Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2011

June 20, 2011

Dance/Body at the Crossroads of Culture

Below is the text of a presentation I made for a conference in Cyprus called Dance/Body at the Crossroads of Culture. I found my time in the divided city of Nicosia fascinating, not least because of the fact that I was staying in a house on the greenline between Greek and Turkish Cyprus (I’m aware that choosing the words to describe the division is politically loaded. Greek Cypriots call the Turkish part the “Other side”).

There was a checkpoint right outside my gate. And so the conference was addressing issues of particular local significance:

I’m not performing this morning or at least not dancing and the reason for that is that I injured my knee dancing at the cross roads of cultures: I have been working in China since 2006, performing my own work and creating new work with Chinese collaborators. Working in that context is a challenge. While I speak some Mandarin, I am not fluent and besides there is always as much to grasp in what is not said in China as there is in what is spoken. Last year my collaborators and I were invited to perform work in the Irish Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. That was challenging for my Chinese friends as the Expo was really a propaganda effort on the part of the Chinese government and my friends were not comfortable being part of that effort. I felt bad to have implicated them even though we all did it because performing there allowed us time to work together in China, improving the work and sharing it with other Chinese audiences outside the Expo context. I also felt bad because my Chinese friends were not always made welcome inside the Irish Pavilion. This wasn’t the fault of the staff but another group of Irish dancers who were performing there were exercised by the fact that what they assumed were unauthorised Chinese people were sharing their green room and went to report the incursion to the Pavilion organisers. It was a mistake but not one born of a generous spirit. And finally the Pavilion itself wasn’t physically ready for our performance, offering a small wooden stage for our dance that wasn’t at all suitable. As a result, I danced on concrete and on treacherously sharp plastic for my time there. I wanted to do a good job, to fulfil my obligations, to show my work in this unusual setting. In our second last day of performing, (it’s typical that we survive until the last moment in these extreme conditions) I injured my knee badly and am now recovering from surgery.
So that’s why I’m not dancing for you today.

What I take from that is that dancing at the cross roads of culture has a cost. It is something very valuable to me, an opportunity to learn but like all valuable things it costs.

As I am not dancing, I will show you today two dance films which I made for RTÉ, the national TV station in Ireland. I want to use them to illustrate the forces that have shaped this Irish body.

The first film is Match, made in 2006. It’s a duet set in Croke Park, Ireland’s most important football pitch and one of the finest stadia in Europe. Croke Park is the home of Ireland’s national sports and unlike soccer whose elite players are paid so well that their lifestyles don’t connect with those of most of their fans, in Ireland the national sports are amateur games even at the highest level. The stars of the game are teachers, policemen, and farmers, so their lives and those of their supporters are shared in the same communities. So Croke Park is both a special place but also one that everyone can feel connected to.

Croke Park is also important because it is inextricably linked to Irish national and particularly nationalist identity. In 1920, the British Army shot spectators and a player at a match there, in retaliation for the killing of Army intelligence officers by the IRA. Because it has been a traumatic site in the fight for Irish independence, it was a big deal when the Queen was invited to visit Croke Park during her visit to Ireland last month, though the way had been paved somewhat by the historic playing of God Save the Queen before an England Ireland rugby match that took place in Croke Park a few years ago when Ireland’s main rugby stadium was being refurbished.
So Croke Park is a familiar and culturally resonant location and I put two men on its pitch.

Before talking a little more about Match, I wanted to mention that crossroads used to be an important place for dancing in rural Ireland. Crossroads were where people would gather and I imagine in those places for socialising, they were the places where prospective marriage partners would meet. The crossroads were then a place where DNA could cross creating the possibilities of a new generation. What’s interesting for me in thinking about crossroads in terms of DNA is that the new possibilities that come with DNA crossing aren’t only about introducing new genetic material. The crossing also allows what was latent or recessive in the code to express itself and become visible.

This notion of allowing the latent to become visible, to create new possibilities by connecting with existing or historical structures is something that animates Match. The people who watch football and hurling are experts at watching articulate physicality that is emotionally and psychologically driven and has social meaning. By putting my dance on that familiar turf, I wanted those people to realise that they already had the knowledge to read it. In doing so I wanted to make my unfamiliar artform familiar, inserting it in part of the national narrative, and I also wanted to make that familiar place a little strange. It is gratifying for me that a number of people who’ve seen the film say that they still think of it when they go to Croke Park now.

This connection with but reworking of heritage is something I experience personally since my family are sports fanatics: my mother, uncles, brothers, sisters all play sport and follow it avidly. One brother is a sports journalist, another a sports physio and my sister has run a ladies’ football club. My body was made for sport but rather than playing sport I’ve taken that ability and used it in a different way. I acknowledge the connection to that heritage but express its capacity in a different form.

This is particularly important in thinking about how my physicality has been shaped. We don’t have professional dance training in Ireland so it is sport rather than dance that has give me an appetite for muscular physicality, full of momentum and unafraid of effort and sweat in achieving its goals.

The other main force that has shaped my physicality and in particular my choreographic sensibility is the Catholic Church. Last year I made another dance film for television and I wanted to address the impact of the church on my body. Irish people are much less observant than they were, however the fact that the Church has less sway over people’s consciousness doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impact on our culture’s subconscious. I was also aware that in the wake of the clerical abuse scandals that much had been said but that the trauma visited on those young bodies had not been addressed through the body. The dance is not about that abuse but no work that addresses the church and the body in Ireland can avoid the implications of that trauma.

Since making Mo Mhórchoir Féin, I have continued the investigation of the impact of the Catholic Church on the Irish body in a new work for the theatre called Tabernacle. I’ve made the work on five dancers, four of whom have some experience of Catholicism but none of whom are Irish: a South African living in London, an Italian living in Ireland, a Basque man living in Berlin, a Frenchman living in Australia and an Australian living between London, New York and Berlin. Given how Ireland’s DNA has been altered by the immigration of the 90s so that the Irish body is now something much more than it was 50 years ago, it seems entirely appropriate that an idea that started in my experience should now be carried, amplified and transformed by the bodies and experiences of these talented international performers.

I had feared, following my knee injury, that I might not perform again myself and that this process of passing my material over to these dancers was a way of dispersing my dancing self forever. However, this enforced pause has revealed how much I want to perform and fortunately my knee is recovering so it should be possible. It is likely to be a different kind of performing in the future so this Irish body is still a work in progress, still being made by experiences such as this conference where meeting at the crossroads of cultures teaches me new things that I hope I can continue to process in my work.

June 08, 2011

Tabernacle: a tangent

So much of the best contemporary work is described as “difficult” or “experimental”, as if you needed superendurance or specialized knowledge to make your way through it. Really, all you need is an open mind — this doesn’t mean you’ll end up liking it, or that you should — and, more important, you need the willingness to spend some time truly looking at what’s in front of you, just as artists take the time to make it.

There were beautiful paragraphs in Claudia La Rocco’s New York Times article on the choreography of Susan Rethorst.

I also liked her quotation for Rethorst’s essay Dailiness
“It [choreography] comes along when it comes along,” she writes. “In the meantime you have to be in there, trying a bit of this and a bit of that, and staying with all those semi-moments, all those ho-hum kinda moments, trying something else and doing it over, and working, but also waiting. You have to keep yourself available, keep the work available, and work up to those whamo times, then with them, also after them, till the next, till the whole thing takes off, tells you it is.”

That feels familiar. I often tell people that I don’t make choreography but I find it. The piece is there but like a shy animal that needs stillness, calm and patience before it makes its appearance.

June 06, 2011

Tabernacle: Production photos

Some beautiful shots of Tabernacle by Jonathan Mitchell

June 03, 2011

Tabernacle: working with Sarah Browne

There are many ways in which Sarah influenced the making of Tabernacle.

We talked initially of her making video to project in the performance, an idea that was a legacy of my imagining the film Mo Mhorchoir Féin would have a presence in Tabrernacle. But as we worked together more, Sarah, with characteristic rigour and lack of ego, realised that projecting something ‘over’ the work would detract from the fluidity and necessary ambiguity of the movement.
Instead she created a limited edition printed artwork – Appendix – that was distributed to the audience as a supplement to the performance.

But Appendix wasn’t her only contribution. Below she describes some of the process we shared:

My approach to the costume for the performers evolved from discussions that Fearghus and I had over many months that evoked images of aftermath, disaster, and a recurring sense of the sacred in the everyday. I did some research into vestments and their construction, which originally had very practical design considerations that attended to the physicality of the body – such as the maniple, a simple strip of linen worn still by a priest on his left arm, and originally used as a way to dab sweat from his brow in the warmer Catholic climates.

Other of these early discussions with Fearghus focused on ecclesiastical architecture, particular churches and sites, and how to evoke some of those qualities without resorting to illustration. Eventually the need to do that through an image seemed to fall away, and instead clothing is treated as the body’s first architecture.

In the work, the dancers as people rather than only performers. Different stories and experiences play out with each person, and the work also has many theatrical elements: however as the dancers remain people rather than characters, and their clothing is treated as clothing rather than costume. Much of it had a previous use, as it partly sourced in charity shops. It also has a transformative quality as it changes back and forth from particular individual clothing to amorphous, sculptural, communal ‘stuff’.

A number of images were fed by me back to Fearghus and the dancers. Some of these were art historical, though not the religious iconography that might have been expected (and that I knew Fearghus was already communicating). A number of these were related to Minimalist art and dance collaborations, such as Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer, or his collaboration with Carolee Schneeman entitled Site. (This involved the constant shifting of the set and the use of another art historical image, Manet’s Olympia, in Schneeman’s pose). Another image was of Michaelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags, from the Italian Arte Povera group, and another was of a rag tree. Though none of these were sent with the intention of prescribing a response, they do seem to have seeded certain images and material responses in the work.

May 31, 2011

Tabernacle: what people are saying

It’s too soon for me to write about the last weeks of Tabernacle rehearsals and the performances. But since the project has always been about openness and eliciting feedback it seems right to record and acknowledge what people have been saying in reviews, blogs, emails and facebook posts. Tabernacle will continue to grow, even as it is now dispersed in the dancers who have flown off to their independent lives, and in the audience who saw the work. We come back together to perform in the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August and what people are saying now will inform what the next steps are.

But, towering over all for intensity was Tabernacle , the final show of the festival in which choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir bravely steps into the minefield of the Irish body and its bruising and confusing encounters with the power of Catholic Church…. a layered work that is subtle, this work will surely merit a wider audience. Seona Mac Reamoinn, The Irish Times
Read article

Tabernacle doesn’t extol or confront an audience with definitive concepts on the Catholc Church, but it refuses to shy away from it either. It’s a intricate balacing act that O’Conchúir has executed superbly, and more to the point, in a subtle and probing manner. This performance captures the process of how religion as a wider thematic structure provides a basis for the composition of ideals; how the individual learns, explores, manipulates or takes solace within this structure and how this layering of social and personal memory is reflected in the body. Eims O’Reilly, My Project blog Read review

Calmly conceived and intellectually robust, [Ó Conchúir’s artistic] strategy doesn’t just produce eloquent movement, it creates powerful art.
Michael Seaver, The Irish Times
Read article

And what the audience said:

‘A truly powerful and moving experience’,

‘Its a really special piece – moving, provocative and engaging’

‘I thought it was incredibly rich. For me there were many moments as a spectator of being totally “in the moment” with the dance and dancers. And on the other hand, memories of the re-occurrence and repetition of moves and gestures, the various scenes, images and tableaux have been carried with me in memory since the performance. (Today, I think it needs to be seen twice!) ‘

‘It’s beautiful, intense, emotional and what I loved about it was the sense of joy that was so palpable and part of it, something I admit, I suppose due to the subject matter, I wasn’t expecting. The dancers were amazing’

‘This is the most amazing and wonderful dance show of the year’

May 25, 2011

Tabernacle: Rehearsals through other people’s eyes

Other people’s perspective help me see the work afresh. That’s been the value of having open rehearsals and sharing Tabernacle’s working process with a wider group of people than would usually come to the studio.

This is what Sarah Browne saw in the studio – Click on the photos to enlarge them.
I particularly like the small details that she noticed that aren’t just about the obvious stage image

And this is what Imeall saw

And what volunteer-led DCTV saw when they visited the studios

Dublin Dance Festival Show Episode 3 SUBTITLES from Were At… on Vimeo.

It is tiring giving all these interviews but people’s questions do help me to clarify what’s important to me in the work. Both Imeall and DCTV really cared to communicate the spirit of Tabernacle and it’s great for me to have a chance to let more people know about the work through them.

May 14, 2011

Tabernacle: Half way through our Dublin rehearsals

I asked the dancers what I’m forgetting. I ask them because they’re hunters, gatherers, miners, researchers, pioneers – exploring daily, conscientiously the possibilities of Tabernacle.

I’ve finished rehearsals this week tired but also reassured that we’ve made material that is physically and emotionally arresting. Thanks to the dancers the work has an integrity that moves me and that I hope others will find equally engaging. But there is still work to do. To see into the potential of the material we have, to understand it better, to add, to subtract, to attend even more carefully to what it could articulate.

Since getting to Dublin we’ve been busy. There have been interviews for Imeall, for TG4, for the Irish Times. There was a visit to evensong.
Members of the Macushla Dance Club have been in the studio with us giving the dancers insight into their experiences of religion and responding to what they perceived in our work. I was struck in particular by Eithne’s reminding us that as a women she was instructed to think of her body was ‘an occasion of sin’.

The benches arrived and we’re getting to know their individual quirks and possibilities. Thanks to Sarah, the benches come to us as additional bodies to be integrated into the work rather than stage props. The carpenter came to see us working with the benches in the studio to reassure everyone that they were robust enough for the unorthodox way we’re pushing their limits. So now when we hear the benches ‘cry’ as they rock, we know they won’t collapse. Having seen how closely the dancers work with all the surfaces of the benches, the carpenter is coming back to smooth the wood some more. His attention to his craft fits well with the attention to skilled and thoughtful process that is important to Tabernacle’s success. How the carpenter makes the benches effects how the dancers interact with them. His craft and Sarah’s attention to the design gets transmitted to an audience through the dancers’ bodies and so something apparently invisible becomes tangible in the choreography.

May 05, 2011

Tabernacle: seeing religion on my way to rehearsals

It makes sense to me to be rehearsing Tabernacle in Dublin now.  I’ve been trying to communicate to the performers the pervasiveness of religious influence in Ireland, even as many people distance themselves from the church and my walk from Broadstone to Dancehouse each morning confirms that continuing influence.

The nearby youth hostel is a former convent and the statue of Jesus still stands over the entrance

Another Sacred Heart statue presides over the taxi rank at the top of O’Connell Street, facing the Spire that echoes so many of the church spires in the city.

Up Parnell Street the African shops make their own divine references

A school and hospital along my route bear religious names

And when I finally get to the rehearsal room, from out the window I can see a small shrine to the Blessed Virgin in the park next to Dancehouse.

Tabernacle asks how we carry these images and attitudes in our bodies and whether that legacy can adapt to the next individual and collective movements we need to make.


April 25, 2011

Tabernacle: dancing the revolution: The Place Residency Week 2

The second week at The Place was different from the first in many respects.  We rehearsed in a variety of studios instead of the same large one; we had 5 dancers rather than 6; there were numerous visitors – Sarah Browne, Niamh O’Donnell and Tom from Project Arts Centre, Iarla Ó Lionáird, and photographer Pari Naderi.  All of these changes had an impact on the way we worked and on the information we had to process.

As I reflect on the two weeks I still don’t know how the piece will evolve when we resume in May in Dublin but I know there is something there.

After Manuel‘s surprise at not seeing overt religious imagery, I spent last Sunday at the National Gallery buying reference books to share with the dancers.  I had to realise that though I wasn’t bringing that imagery directly into the studio I was already carrying it in my own memory bank and that I needed to give the dancers access to the images even if we disperse them and reimagine them.  The point for me is that that iconography informs our daily lives.  In love, in calamity we recognise ourselves in those attitudes of religious imagery.  Every mother and child is already a Mother and Child.  And that is also because those religious images were conceived and developed in relation to the ordinary, the cotidian, the human.  Caravaggio was already there in his conflation of the sexual and the devotional.

Every day I start rehearsals with the dancers running through my solo from Mo MhórChoir Féin.  When Iarla saw that and the subsequent rehearsals, he remarked that it was as it the dancers were taking on something from me but then dispersing it, exploding it.  I don’t know if this is obliteration or expansion but either way, it is something to be investigated.

Iarla also remarked that a biographer had written about him being an atheist now but nonetheless being shaped by a religious tradition.  He spoke himself about that religious upbringing as a ‘Big Bang’ –  a formative, generating event – and that he lives and creates now with the ‘background radiation’ of that formation.  The reference to Big Bang makes me think of the balance between obliteration and expansion that he saw in how the dancers were taking on and evolving my material.

Of course the tradition from which he and I come is a rural Gaeltacht one where community is held together by many ties and customs of which religion is an integral but not exclusive element.  When I imagine the crash from which Ireland is still trying to fashion a recovery, I am aware that we have a long history of traumatic and devastating events from which we have had to navigate futures.  We have already lost worlds, lives and people.  And here we are again.

Sarah Browne’s questions about what she saw in rehearsal have prompted me to think more closely about objects with which the dancers and the work might engage.  I was already aware that the big empty studios lacked the physical anchors that orient the movement material.  I needed to build an architecture and Sarah has started to imagine what that might be.

She also prompted an interesting discussion about gender in relation to the dance and to religion.  I had been aware the previous week that with Peggy we had an even number of men and women and was sensitive to when the choreography fell into predictable gender patterns.  It rarely does but one moment where both Bernadette and Elena were lifted by male partners caught my eye and provoked my discomfort.  Of course there are pragmatic physical reasons for why some lifts are best done by the person who is stronger lifting the one who is lighter (not all lifts require strength however and that allows for different possibilities) and in these particular cases the women happened to be lighter.  So why was I uncomfortable?

The questions sent me back 20 years to what I was reading at university.  I remember in particular Derrida in conversation with Christine Mc Donald in a text called ‘Choreographies‘.  Mc Donald starts the interview with a quotation from late 19th century feminist Emma Goldman:

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution

Derrida imagines what the revolution might look like:

As I dream…I would like to believe in the multiplicity of sexually marked voices.  I would like to believe in the masses, this interminable number of blended voices, the mobile of non-identified sexual marks whose choreography can carry, divide, multiply the body of each ‘individual’ whether he be classified as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’

While my work is definitely concerned with cherishing the individual, Tabernacle is beginning to mark a new phase in my understanding of that individuality.  What I respond to in Derrida’s vision is the fluidity of that individual experience carried across bodies of many.  This is a version of the mass that it not threatening to and consuming of the particular experience.  Instead the multiplicity is able to amplify and set in motion that particularity.  In practice, it reminds me of Iarla’s observation of the dancers carrying and dispersing the input I’ve given them.  I see also their delicious individuality but carried in a choreography that blends that individuality into shifting arrangements and mutual accommodations.  It’s not about creating a fixed structure but about making a work that remains open and mobile.

Dance can do this in.



April 09, 2011

Tabernacle: The Place residency

Elena and Mikel (Peggy's photo)

It’s the end of week one of our two week modul dance residency at the Place in London.  I’ve been waiting for this for a long time – for the opportunity to rehearse work here in London and for the moment when the dancers would gather to begin work on the piece that I’ve been thinking about and preparing for this past year.

Peggy and Stéphane

At the end of the week, Manuel Vason came to watch the dancers improvising with some of the material we’d designed during the week.  Manuel is a photographer with whom I’d collaborated on images from Cosán Dearg and I’ve asked him collaborate with me on creating an image for Tabernacle.  He’d read all that I’d written about Catholicism and the Irish body but was surprised therefore, looking at the dancers working, that none of the iconic images of religion were appearing.  He did remark immediately on the evident experience and skill of the dancers.

Bernadette and Peggy (Stéphane's photo)

And he’s completely right in both his observations:  with Matthew, Mikel, Bernadette, Elena and Stéphane, I have a cast of dancers who have danced around the world with renowned companies and choreographers.  I was particularly lucky this week that they’ve been joined by Peggy Grelat Dupont who also visited during the Starlight Blank Canvas residency in Cork before Christmas.  Another seasoned and exquisite dancer, Peggy has become an integral part of the process and I will miss her next week.  Maybe the missing her will inform the piece or maybe it will be transformed into something else.  Whatever happens her generous input into the piece has already helped it come into life.

Rehearsing a duet (Peggy's photo)

Manuel is also right when he doesn’t see any obvious religious symbolism (although I can see the Piéta).  This week I’ve taught the dancers my solo from Mo Mhórchoir Féin.  I’ve done that because I wanted them to have it as a physical starting point as it has been for me in developing Tabernacle.  Also, knowing that I wouldn’t be in the piece myself, I wanted them to carry something of me into the process.

Bernadette and Matthew

We’ve also talked about religion every day but  I haven’t ask the dancers to represent that in movement.  Digesting Manuel’s surprise at this lack of expected signifiers, I realise that I don’t need the dance to represent anything.  That’s because dance is something.  It is already a kind of knowledge, a way of being that I think is worth offering as a model of how individuals and communities can organise themselves in relationships that confer meaning on their individual and communal existence.

Stéphane and Bernadette

Of course it is a particular kind or way of dancing that I’m talking about and it is the skill of these performers as generous humans and articulate movers that allows me to reach towards that ideal of dancing whose insights I think it is worth sharing with the rest of society.


Independent dancers like Bernadette, Mikel, Elena, Matthew, Stéphane and Peggy are used to arriving in new environments and to having the resilience and resourcefulness necessary to build new choreographic structures that organise how they relate.  This skills of resilience and resourcefulness seem particularly relevant in Ireland at the moment as people still reach for new structures to build their way out of an economic and moral crash.  For many the pursuit of money replaced religion in providing an orientation in personal and national life.  It’s time to work out how to orient ourselves for the next part of the journey.

I’m paying attention to what the dancers teach me.