Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2010

May 16, 2010

EXPO visit: Improvisation in the Beijing Traffic

Three weeks in Beijing have passed quickly and tomorrow I leave for Shanghai and the whole Expo experience. As always, being in China has taught me a lot about myself, my habits and preconceptions, nowhere more so than in relation to traffic and travel.
I spent the first week waiting for Platform China whose studio that I’m staying to provide the promised bicycle and in the meantime took a lot of buses in and out of town. I hated having to wait, being constrained by an unfathomable timetable and being jostled and squashed. When Platform China couldn’t provide a tall enough bicycle, I rented one myself (of course now I am wiser thanks to everyone’s post factum counsel that it would have been cheaper to buy a bike than rent one). Having a bike restored my much valued independence. It’s clear to me that I am willing to expend a considerable amount of physical energy to secure that independence as I have cycled hour long trips across the city rather than subject myself to buses or even the uncertainty that a taxi might be taking you for a ride. So that’s one lesson about independence.

The other thing I learned cycling in Beijing is about improvisation. The rules of the road are baffling to me – more baffling than the language. People cycle the wrong way, pedestrians walk in the middle of the road and with passive aggression ignore the constant hooting of cars and bikes. Buses pull in in front of you, pinning you to the kerb and then stop but pull out again when you try to overtake them. Since the choreography isn’t clear to me, I have to improvise, alongside everyone else who seems to be improvising. I imagined that this improvisation had a structure, a set of shared rules which I might not know but I assumed everyone else did. However, when I see the accidents, the battered cars and the injured cyclists, I do wonder if that’s the case. More than anything I am ground down by what appears to me to be the discourtesy of such lawlessness. Whether or not I am completely misreading the situation, it is the fact of this care for courtesy that I notice in myself. Courtesy of course doesn’t leave much room for surprises.

I think about improvisation because working with Xiao Ke on Dialogue for the past two years has been the most sustained engagement with improvisation that I have undertaken. I have grown more comfortable with the process but only after we’ve established clear parameters for the improvisation. This version of Dialogue which we will perform in Shanghai has two new artists involved: Feng Hao, an experimental musician who is making a name for himself on the improvised music scene in Beijing and He Long, a video artist who does a lot of live visuals for music events. Both have brought a youthful energy to the piece. Meanwhile Xiao Ke and I have refined the structure of the piece, simplifying the line and relaxing in to our growing familiarity with each other.

My tai chi and qi gong practice have given me access to a different movement style that I’ve used a lot in Dialogue. In previous versions I was anxious about representing the kind of muscular physicality that I had considered a hallmark of my work. Now I don’t feel the need so much to that. Maybe I’m older. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe it just isn’t necessary.

With Match and Niche to perform after Dialogue, however, I’m curious to see whether I can still tap in to that muscular engagement upon which Match in particular was constructed.

May 04, 2010

EXPO visit: Rehearsals in Beijing

I’ve been in Beijing over a week now. I’m staying in Caochangdi, an artists’ village beyond the famous 798 art district but not quite as far as Beigao where I stayed last year. I’m living in a studio that belongs to the Platform China gallery, one of the many galleries in the village. The whole place, however, is under threat of demolition by Government-sanctioned developers despite its concentration of successful galleries and despite being the home of Ai Wei Wei

Xiao Ke also live in Caochangdi so we’ve been rehearsing this latest version of Dialogue in an empty gallery space nearby.

Yin Yi who made the music for our earlier versions of Dialogue isn’t with us so instead we have a musician called Feng Hao and a a video artist called He Long. They bring a new energy to the piece and at the same time, the fact that there are two of them allows me and Xiao Ke to refocus the dance more clearly on our relationship. We’ve taken this chance to refine the through-line of the piece and that coupled with the fact that we have even more experience under our belt makes this process feel quite relaxed.

It’s been interesting to hear various Chinese artists like Xiao Ke and Yin Yi talk about the other international collaborations in which they’ve been involved. I’m gratified, naturally, that they’ve been positive about their experience with Dialogue in a way that they’ve not been with other projects. Listening to them, however, it seems the key ingredient to success is investing time. I’ve known Xiao Ke since 2006 now. We are friends. This allows us a mutual understanding that enhances the way we work. Many other projects however are shot-gun marriages of convenience that are put together to take advantage of a funding opportunity. And there’s no reason why such arranged marriages shouldn’t blossom in to something fantastic – but the results are rarely immediate, particularly when there is such cultural differences that impact on aesthetics and working practices.

April 29, 2010

EXPO visit: Arriving

After the visa and volcano induced panic that preceded my arrival to Shanghai, it was reassuring to realise that I don’t feel as anxious about arriving in China as I have in the past. I know what to expect though this may be a dangerous misconception in a culture where so much is still impenetrably incomprehensible to me. At least I’m getting a sense of how much I don’t know.

I’ve begun to accept that when I’m in China that I can’t control how things happen in the way I imagine I do when I’m in Europe. This sense of control or at least agency may be an illusion in Europe but here I can have no such illusion. I make plans but I am always ready to discard them. I wonder if the team organising the Irish Pavilion in the Shanghai World EXPO are having the same experience?

I flew to Shanghai to visit the Irish Pavilion, since that is where some of my performances will take place next month. I hadn’t been able to get much information about the building besides an architect’s impression of it before my arrival, so planning performances was a bit tricky.

When I arrived there escorted by Paddy, a Chinese man who has lived in Ireland for a number of years and who is assisting the Irish team at the Pavilion, I was impressed by the building. In common with many other pavilions, it’s not quite finished yet and I think the staff were a little nervous about how the imminent soft opening would go, an understandable nervousness given the mayhem that followed the soft opening of the EXPO site and some of the other pavilions.

The message of the Pavilion’s architecture is that Ireland is contemporary and green and already the green part is an attraction;

I, however, was disappointed to discover that the green patch where I had previously agreed to perform Match wasn’t in fact grass but a scrubby succulent plant and the whole thing is on a slope and it has a two rows of water sprinklers down the sides.

But I think we can manage and my sports’ playing siblings would say they’ve ‘performed’ on less suitable local pitches. Besides, Jiale Ryan, a Chinese woman married to a Limerick man, who is events’ co-ordinator for the Irish Pavilion has given us carte blanche to trample the plants! We’ll just make sure we play Match down the slope.

The message communicated by the architecture of the various pavilions is necessarily simple given that the audience is primarily a Chinese one with limited experience of the subtle distinctions between, for example, different countries within Europe, let alone different communities within a country. The Italian building is contemporary on the outside but through the glass one sees medieval architecture – Italy is old and new! You can read more from the architect here.

Why Germany chose to make a pavilion that looks like a tank is another question.

When I first saw the Luxembourg pavilion it looked like Soviet kitsch but it’s apparently a response to the fact that the Chinese translation of Luxembourg means forest and fortress.

The statue in the photo is a called the ‘Golden Lady’, a treasured war memorial of Luxembourg that is on loan to the pavilion for the duration of the EXPO

Finding space for a performance of Dialogue will be a challenge too since the functioning of the Pavilion requires that visitors keep on the move. A performance will encourage people to stop and that’s not so helpful when there are long queues outside (and there were three hour waits in some of the pavilions during the dry run opening). We’ll probably use this courtyard space. I’d expected from the architect’s impression there would be a performing area at the bottom of this slope but now it seems the space at the top is the only viable playing area, so the audience will be below or perhaps on the roof above. Until after the official opening on the 1st May, the Pavilion organisers aren’t in a position to decide and neither am I.

April 21, 2010

Likely suspension of service

I’m hoping to leave for Shanghai today, volcano permitting. Problems with visas and flights made it seem as if I might not be able to go, but everything is back on track now.

I’m performing during May, primarily in the Irish Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo but also in the Ke Center for Contemporary Arts and at the Downstream Garage in Shanghai centre. I’ll spend three weeks in Beijing prior to the Shanghai performances rehearsing a new version of Dialogue with Xiao Ke, and I’ll also be preparing to perform Match at the Pavilion and an extract of Niche.

I hope to update my blog at some stage but it’s likely I won’t be able to do that while I’m in China. So watch this space.

April 17, 2010

Sweet spot – The film

Saidhbh at Feenish has uploaded Sweetspot to Vimeo and though it may appear out of synch with my Open Niche, Mo mhórchoir féin and Shanghai EXPO preoccupations, there are lots of reasons why it’s appropriate to reconnect with Sweetspot.

First of all, the out-of -synchness of this post reminds me that my work doesn’t develop in a linear way (a useful note as I contemplate building a website whose architecture inevitably tends to tidying up the narrative for clear presentation)

Secondly, the lovely Marie Curtin who appears in Sweetspot with her arms outstretched in what may look like a Titanic pose but owes more to balancing on a pony’s back, will soon appear in Mo mhórchoir féin. This was the woman who hadn’t performed before Sweetspot and Ríonach’s Triptik project. But when I needed an older woman to appear in Mo mhórchoir féin she immediately came to mind. And I guess the creative impact of Ríonach’s Triptik project is the fact that when making the film, my brain and gut were ready to ‘need’ an older woman. Thanks to Ríonach and the Macushlas for that widening of perspective.

And finally, it’s Bealtaine soon and Sweetspot will be shown as part of Ríonach’s contribution to the festival that celebrates creativity in older age. It’s also likely to be part of a Youtube channel with Bealtaine Artistic Director, Dominic Campbell, is curating.

Enough excuses?

Sweet Spot from feenish productions on Vimeo.

While I hope to be able to show a version here soon that includes the relationship between Stéphane’s live solo and the film, I think the film stands on its own and there are those who may prefer it unadulterated by the troubling confrontational physicality of the male solo. And that’s okay too….

April 15, 2010

Open Niche: Siamsa and Cork, the end for now

We finished Open Niche in Cork just before Easter and since then I’ve had a chance to go on holiday and stand down my brain from the state of high alert it needed to be in through March with its tour, its film-making and its preparations for performing in Shanghai next month.

Open Niche was deliberately demanding for me and for the team: we weren’t just fitting the existing Niche performance into each new venue but creating new performances in each location. Meeting new people, working out the new dynamic and the new creative possibilities required a lot of energy and, over the period of our tour, a great deal of stamina but this challenge was also an opportunity for my work to grow and for me to learn something new, rather than deliver over and over again a piece I made in 2008. Learning something new was the motivation for all of this work and effort.

The performance at Siamsa Tíre and the collaboration it allowed between my work and that of the National Folk Theatre was illuminating because of the ready connections that could be made between the extracts from the Siamsa repertoire that we used and some of the sections of Niche. Of course I knew that I’d used Eastern European folk dance forms in the creation of Niche but the weaving, spinning and interlinking made perfect sense in the Siamsa context. (The wide open stage without masking was a particularly hospitable performance space). The relationship between the iconic súgán chairs from Siamsa’s rep and the metal and plastic Niche chairs (from Dancehouse) made for a neat reflection on tradition and modernity too. I still carry with me the idea from Siamsa that ‘Folk’ is what the people do and so Niche, which was intended to be some kind of reflection of elements of contemporary Ireland, could be regarded as a folk piece too

It was a big change to go from sharing the space in Tralee with three professionals (Anne O’Donnell, Adrienne Heaslip and Jonathan Kelliher) to Cork where we worked with Transition Year Students from St Vincents’s Secondary School:
Ciara Twomey
Kate O’Shea
Amy Walsh
Laurey Casey
Shaunagh Brereton
Leah Spillane
Chloe Griffin
Jennifer McKenzie
Amy Leslie
Megan O’Brien

Though they take part in the Firkin Crane‘s Chance to Dance Programme and have a dedicated teacher in Siobhan Woods who makes sure the students get many performing arts opportunities, the girls are not experienced dance performers. I had created some material with them when I visited earlier in the Spring but since some of the students who were present then were no longer available, I had to abandon that direction and work simply and quickly with what we had.

in the end, it was the energy and presence of those teenage girls on stage which was important and I used simple walking patterns, exits, entrances and watching to organise their involvement in Open Niche.

Working with these non-professionals in such a short space of time was a challenge, particularly at the end of the tour when we were running low on energy reserves. The first afternoon rehearsal was a bit cranky with its anxieties and skittish nerves for the girls and tiredness for the Niche dancers who had performed the night before and traveled that morning. But after that introduction and arriving on stage next day, everyone was much more familiar and relaxed with what would be involved.

In the end I thought the performance was great and hope some of the performing talent I saw among the girls gets a chance to grow in other contexts.

March 25, 2010

Open Niche: performance at Daghdha Space

Arriving in the beautiful Daghdha space on Monday I was daunted by the amount and variety of participants that I needed to bring together to make the piece work. Six dancers from the MA programme in UL with whom I’d already made a short piece, Lucy Suggate who contributed the demented but fiercely precise energy of her Latin Beach, Ed Schouten‘s focused duet for Isa and Yesse, and the trio of Maria, Emmalena and Cathy whose improvisation circled the space. All of these contributions had an integrity and style of their own. I didn’t want to compromise that integrity but still needed everyone to have confidence that their contribution would withstand the unusual context in which it would be viewed. I had empathy with any uncertainty since I am putting my own work in similar jeopardy.

The Daghdha space has a particular openness. It prides itself on being a space that anyone can come in to. It is not a sealed laboratory. Ironically for someone who professes to be want to open up his work, I found, when confronted by the dispersed energy of the Daghdha space, that I needed to provide a focus and a strong container for the many energies in the room. The sixteen performers felt like a cast of 50, but over the three days of rehearsal the gentle-edged jigsaw of our interaction came together, so that by the performance we knew the song of the unique work we’d created. It’s a strange, unconventional song, devoid of the usual arc and cadences but all the more engaging for its unfamiliarity.

Photographs by Markus Voetter

I learned a great deal from the juxtapostions of my material with that of other people. I saw how extreme stillness and action could be held in delicious counterpoint. How layers of detail might be readable.

March 24, 2010

Open Niche: performance at Pavilion

We opened Niche at Pavilion with the dancers from Dublin Youth Dance Company crossing the space from auditorium to stage to join us during the performance. The ease with which they entered and left the playing space, moving from watching to doing to watching again helped to underline the sense that the dancers are not in a separate world but that we all share the same space, are citizens of the same republic and that our unusual abilities are are as common as the unusual abilities of others.

I liked hearing that some other audience members felt they could have walked across the stage if they wanted to. They understood the invitation to participation that Open Niche implies.

Of course, I wonder how we would really have coped with an unexpected audience intervention and yet, such is my confidence in the performers and their understanding of the work, that the integrity of the piece would have been maintained whoever joined them.

For the performance the DYDC dancers (whom I called the under thirtys to distinguish them from Mikel, Matthew, Stéphane and Bernadette) wore pyjama bottoms that reminded me over slumber parties and also the inner-city fashion for women in Dublin to go shopping in their pyjamas and boots. For the last scene however the dancers changed in to their own glamorous clothes, a contrast to the rubbish bags, the second hand clothing and the crumpled men in the space.

It was a great start to the Open Niche project – great to see the Niche dancers respond to the new energy that the DYDC dancers brought and great also that the DYDC dancers could see up close how such fine and experienced performers go about their craft. This building of connections is an important aspect of the project for me.

March 17, 2010

Open Niche: last rehearsal at Dancehouse

March 14, 2010

Open Niche: rehearsals at Dancehouse

Matthew, Mikel, Stéphane and Bernadette have gathered again in the wonderful studio 4 in Dancehouse and Niche is being transformed in to Open Niche. We were joined this week by dancers from the core professional company of Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre. I was expecting that Anne, Adrienne and Jo would come but unfortunately injury prevented Jo from taking part so the material we had made together last Autumn had a gap in it. I hadn’t intended to have the visiting and local dancers work together physically, intending instead that they would share the same space in their separateness, but this gap invited a response and so I asked Anne and Adrienne to teach some of their traditional steps to Matthew, Mikel, Stéphane and even Bernadette.

That generous sharing of the Siamsa tradition and the responsiveness of the Niche dancers has created a dynamic I did not expect and which I welcome. Anne talked about ‘folk’ being what people do in the streets and since Niche has been made by what we’ve seen around us on the streets on Dublin, I think Open Niche can be a new kind of folk performance where the tradition embodied in Siamsa’s generous dancers is transmitted to and transformed by new people.