Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2014

October 25, 2014

L’intime – at the Tipperary Dance Platform 2014

Enjoying class with Helene Cathala and a new generation of dance artists in Ireland - photo: Jazmin Chiodi

Enjoying class with Helene Cathala and a new generation of dance artists in Ireland

As part of their residency in the county, Jamzin Chiodi and Alex Iseli have been running the Tipperary Dance Platform for the past 5 years. TDP’14, to which they invited me this year as a mentor, includes a week’s laboratory and mentoring for emerging dance artists, as well as performances, work-in-progress sharings, and classes that are open to all. This year, the performances included an exceptional duet, Embrace, by French-based Affari Esteri, a sean-nós dance class with the legendary Roy Galvin and selection of dance films. A particular pleasure for me was taking classes with Edmond Russo and Helene Cathala, dancing alongside a young generation of dancers in Ireland and also learning through Helene repertory material from a Cunninghamesque Bagouet, Trisha Brown, Liz Roche and Helene herself. It was a privilege to have her embodied knowledge of those different traditions of dance-making offered to us so clearly and articulately, and to feel that knowledge call to some of the traditions that are part of my own embodiment.

Participation in the platform was free, as was attendance at most the events. Yet for the most part, the public events at the Excel were attended by the dance community of Irish and international artists who were participating this year or who had participated in previous years. Notable by their absence from the performances was a public beyond the profession and its intimates.

The topic for discussion at the Saturday afternoon public forum was l’intime – the intimate space. The choice of this topic was prompted by a feeling that Alex and Jazmin expressed about the challenges of staying true to the validity of their intimate/personal artistic preoccupations while wanting to share that experience with a wider public.

In how Alex described l’intime there was a strong sense of a space that existed just around his body, close to it but also boundaried. Discussing how we might translate l’intime in to English, I realised that it was different from ‘intimacy’, since that term in English already implies a relationship with an intimate person that l’intime does not yet include. It struck me that thinking about how to reach beyond a boundaried personal space like l’intime is already made difficult by the fact that one has drawn this boundary.

In my presentation to the forum, I proposed that we recognise the intimate space as already made by external influences. Psychoanalysis suggests that the most intimate psychic urges are shaped by the family relations of the child. Marxism suggests our relationships are governed by the forces of capital. Foucault proposes that how we experience and understand our ‘selves’ is shaped by power relations in which we participate. The ‘external’ world is already ‘inside’. For some, this is a depressing thought, as it seems to lead to a situation where we have no individual agency. However, an alternative way of looking at it is to recognise that if the world is already ‘inside’ individuals, already in their intimate space, then working on that intimate space is already an engagement with the world. It is not then a question of artists needing to justify or get over their focus on the personal to reach to a wider public ‘beyond’. It is rather a recognition that in having the courage to take as their material the intimate experiences of their lives, in confronting in that intimate space the many external forces that shape the personal, and in working through the conflicts and lack of resolution between those forces, dance artists can re-imagine and embody possible outcomes for how those forces operate.

As Hélène Cathala observed that sharing the space of intimacy is about risk. It’s not just about cosy familiarity. Apparently the root of ‘intimate’ contains the Latin ‘timere’, to fear, so that intimacy is about being able to be in a place of fear with another. This fear gives a charge to l’intime that Helene also reminded us was often connected to sex. For the dance artist to work with l’intime therefore is to work not with a boundaried, reliable personal identity, but to work with an individual experience of the an identity under construction, dissolution and re-construction at the nexus of multiple ‘external’ forces that are also being transformed by this individual working out.

Shadowing all of this discussion in Tipperary was a question about solidarity, a question of particular relevance to dance artists like Alex and Jazmin who work in a context where their skills and knowledge are unfamiliar to most people. How do they maintain the energy to undertake the risky artistic enquiry that motivates them? How do they do it when they have a sense that their context is foreign for them and they for it? (Alex mentioned that one of the reasons that I’d been invited on the panel is that I, along with Dylan Quinn, would have an ‘Irish’ perspective on l’intime that he expected to be different to the ‘Mediterranean‘ perspective that he, Jazmin, Helene, Edmond and Shlomi would have) I was struck by Dylan’s observation in the forum that at the time he was returning to set up his dance practice in Enniskillen he thought the hardest thing about doing so would be the lack of financial resources. However, what has proven to be most difficult is that fact that there are so few people (not even artists of other disciplines) that understand what he wants to do in dance and instead ask him about Zumba classes and wedding dances. For pragmatic reasons –primarily to support his family– he now gives those Zumba classes and teaches wedding dances and he is proud that he can bring dance experiences to four generations in his community of place, from toddlers to the elderly. But it is not a community that, for the most part, understands his artistic practice.

As Jazmin expressed her happiness that the forum provided her with an opportunity to share her thoughts and concerns about this topic, It occurred to me that in a context where the particular support of an artistic community isn’t available, what Alex and Jazmin are doing in the Tipperary Dance Platform is to curate their own community of support. It is a generous curation, making opportunities for dance enthusiasts, audiences, and professionals at different stages of their careers from Ireland and abroad. It is an act of community building that relies on their hard-work, sustained discipline, creativity, resilience and a network of personal and professional relationships. It does also need funding and infrastructure, even if the actual money is in no way commensurate to the work they and their network put in to making the platform happen


July 11, 2014

New steps with old friends

fearghus3I met Stéphane Hisler in Dublin in 2007 when I was Artist in Residence for Dublin City Council and when he was dancing there for other Irish choreographers. Since then he’s been part of the creation of and performed in a number of my works (Niche, Three+1 for now, Sweetspot, Tabernacle), contributing his characteristic passion, fierce physicality and generous support. More recently, we’ve swapped roles when I asked him to be one of the choreographers of Cure.
Our work together has been based on a shared physicality, though I am not as physically fearless, gifted or strong as he is, and it was encouraging to work with him on Cure in Melbourne where he now lives, to find that I still have some of that energy in my body.
Geographical distance between us makes it less easy to find opportunities for Stéphane and I to work together. Cure proves it’s not impossible. Stéphane’s work with Snuffpuppets (who hosted the Melbourne leg of the Cure creation) provided another opportunity recently when he toured with them to Romania and got in touch to say that he wanted to use the trip for us to maintain a dancing connection too.

We rehearsed in Walthamstow at the KNI Foundation studios where I made Porous last year. It was a pleasure to make the short trip there each morning, to dance alongside Stéphane, sharing a familiarity of physical commitment and building on that familiarity to find what we could communicate next through it. We spoke of the value of our shared history in dance and in friendship as a choreographic resource, a shared history that is already a material to work with. I’ve become increasingly conscious of my appetite to acknowledge, draw on, strengthen and energise the networks I’ve established over the years. These networks are professional and international but they are also networks of friendship that teach and support me. Despite being international, geographically dispersed and irregularly activated, I trust these relationships and the care they provide.
I brought to our research my ongoing preoccupation with permeable borders, introducing the notion of smear that I’ve taken from the paintings of Francis Bacon. In many of Bacon’s paintings, I see the organic viscerality of human shapes smeared against linear frameworks and cages. The human body exceeds its corporal borders, (violently, erotically) but does so in relation to external formal structures. Smear wasn’t difficult for Stéphane and me since our dancing together invariably produces sweat and a slippery contact that generates movement beyond the direct lines of pressure and intention. Sweat crosses the body’s skin border, and does so involuntarily. It is not really consciously controlled even if we can generate the conditions that call it forth. Emotional states such as fear also generate sweat as an involuntary exceeding of physical containment. Sharing sweat creates a space of mingling of our insides in a shared point of generative contact. Bacon’s studies of wrestlers in quasi-sexual, quasi-combative intertwining came to mind in parts of our movement.

We finished the week with physical material, with ideas and with an appetite to give further shape to this work. It’s good to have a shared project to plan for.

Matthew Morris, Mikel Aristegui, Stéphane Hisler

Matthew Morris, Mikel Aristegui, Stéphane Hisler

Niche on Brooklyn Bridge (Mikel, Stéphane, Matthew and Bernadette Iglich)

Niche on Brooklyn Bridge (Mikel, Stéphane, Matthew and Bernadette Iglich)

June 01, 2014

Bodies in Urban Spaces at the Dublin Dance Festival

I’ve been aware of Cie. Willi Dorner‘s Bodies in Urban Spaces project for a number of years as it’s been a fixture in dance festivals across the world and videos of its various iterations have provided eye catching and arresting images of dancers squeezed into the crevices of urban space. My own research in the relationship between bodies and rapidly changing urban infrastructure recognises a kinship in Dorner’s project. It was fascinating for me to see my first live version of Dorner’s choreography (though he calls the assemblies of bodies ‘sculptures’) in Dublin, as part of this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, where I did so much of my own bodies and buildings work.
The route of Dorner’s performance started at the corner of the Lir Theatre, on the edge of the Docklands and brought the carefully marshalled crowd on a back street route towards Merrion Square, Stephen’s Green and St Patrick’s Cathedral, discovering surprising arrangements of dancers in brightly coloured clothing (mostly hooded in a way that diminished individuality. In fact I read one of the dancer’s comment on a picture of her on Facebook that it was a pity that her face was visible.). The vocal delight and wonder of the many children in the crowd was particularly enjoyable to witness, as it expressed out loud much of what I felt: ‘Wow!’. One young girl, on seeing a dancer suspended between a wall and a signpost, told her mother: ‘I’m going to so that at home – on my bed.’
Of course adults and children might have had different reference points for these arrangements of bodies. I overheard one man on seeing a dancer splatted against a corner: ‘Erotic or disturbing? I’m not sure’.


The dancers with their bright colours and athletic anonymity sometimes reminded me of superheroes who’d lost their bearings.
I loved that near the end of our route, a group of boys in bright hoodies noticed a sculpture of bodies, inspected it and followed the crowd to the next arrangement. Seeing them run and cycle alongside us, I felt the choreography had expanded to include them in a way that reminded me of the effect of Keep Walking in our E.motional Bodies and Cities work: the choreographic structure that is introduced can provide a lense for seeing a bigger choreography beyond it.


I was aware that there were elements of the wider choreography that irritated me. Travelling in a big group required marshalling for the purposes of health and safety and also to keep the performance moving along so as to allow the dancers to keep moving on to the next sculpture. Some of the marshals managed to do their job effectively and with good humour. Others were a bit more hectoring in tone in a way that diminished my enjoyment. It reminded me that that experience of the choreography is not just in the performance but in the often impossible-to-control contextual elements that become constituent to and not just framing of the experience. There were times when I felt I was in a tour group being directed by the tour leader to get my tourist shot of the designated ‘photo-worthy’ view. We were encouraged to photograph Dorner’s sculptures but also hurried on with an assumption that a photograph of the image was all the experience to be had. I appreciate that the physical demands on the performers and the pacing of the whole experience meant that they couldn’t hold those positions indefinitely. But being able to see the effort involved, to see the tiring of the dancers bodies as they jogged ahead of us to make the next sculpture were important elements of the live experience for me, reminding us that the delightful spectacle has a cost and impact on individual bodies with differing resources and capacities. What I would have wished is to be able to discover and consider these corporal interventions rather than be guided in a group to glimpse them.

It’s a testimony to Dorner’s concept and execution and to the dancers’ stamina that the work still manages to surprise.

May 21, 2014

Riga Residency

20140516_184405I’ve spent this past week in a self-organised residency with Olga Zitluhina, funded by an Arts Council of Ireland bursary. I met Olga as part of the E-motional Bodies and Cities project in 2012/13 and had an opportunity to work with her some more on an additional residency in Dancehouse Lemesos where we made an improvised performance that was influenced in part by our experience of Cyprus in the immediate aftermath of its banking crisis.

I knew from our conversations that Olga had been responsible for the development of contemporary dance in Latvia, founding the first and eventually flagship contemporary dance company (that she disbanded last year). More importantly she developed a training programme for contemporary dancers and choreographers in the Latvian Academy of Culture and through it has had a huge influence on the students who have become her fellow teachers, choreographers and dance producers. All the dancers I met had trained in this programme and identified themselves according to which generation of the programme they’d been in.

My intention in spending time with Olga was to absorb from her, to see a mature artist at work. I loved dancing with her in the E-motional Bodies and Cities work and admired the openness of her creative approach, combining improvisation with a rigour and care. I wanted to see what approach means in her daily life, how she prepares, what impact it has on others. As in my own work, I am interested in how the values that animate an artistic approach are manifested beyond performance. In Olga’s case it is clear that her development with dance students, her organisation of the dance festival are instances of her creative practice.

Seeing Olga’s impact in Latvia, I question my own lack of tangible legacy. I don’t doubt that I make a contribution but it is not measurable or identifiable in the way that I see Olga’s admirable achievements. It may be that I am not motivated to create lasting structures. I create temporary structures because I expect that people who engage with mine will want to create their own once they’ve had the experience, impetus or example I can provide. Increasingly, working with organisations rather than artists, I recognise that some people appreciate, (need?prefer?) more sustained and directive guidance and structure. I encourage autonomy because I desire it for myself. Is it time to adopt another approach and could I manage it?
The irony is that when I teach a technique class, it is a very structured Cunningham class: I never teach for long stints and never profess the technique to be a gospel: no one is going to perform in the Cunningham company now so what I teach has to be about enabling possibilities for future dancing. I taught professional class in Riga this week in a huge, airy studio that delighted me because I could range across it with abandon. I enjoyed giving information to the dancers about clarity and energy through this form. After the last class, I asked the dancers what they’d taken from the classes, what if anything they found relevant. No doubt there was an element of politeness in their responses but I was gratified that they found the class helped them feel organised in their bodies, that the clarity of the elements in the form allowed them to concentrate on how they connected to the ground and mobilised their bodies with lines of energy.

I saw the dance students from the Academy a number of times during my stay. Olga invited me to see their solo improvisation assessment classes and to offer some feedback on what I saw (alongside Fiona Millward, of Independent Dance in London). In addition I attended rehearsals and ultimately performances for two different pieces. I was struck by their fearlessness and responsiveness to change and surprise. They are a group of almost 20 dancers. The Academy selects an intake that is trained over four years before another group is selected. The model works well for a small country like Latvia and might be a useful example for Ireland too as yet another Arts Council report is published that recommends the establishment of professional training for dancers in Ireland. Training together for four years creates a group that trusts each other and understands each other so that they can respond in the moment to the shifting environments, contexts and choreographies in which Olga puts them. It seems that from their first year, the students are performing for the public, earning money and learning about performance in the process. Of course, in watching them, I recognised my own appetites, a desire for some more clarity of physicality to ground the energy and occasional frenzy of their movement. But I wouldn’t want in any way to compromise the adaptability of these dancers, an adaptability and responsiveness that is a valuable training for life.
Olga and I danced together a little during our stay, in the studio, on the street in Old Riga; but also in our short swims (bracing dips) in the refreshing sea in Riga and Leipaja, in our daily routine in her apartment, in my watching her perform a Deborah Hay solo, ‘Dynamics’, as part of a Museum Night programme in Leipaja. I learned from her in all these moments and in the conversations that asked how you continue as a mature artist, what does it mean to be relevant, how to work when the choreography encompasses educating, organising, advocating etc. I return from this residency delighted to have seen the fresh greenness and lilac-scent of Spring’s arrival in Riga and feel some freshness in my own thinking too.20140517_222127

April 23, 2014

Cure at The Mac, Belfast

The Cure 55I chose to present Cure at the Mac in Belfast at the beginning of April for a number of good reasons. None of them were commercial. I was glad that the MAC fee meant that I was able to pay the rest of the team for their work on the performance (though they were more generous with their time and input than I could be with money). There wasn’t enough money to pay me which means that I paid (in time, in energy) to perform and Project Arts Centre didn’t get paid for its work. Why do the performance then?

The work is alive when it’s performed. And so is a particular way of embodiment for me.
If I don’t perform I worry that Cure is over – finished in my body, finished as a work available to be performed again. Performing keeps alive the possibility that there will be another performance. Therefore, to perform it at the MAC was a pragmatic and an emotional decision.

I can afford to do this performance without payment because I earn income through other work, as curator at Firkin Crane, facilitator for the Clore Leadership Programme, PhD student at NUIM, coach and mentor for other artists and arts professionals. However without staying connected to the challenge, gift and discipline of Cure (and the immersion in dancing, creativity, thought and relation it encapsulates) I don’t think I’d have anything useful to offer in those other roles. It is what Cure teaches me, as a performer, as choreographer, as a human, that gives me the resources I need to share in other contexts.
The Cure 80It wasn’t easy to prepare for this single performance. For the premiere and the two performances that followed quickly after it, I could devote myself full-time for 3 weeks before the performance to physical and mental rehearsal. Re-rehearsing for the Autumn required a different approach which was less frequent but nonetheless sustained over a period with at least weekly performances. For Cure at The MAC I was fortunate that a previously arranged week of residency at DanceHouse preceded the performance. That meant that I could run through the material each day after warm-up; but the residency had other focii too. And my other roles meant that lunchtime and evening meetings required a certain amount of mental attention too. I wondered in the days leading up to the show what impact these circumstances would have on my preparation for Cure. It isn’t that I wanted to recreate the conditions of the premiere performances: I wanted to understand instead what performing Cure means now in my life and how I can integrate that kind of one-off performance in a way that still give the piece the preparation it needs.

I folded at least one origami crane a day for 5 weeks before the performance.
The Cure 51
There is a very practical need to be physically capable of satisfying the piece’s physical demands. I want an audience to recognise the physical challenge but not be anxious about me as a performer not being up to the challenge. There is also a mental challenge to know the material well enough to be able to embody and communicate it and to do that in a way that is sensitive to the nuances of the choreography. I was happy that returning to Cure after a break of some months, I could remember the material with relative ease. There were moments that I needed to clarify, moments that hadn’t been uncertain before, but they were isolated and readily recalled. Rehearsing without the blankets, or salt or concrete or the chairs until the last week, I was concerned that my familiarity with those materials would be diminished, relying on a memory of them rather than on active or activated relation. I never want Cure to be about ‘managing’ to get through the performance. The choreography has been crafted and cared for and I have a responsibility to the work present it with the same care and with a kind of security that helps reassure an audience and allows them to relax into connecting with themselves through the work. In my approach, such reassurance is what permits me to draw the audience a little further, a little deeper than they might otherwise. So being able to perform the work with some kind of ease (it’s never easy) is important.
Ian Patterson’s review of the performance that appeared in the culturenorthernireland.org website is for the most part gratifying, especially in the detail of his attention and engagement and in his willingness to communicate a visceral, emotional response as well as a rational account of what he saw and thought. I was a little concerned that his language ‘dance macabre’, ‘painfully visceral’ suggested that I might have substituted physical intensity for subtlety, pushing my performance with a one-note effort. I take comfort from the fact that he felt the performance ‘provokes a gamut of feelings’, even if the list that follows ‘raw, bewildering, edifying and shocking’ isn’t very varied!

What was also very gratifying was that returning to Belfast after the work with Maiden Voyage in the summer felt like a positive return to a familiar place. I felt very much supported by the local dance community and valued that sense of connection. And hosting a supper in the MAC on the eve of the performance for a mixture of MAC staff, visual artists, choreographers, writers and curators helped me to feel that enabling connection also.

I’m ready for more now.

The Cure 40

March 05, 2014

Shetland with Sarah Browne

Clarity is important to me but sometimes you have to trust when something works even if you can’t define it. When I invited Sarah Browne to work with me on Tabernacle , I didn’t really know what she would do. In the end, we could point to the Appendix, a pamphlet she created for each of the performances, and to the particular design and proportions of the benches and to the clothing she sourced as visible contributions.
Elena feet on bench-05Mikcardigan-59
These contributions were tangible and made sense in terms of Sarah’s practice, in particular in relation to her way of dealing with material. However, these material manifestations were just part of a much greater role she played as sounding board, support and stimulus for me and for how I was thinking about the work. We credited all of this work in the programme as Visual Artist. It’s not an inaccurate credit but it’s not specific either.

Last week I joined Sarah in the Shetlands to help her in the making of film that she will show as part of a new exhibition at CCA in Derry. (It opens March 29th ). It’s been stimulating for me to be part of Sarah’s creative process that combines research rigour, a considered ethics and aesthetic intution. She’s generously included me in that process but I’m still not sure how my role could be defined. We’re agreed that I am the Choreographer. However there will be no danced steps, no interventions that abstract the movement of the subjects. And yet I feel my contribution is part of my wider choreographic approach.

I hesitate to explain what Sarah’s film is about since I think the material we’ve filmed in Shetland will tell its own ‘story’. However, I am clear that the point of departure for my understanding of the project was two images of working women. The first is a historical image of a Shetland ‘Kishie’ woman, carrying turf on her back while knitting.

The second is an image of a contemporary woman carrying a child while using a smartphone. These images stimulated me to think about the economic obligation to multitask, the tendency for all of our surplus energy to be used productively. The images relate particularly to women, whose labour is often less visible because it exists in domestic rather than public situations, because it might involve caring and affect. However, in a knowledge economy it is not only affective labour that becomes invisible. There is also a labour in maintaining the personal profile and brand that is required by a networked economy, mediated by the social technologies of private/professional communication.

The Shetlands makes sense to me as a location to focus an inquiry into this experience of labour, and in particular female labour, because the iconic image of the Kishie woman suggests that it is not just a contemporary phenomenon. It has a history, a geography and an economics. A division of labour between the sexes that predates the discovery of North Sea Oil, continues in new forms now that oil has brought money, roads, swimming pools and near total employment to the island.

In preparing for the filming, Sarah and I spent some time together thinking through what the choreographic input could be. As a support rather than author of the film, I wanted to help Sarah to clarify her idea and to understand what she really wanted to communicate in it. It was liberating for me to feel that I could ask questions, propose stimuli and reflect back what I was hearing in her thinking, without interposing my own agenda. This felt to me like the kind of choreography as facilitation that I feel I’ve been developing as I link my work on the Clore Leadership Short Courses to my choreography in the studio.

In Shetland, working with Director of Photography Kate McCullough (who shot Three+1 for now, and Mo Mhórchoir Féin for me), we filmed the fastest knitter in the world (Hazel Tindall) a photographer (Floortje Robertson), one of Shetland’s representatives in the Scottish Youth Parliament (Kaylee Mouat). As choreographer I thought about the rhythm of their activity, the dancing of Hazel’s articulate knitting fingers viewed in close up, the energy of gales blowing on wet roads and loughs. And I tried to see Shetland and these women as Sarah was seeing them, viewed alongside birds at twilight, petrol pumps and smoke stacks.

Photographer Sarah Browne

Photographer Sarah Browne

I’m still thinking about what I’ve learned from being inside Sarah’s creative process. She combines detailed preparation and organisation with an openness to instinct. She finds small details that tell big stories. She is quiet but resolute.

Here is Sarah’s blog post that makes clear her thinking on the project.

© Floortje Robertson 2014

© Floortje Robertson 2014