflect that my duet on the pitch at Croke Park provoked more public discussion than this solo dance in a church. Croke Park is clearly the holier ground these days.

May 18, 2010

Mo mhórchoir féin

Last night, RTÉ screened my second Dance on the Box commission called Mo mhórchoir féin. I made the film while we were rehearsing for the Open Niche project and that is one of the reasons that I haven’t written about it until now. Because RTÉ was going to premiere the films, I also felt I had to keep it under wraps but also something about their protective sensitivity around the film made me feel like I shouldn’t discuss it too much in advance of its being aired.

The film is set in a Catholic church and has three people in it: a boy who clears the altar after Mass, a man who dances, and an older woman who watches from her pew.

Just before Christmas last year, I saw that RTÉ and The Arts Council were having another round of Dance on the Box commissions. Match was part of the first series in 2006 and the experience and impact of making the film was so positive that I wanted to do another one. I didn’t feel it would have been right to apply again in 2008 but four years later felt like a seemly gap.

Part of the reason that Match was such a great experience for me and such a fantastic film was I was introduced to Dearbhla Walsh, the director. Since making Match she has won an Emmy for her work on Little Dorritt. She mostly films TV dramas and so she understands television and story-telling exceptionally well. And yet she is incredibly sensitive to the aspects of my choreography that I find difficult to articulate in words.

I was delighted that she was up for making another film together and even more happy when I met Iarla Ó Lionáird while we were at APAP in New York and he agreed to do the music for the film. Maggie Breathnach whom I worked for on TG4’s arts programme, Imeall, agreed to produce the film.

One of the things I’m proud about in Match is that it places dance at the centre of an Irish national narrative. There dance is on the sacred turf of Croke Park, claiming its kinship to other more regularly acknowledged forms of communal self-expression like Gaelic sports. The placing of dance in that context worked for me on a personal level too since I come from a family of GAA sports’ fans and players. In a way, my body was bred for that kind of sports but I have taken that breeding and used it to a different but not unrelated end. When the DOTB opportunity came up again, I knew I had to find a similar personal connection to an arena of national relevance where dance could demonstrate its ability to communicate in a way that language alone could not.

All photos by Jonathan Mitchell