Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2011

March 29, 2011

Tattered Outlaw: An article on Jaywick

The Martello Tower where Tattered Outlaws of History opens on Friday is in Jaywick.  An article in today’s Guardian describes some of challenges of that area:

Jaywick, a ward of Tendring district council in north-east Essex, has earned the unhappy distinction of being placed first in the dauntingly named Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2010. Using statistics for income, employment, health, disability, crime and living standards, the government report ranks 32,482 neighbourhoods by local authority area according to where they stand in a national poverty league table

March 21, 2011

Tabernacle: Workshop at Irish World Academy, UL

I’m keen that Tabernacle is the ultimately the kind of structure that can shelter a wide variety of people and a diversity of experiences.  To create that possibility, I’ve arranged to do workshops with different groups of dancers from around Ireland during the creation process.  The groups I’m working with are those with whom I already have a relationship since Open Niche last year though I hope more people will be able to engage with the process too.

Cathy Walsh - photograph by Luke Howlin

At the Irish World Academy at UL, I worked with current and former MA students in Contemporary Dance Performance.  I was also able to invite Mikel to teach warm up but also to absorb some of the spirit and experiences of the workshop that I hope will be carried in to the creation process and the performances of Tabernacle.

Tabernacle at UL

This idea of the dancers as vessels, carrying the experiences of others, is important though I don’t know yet if it’s important that the audience knows that.  Sarah Browne was able to come to rehearsals and we’ve also been discussing the rag trees that one often finds by holy wells in Ireland:  we’ve wondered how it would be for the dancers to be metaphorical rag trees, carrying fragments of other people’s wishes and intentions with them in the work.  I also think of scapegoats.

Mikel and Lisa (photo Luke Howlin)

Mikel and Lisa (photo Luke Howlin)

Using material from Mo Mhórchoir Féin as a stimulus for the dancers’ movement is part of the carrying.  Since I’m not in the piece myself, I’m hoping the dancers can carry something of me with them through the performance.  How will they be faithful?

Asking the dancers to think about religion was initially challenging, challenging for me to find the right way to frame the discussion and challenging for the dancers to release beyond the anxiety and tightening the discussion provoked.  It was good for me to practice that introduction and to realise that beyond the anxiety is plenty of insight and experience that’s valuable to the project.  As well as talking a lot, we also danced a lot and the dancing allowed for a processing of the ideas that talking alone wouldn’t permit or rationality entirely comprehend.  Sometimes blah blah blah doesn’t cut it!

Mikel and Lisa (photo Luke Howlin)

One of the things the dancers noted was how the dancer’s practice follows similar rituals to those of religion – the discipline, the reverence, the ecstasy, the daily practice to approach perfection.

March 03, 2011

Tattered Outlaws: East Coast Towers March Filming visit

I think we’ve worked out the name of the installation.  The Fingal Public Art Commission was Tattered Outlaws of History.  This new work that opens in Jaywick Martello Tower will be called Tattered Outlaws and it will include the Tattered Outlaws of History (twelve films) plus a new series of films made in response to the East Coast Towers.  That new part is provisionally titled If the Invader comes.

So Tattered Outlaws of History + If the Invader comes = Tattered Outlaws

The process is one of refinement and simplification, clearly.

Some of the volunteers at Jaywick Martello Tower are going to help build the physical framework for our screens (that have now made the journey from Ireland).  They volunteers are  generous with their time and skill and we couldn’t do the work without them.

JMT Volunteers measuring up with Dan

The volunteers feel related in skill and generosity to Marcel whom we met today at an audiovisual hire company in Colchester.  We’ve hired some sound equipment and a monitor so that Dan can see the filming more easily than on the camera view finder.  Marcel has gone out of his way to help us with the small but specific things  we need (the company is more used to hiring out huge sound systems for concerts and gigs) and has been happy to answer our phonecalls when we don’t quite remember how the kit should work.  These good souls enrich our project.  Or at least they make me happy about goodness in the world.


Marcel's marvelous box of tricks

Cables that I know have a practical function but appeal to me aesthetically

February 10, 2011

Tabernacle: Stary Browar research, Poznan

Starting research in the Art Stations Foundation in Poznan, I find, again, that I am alone in a studio. It’s a familiar situation but maybe too familiar: most of the best ideas come when people share their knowledge and work together.

In the gallery/studio in Stary Browar

The sense of solitude is all the more intense when I compare myself to the studio upstairs (I can hear the thud of bodies on the floorboards above me, I can hear the loud music) where 40 dancers are taking part in a workshop of David Zambrano‘s. I watch the workshop during the week to learn and think in the presence of that group energy.  Zambrano’s dynamic work is always social.  Even when he performs solo, he says he never rehearses on his own in a studio, preferring instead to make the solo in performance in front of other people.  As I watch the dancers practice his ‘passing through’ structure, I am reminded of a ballroom full of waltzing couples or, more appropriately, a fiesta of salsa dancers.

This approach to dance making is very different to mine and models a different relationship between the individual and the social group.  It’s good for me to feel this dynamic, effective alternative.  It may not be my natural choice or at least not my habitual choice, but for Tabernacle, I’m  creating a structure that allows many people to contribute to and engage with the creation process.  So I’m ready to add a new energy to my choreography.

You can participate in Tabernacle by joining this facebook page or posting you comments here.

February 08, 2011

Tabernacle: Research in Stary Browar, Poznan

Tabernacle has already been happening. It started in the film Mo Mhórchoir Féin. It’s been happening as Niamh sent out contracts to Mikel, Matthew, Elena, Bernadette and Stéphane (and Iarla, Sarah, Kevin and Sinéad). We already discussed brochure copy with Ellie at the Dance Festival. But with this first research phase at the Stary Browar (The Old Brewery) in Poznan, I feel I can say we’re really starting to make the piece.

I’m in Poznan because Joanna Leśnierowska who runs and curates the dance programme at Stary Browar invited me to visit as part of my Modul Dance research.  It’s a great opportunity as I’ve never been to Poland and, given Tabernacle’s focus on Catholicism and the Irish body, it’s interesting to see religion in action in Poland and to think about how that impacts on the greater Irish body now it has a lot of Polish DNA in it.  Everyone tells me that Poznan is much less observant than Crackow but midweek morning mass is still pretty full as far as I can tell.  I don’t know what it says about Catholicism in Poland that the churches are still decorated for Christmas with nativity scenes and Christmas trees, even though it’s the beginning of February.  But with snow on the ground outside, the effect is aesthetically pleasing.

Stary Browar is an interesting environment to be visiting since it’s a regenerated and much extended old brewery that houses a high end shopping mall as well as a contemporary art gallery, glitzy Nativity scene on a grand scale#mce_temp_url# and contemporary dance space.  The whole project is sponsored by Grażyna Kulczyk, a wealthy art collector whose private collection decorates the complex.  Her support means that the Stary Browar dance programme is operated almost exclusively without government subsidy.

January 27, 2011

Leading Change: My speech to the British Council’s Forum on Cultural Leadership in Hong Kong

I grew up in the green calmness the Irish countryside so waking up this morning and seeing the urban forest of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers reminds me how much things have changed in my life.  This is the first millennium in which over half the world’s population lives in cities and the World Health Organisation predicts that by the middle of this century 7 out of every ten people will live in cities, with the most explosive urban growth happening in Asia and Africa.  Our cities are changing rapidly, some in chaotic evolution, some in minutely planned government projects and for most people in the world, what it means to be human is being shaped by that environment.

For the past 5 years, my work as a choreographer has been focused on the relationship between our bodies and buildings in areas of rapid urban transformation.  It’s work that I started on the building sites of Dublin in 2006 when Ireland’s then economic success expressed itself in ambitious construction projects. I’ve worked in Beijing and Shanghai, dancing on the demolished hutong around the Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2007 and in the Expo last year (The Shanghai and Beijing construction projects signal to a national and international audience China’s power and ambition.) I live in East London where preparation for the 2012 Olympics is reshaping the city.  Building projects like these make concrete, quite literality concrete, the politics, ideology and economics of a particular moment and when I dance with those buildings, in, on or around them, I am offering my not just some pretty movement but a perspective on the world and my right and responsibility as a citizen/artist to express it alongside that perspectives of others..  Now, I arrive in Hong Kong and see its construction plans, particularly those plans for West Kowloon  but also those of this HKU university, and I wonder, as a choreographer how to respond .

Dance seems to me to be particularly well placed as an art form and as a kind of knowledge to respond to this rapid change.  Dance understands the body as an architecture of our humanity, a physical structure by which we are shaped and through which we experience ourselves and the world.   More importantly, a  dancer’s awareness can recognise  these grand building projects as a kind of choreography that will change people’s movement through the city for generations to come:  these projects will determine  where  people will walk, sit and lie down, where they will gather and where they will rush.   My question is what kind of choreography of it is:  is it a choreography that draws the best from its performers?  Does it allow them to contribute to its articulation? Or does it expect them to execute precise tasks with no room for interpretation, an outcome that may be beautiful in the moment but not so dynamic or filled with creative potential.

When I work with performers I trust that they are skilled and imaginative and that they can help me to develop work that’s even better than I envisaged.  To be honest, I am not interested in seeing my own vision realised.  That would be boring for me – a confirmation of what I already know.  I want my vision to be exceeded.  What I want from my work is an opportunity to learn more than I knew before, to be surprised, to be stretched and to create that opportunity for learning in those who participate in or see my work.

My research into bodies and buildings has taken me out of the studio into the urban space, onto street corners, wasteground that’s waiting for the developer’s cranes, onto building sites.  When I’m looking for in these places is neglected potential – potential in the site to be used in an unexpected way, potential in me and in my performers to respond to stimuli that would never happen in the controlled environment of the studio.  In that process I am inspired by skateboarders who see a bank whose glass and steel structure was designed to project the a gleaming corporate image and they see in it a ramp that will allow them to perform amazing stunts.  I am also inspired by the Filipana maids who gather on the walkways of Central (Hong Kong’s Central Business and shopping district) each weekend, turning the pedestrian passage ways into temporary spaces for eating, grooming, dancing and socialising. (Pick’n’Mix:The Dance Selection makes the same kind of creative use of a disused retail space and of untapped choreographic skill and audience appetite in East London).

When I dance my strange idiosyncratic dance in these kind of places, I claim my right and responsibility to be part of the big energy of change, my right to place art alongside all the other necessary activities of daily life and I proclaim, not shouting but not yielding, that these places in our changing cities in the corners and folds of someone else’s urban plans are by right places for others too to express their idiosyncratic individuality.

Many of you will know the work of  Charles Handy, an influential management thinker and a fellow Irishman. In 2001 he published a book called the Elephant and the Flea in which among other things he describes the future of advanced labour markets which he predicted (with some accuracy) would be divided between huge companies – elephants – and freelancers, ‘independent consultants’ or small organisations which he calls fleas.  I know my sympathy is with the flea because I recognise in the flea my own characteristics as an independent choreographer.  It is as a flea that I can begin to understand my leadership skills. The flea is nimble, mobile.  It jumps from place to place.  It is irritating but its irritating qualities allow it to divert the course of the powerful lumbering elephant. The flea is a good carrier: it transmits viruses from one host to another.  This may sound unpleasant but if we think of these viruses as information and knowledge, it is the mobile flea who is quickest at passing them on, in the process connecting elephants in a way they might ordinarily do.

Fleas need space between elephants to do their hopping.  If the elephants are too close, the fleas get squashed.  Their value as carriers of information and necessary irritants relies on that space.  In the same way, the heart of my creative process relies on that space for unpredictable hopping.  I create structures: I hire dancers, I organise a rehearsal schedule,  I set tasks.  However,  all of this is just scaffolding.  It creates the space in which I hope something will happen, something unpredictable, compelling and true.  If that wonderful unpredictable thing doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how much scaffolding I’ve erected.

I suggest that the same approach is necessary to planning for creativity in a city like Hong Kong.  Of course there is need for architecture and for infrastructure, for the parameters that define the space but those structures are only successful when they create the terrain for unpredictable creativity to emerge.  There is already so much creativity happening in that inbetween space here.  I’ve been privileged to hear this week Kung Chi Shing describe  the outdoor concert programme he organises outside the Arts Centre, using the established art structures and supports of the city but in a new way that brings a range of music to a wider audience.

“I just want a small street corner to do my things, and I can start from there.” Kung Chi Shing

I have also seen the energy of possibilities growing in the space between the cultural leaders that are part of the Advanced Cultural Leadership Programme.  The potential of their leadership lies in that unpredictable space between them, It is not just within the organisations in which they work but in what they cultivate by reaching beyond themselves and institutional boundaries.

Making space for that unpredictability is a risk and involves courage.We already have people with courage. And some of them are artists. Look to them and include them in your discussions.

I’d like to finish by showing you a dance film, I made last year.  It places a body in relation to a building which happens to be a church, and in doing so situates that body in a discussion about the Catholic Church in Ireland.

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Leading Change: A Forum on Cultural Leadership