Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2017

November 09, 2017

Brave Interdependence/Idirspleáchas Cróga – a talk for Aonarach le Chéile Festival, Dingle

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 18.50.20Aonarach le Chéile is a new festival focused on solo dance. It is organised in Dingle by Maria Svensson (dance artist in residence at An Lab) and Nick Bryson, with the support of Áine Moynihan, director of An Lab. Intended to take place in An Lab, the sale of An Lab’s host building meant a last minute change of venue to An Díseart, a former convent, leased now as a spiritual and cultural centre. Though still full of its religious heritage, the building’s many spaces were hospitable to the combination of performances, workshops and talks that constituted the festival.

I was invited to give a talk about my experience of being an independent artist and on the relation between my work and the public. Below is an English language version of what I said (version rather than translation) and I’ll write a follow up post with some further reflections on what this stimulating and heartening new festival achieved.

Mickey Kelly photographer

I want to start with the festival poster image of me dancing, me on my own on Banna Beach. It’s an image that seems to encapsulate a certain view of the solitary individual dance artist, vulnerable to the elements. I want to propose that to it’s a mistake to read the image as signal of independence, and I’ll explain about that in more detail at the end, but more importantly that the idea of an independent dance artist is an unhelpful concept, one that misses the necessary interdependence of creatures, and that risks trapping us in relationships that do us, do others and do our art form no favours. I say this as someone who has called himself an independent choreographer and dance artist for all my professional life, but, looking back, my way of working has always depended on others and my work has evolved to reflect and enjoy that interdependence.

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Take for example Cure. It’s a solo performance for me and these images of it might again suggest a solitary figure in the darkness of the stage. But Cure was made, very deliberately, from choreography of six others (who had worked with me on Tabernacle) and whom I commissioned to each make ten minutes of material for me that I integrated into a single work. I loved performing Cure, but the opportunity it gave me to connect to myself was something that was possible thanks to the shaping input of others. Each time I stepped on the stage, I imagined myself as an astronaut doing a space walk – an apparently risky solo expedition but one that was only possible because of the rigorous preparation and training that a whole team of people invested in that individual. I also knew that, like at Cape Canaveral, a whole team watched and supported me from the lighting box, making sure I navigated the solo safely. And that solo endeavour only made sense in relation to the live presence of the people who helped create the work by being in the audience, whose energy was also an explicitly acknowledged element of the performance. My solo was absolutely dependent on a community of support.

Nonetheless the fiction of independence and its associated solitariness came easily to me. The impulse to create through dance wasn’t one I discovered with others. Though the Ring Gaeltacht is well known for its singing and music traditions, we didn’t have a dancing tradition there. As a child I danced with the scoláirí Samhraidh in their nightly céilís and I must have been good at it since I won medals in the end-of-course competitions. But being ‘light on my feet’ was not something that made me feel I fitted in. It was an exception, a deviation, just as a career in contemporary dance was a deviation from what seemed like an academic path when I was studying English at university in England. I know others have a different pathway into dance, maybe discovering it younger than I did, finding easy company and community in regular classes with friends, but that wasn’t my experience. I remember a conversation with David Zambrano who developed the Flying Low technique. He started dancing from social dances in his native Venezuela, so he is used to being in the middle of a community that dances and has a practice often has many dancers milling around a studio. He told me that he never practices alone and only develops solos when he’s dancing in front of people. I met him in residency in Poland where he had thirty people in his studio while I was in another studio on my own. It reminded me that we have our habits and preferences, and as an introvert, being on my own is a familiar and energising state in my life. And that preference may have predisposed me to seeing myself as an independent artist, but it isn’t only about preference.

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The idea of the lonely artist separated from the generalized mass of the public is a legacy of Romanticism, and as such a relatively recent invention but it’s one that conditions the cultural policy environment in which we work in Ireland. The Arts Council’s new strategy Making Great Art Work sets out two main policy priorities in its ten-year vision: proper resourcing of ‘the Artist’ and a focus on public engagement in the arts. It’s hard to argue with the priorities but they are built on an unhelpful assumption that artists are separate from the public, as this diagram makes clear.

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Because it presupposes this separation, the Arts Council has to go to some lengths to hold the separate parts together, with its wraparound priorities of circle of investment, capacity-building and attention to spatial and demographic distribution. Part of the problem is that the Arts Council uses the capitalised abstract and lonely singular Artist to designate the variety of people engaged in artistic practice. It’s an odd choice, given that the strategy document recognises the varied categories of emerging, mid- and late-career artists in its considerations, as well as the different ways and contexts in which artists work. What if instead of conceiving the Artist and Public as separate, we were to recognise that artists – plural and diverse- are part of a plural and diverse public. We use public services, public roads, public hospitals, schools. We pay taxes and vote. We are the public alongside and with others.

To be fair to the Arts Council, this attention to the Artist comes in part from its research on the poor working conditions and precariously low incomes of artists. But again we’re not alone in experiencing those conditions. Precarity is a symptom of a wider pressure in neo-liberal capitalism that has encouraged individualism and self-reliance and discouraged the structures and stabilities that support individuals in community. The celebration of individual freedom from the oppression of restrictive social norms, which is a good thing, has also facilitated a neoliberal economic system that traps us in often exhausting self-exploitation. As a result, instead of being liberated exceptions to the dominant system, the endlessly mobile, adaptable, creative independent dance artists risk being the model of this neoliberal subject.(See for example Bojana Kunst’s Artist at Work or Andre Lepecki on the fetishisation of mobility)

So I want to propose an alternative way of thinking about artists as part of the wider public. The model I have in mind is the brilliant sean nós singer in a community. Everyone has a song, and in group gatherings it’s great to hear everyone’s song, but we know there are some people with a particular ability and gift in singing. And when they sing, they sing for the whole group. Their distinctiveness does not put them outside the group. Nor do they need to diminish their distinctiveness to be connected. If any of you have seen the people ag windáil (literally ‘winding’ the singer by holding their hand and rotating the lower arm from the elbow), connecting physically and encouragingly with the singer, it’s clear that the exceptional gift can be linked and channelled viscerally into, and supported by, a community. That’s the kind of artist I’d like to be in relation to communities that welcome me.

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Many of you will have seen Match, the dance film I made in Croke Park. I want to talk about it for a moment to illustrate what I mean about how a dance artist might connect a particular vision to a wider community. Match was a Dance on the Box commission by RTÉ and the Arts Council. I knew it was an important opportunity bring contemporary dance , an artform that has relatively small audiences, to a much wider viewership.

Many people in Ireland might say that they don’t understand contemporary dance, they don’t know how to decode it. However, thousands of people every week watch men and women playing hurling, camogie and football, expressing themselves physically, psychologically driven, emotionally powered and making stories that people will talk about and analyse for days and weeks and sometimes years. Irish people know how to read bodies in those contexts and so by placing a duet on the hallowed turf of Croke Park, I wanted to demonstrate to viewers that they already knew how to read the bodies in action there.

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My family are all GAA players and fans: my mother played camogie, my uncles hurling and football, my sisters ladies football, my brother is Waterford county physio and a former underage county player, my other brother is a sports journalist and a trainer of local teams, my first cousin has been in eight all Ireland ladies football finals. By nature and nurture, my body was made for GAA, but I’ve taken that DNA, my inheritance, and given it a different expression in dance. But that different expression does not diminish my kinship to the community from which I come. My family were delighted and a little jealous that in Match I managed to perform on Croke Park before any of them did. And they got it. They helped me with ‘costuming’ authenticity and detail. But putting dance in that iconic territory and, by broadcast on national television into the homes of people who would never knowingly choose to attend a contemporary dance performance, was an important way for me to resist the separation of ‘The Artist’ from ‘the Public’. Unlike soccer players who when they reach the top of their game become so wealthy that they live lives of separate and insulated from the experience of the majority of people, with an amateur game like hurling and football, you can be a star and also the local teacher. Distinctiveness and excellence does not separate you from community. On the contrary, it serves community. By appearing on Croke Park and on the national broadcaster with Match, I wanted to claim the same right to connectedness without compromising the distinctiveness of the vision the choreography offers.

That connection may not be something that people can always articulate. The day after Match was screened it was discussed on the Ray D’Arcy show. One man phoned in to say he had no idea what was going on in the film, but that he couldn’t stop watching it. That suggests to me that he felt a connection to the work, even if he didn’t have the words to express what he felt. And surely we dance because words are not always adequate or available to communicate what needs expression? Dance has the ability to give form and space to the strangeness and surprise that we all harbour within us, as well as the unfamiliar that seems to come from outside of us. In doing so, dance has the ability to challenge restrictive ideas of a homogenous community with clearly defined borders.

Too often, ideas of the public and the community are built on explicit and implicit exclusions. Philosophers (Arendt, Butler) trace this back to the very origins of democracy in Athens, where it is true that citizens could participate in public debate, but those citizens were free men and their ability to show up in public was dependent on the unacknowledged care and labour of women, and of slaves who themselves, alongside resident foreigners, did not count as citizens. As an EU citizen living in the UK, this question of who gets to belong and who doesn’t is currently relevant for me. But it is equally relevant in Ireland where we have a system of Direct Provision that choreographs the marginalisation of people and their potential that could otherwise be contributing to the country, where female bodies are not accorded the same autonomy and respect as male bodies and where the number of families living in emergency homeless accommodation is at the highest level recorded
(The most recent figures show there are now 1,442 families and 3,048 children homeless nationwide in Ireland an increase of 25% from August 2016 to August 2017. See Focus Ireland accessed 17 October 2017). These kind of inequalities are barriers to people’s ability to participate, to be visible and recognisable in public as part of a community, and I think dance is a particularly valuable art form for making visible what is often excluded, consciously and unconsciously from the act of self-definition that goes on when people imagine a community.

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This impulse was very much behind the work of The Casement Project, the project that I led as a response to the Centenary Commemorations of the Easter Rising. Most of you will know that it was a multi-platform project that danced with the queer bones of Irish rebel, British knight and international humanitarian to imagine an Irish national body more hospitable to the stranger. It took place in academic symposia, in workshops, on stages, on screen and on Banna beach not far from here. I’m going to focus on Féile Fáilte for this last part of the talk to illustrate how artists might make and support community, in a way that makes visible prevailing exclusions in other versions of community and other definitions of who is allowed to be in public.

Féile Fáilte
Féile Fáilte was a day of dance on Banna Beach. I chose Banna because it was where Casement had been captured on Good Friday 1916 on his way, to intervene in the Easter Rising. However the beach was important for a number of other reasons: when I was conceiving the project, the media was filled with images of migrants and refugees arriving on the beaches of southern Europe, landing there is they’d crossed safely, washed up there if they were tragically unlucky. The shoreline was the place where we, the European Community, were confronted by the complexity and needs of the other, an other, that as President Higgins often reminds us, was us, a queer and complex strangeness that Casement embodied also when he came ashore on Banna. More positively, I imagined the beach as a place where Irish people of all ages are a little more in touch with their bodies, bodies sometimes stripped to soak up the sun, other times wrapped but vigorously activated in bracing walks or adventurous surfing. The beach is a relatively democratic public space and for the kind of welcoming event I wanted to create, having a space where all kinds of people could feel comfortable was essential. But making a space where all kinds of people can gather required a careful choreography of people, resources and ideas. With The Casement Project team, I directed the resources of the State to literally making a platform on which different kinds of bodies could be visible.
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We built a stage on Banna on which performers in wheelchairs could dance, (Croí Glan Integrated Dance Company), alongside Siamsa Tíre, and the multiethnic cast of Catherine Young’s beautiful Welcoming the Stranger that I commissioned for the event, a cast of local non-professional dancers some of whom are recent arrivals to the county and some who’ve been here all their lives. Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 21.19.25

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 21.19.57We had Mangina Jones, former Alternative Miss Ireland as host, music from the brilliant Rusangano Family, dancing from John Scott’s IMDT and its diverse group of performers.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 21.19.40We had a céilí and a pyro display.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 21.20.27The platform was built to be accessible, not only for wheelchairs, but in fact for anyone who was watching, so that when we had a disco or a céilí or enthusiastic audience participation during the Rusangano Family set, those that were watching could in a moment be dancing, crossing easily the border between stage and surroundings. The artists were the public and the public were the artists. It is the ability of people to move between spaces and not get trapped or fixed in defined locations that mattered to me in this choreography of an inclusive community.
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We paid attention to some other kinds of invisible exclusion too by providing free transport from Tralee to Banna and back. I didn’t want owning a car to be a barrier to participation. Likewise we provided some resources for LGBT refugees that had marched for the first time in the 2016 Pride event in Dublin to travel to attend Féile Fáilte. It’s no point putting on a free event for everyone, if people can’t afford to get there to take up your apparent generosity. My sense of choreography includes not only the bodies on stage but the processes that make it possible for some bodies to show up, to be visible, to participate and others not. In this respect, choreography can teach a wider public about the resilient structures that enable a more inclusive experience of community and public.

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But to make a space for inclusion, means risking an encounter with what is unfamiliar and strange and that experience isn’t always comfortable. Many of you will know that despite the overwhelmingly positive response to Féile Fáilte, where people described it as a utopia and asked that we do it again, there was a letter of complaint from a Tralee family to the local radio in particular about the content of my work Butterflies and Bones that referred to Casement’s sexual life. It being July and in the absence of much else to talk about, there was a brief storm of outrage on local radio and paper with a counsellor in Cork who hadn’t been to the event complaining that we had disrespected Casement and his family by referring to what he did with his body and how his body was treated after his death. Some of the people who complained said the event was not family friendly, which I found odd since my biological and chosen family were happily in attendance and I resented the attempt to take family away from us, to exclude us from the notion of family. We were still in the wake of the Marriage Equality Referendum where some of the arguments against marriage equality were advanced on the grounds that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to have families – ‘Don’t let same sex couples raise children’, as Danny Healy Rae told Hot Press magazine. (Happily for me, Kerry constituencies voted for 55% in favour marriage equality, solidly average between Dublin’s 72% and Roscommon’s 48% for and 51% against). One person interviewed on the radio said my work would be fine on a side stage but it didn’t belong in the middle with everyone else, ‘it’s not general entertainment’. Féile Fáilte was precisely a choreography to resist that exclusive, marginalising version of community and though it was hurtful to hear some of the challenge to that vision I was trying to perform on Banna, the reality is that the challenge of inclusion, of a public space and community that shelters difference, is one that applies to me as well as to those who are challenged by the work I present. This recognition of the public as a space where dissensus and disagreement can be safely held together seems particularly important in fractured societies such as America divided on Trump, Britain on Brexit, and Ireland about to deal with its legacy of bitter Civil War.
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And the point of Féile Fáilte is that it worked – even those people who complained about Butterflies and Bones hung around to be offended and to watch the pyro display at the end. We shared Banna together without violence and disruption. And they lost nothing by hanging around because the event was free to attend and people were free to leave whenever they wanted. So when we think of choreographing community, I think it’s worth thinking about the structures that allow differences to coexist, for the surprise, the delight and the challenge of strangeness to be encountered. (The Irish phrase, trín a chéile, literally through one another, has a sense of losing one’s usual composure, of being lost to ones familiar self). And sometimes as artists, we are that strangeness to others, perhaps because we are willing to be strange to ourselves And sometimes the encounter with others confronts us with their resistant but instructive otherness. And in this encounter we are interdependent, not independent.
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So if I return to the photograph with which I started, which shows me dancing on Banna I want to conclude by revealing it not as an example of my solitary independence but as an image born of interdependence. The image is of my dancing on Banna as part of the filming of I’m Roger Casement the dance film we made as part of The Casement Project. Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 21.22.18Not only does the image depend on the presence of the photographer, (Mickey Kelly) but there’s a whole film crew recording while that image is being taken, and the cast of performers sheltering in the dunes until they dance again. Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 21.22.04
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More importantly, that material that I’m dancing is generated through others. I was never supposed to be dancing in the film, but Theo Clinkard with whom I developed the material wasn’t able to join us for the performances so I took his part. Some of the material that I ended up dancing on Banna derived from a solo I’d made in China in 2007. Aoife McAtamney learned and transformed that solo as part of our research for The Casement Project and her material was passed on and transformed again by the other performers in Butterflies and Bones. I eventually took it back into my own body when I danced Theo’s part on Banna. That journey of through otherness, of interdependence is all present for me in that image. But it’s not only an interdependence on other humans. That dancing was dependent on the weather, on the sea, on the sand under my feet. The image is here because of the mediating technology of the camera, still and film, my movement on Banna directed towards the fixed and particular frame. As we consider our interdependence, it is a future of complex connections that we need to take into account.

October 13, 2017

The Galas Nomination

It was very nice to have I’m Roger Casement included in the long-list for the Film and TV Award in The Galas. The Galas honour LGBT+ people and organisations for their contributions to Irish society. We were included in a list alongside COCO Television’s brilliant documentary about the Marriage Equality campaign, The 34th. COCO’s Vanessa Gildea and Linda Cullen produced I’m Roger Casement too.

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August 31, 2017

Mapping Spectral Traces 8: The Place of the Wound Symposium

Last October,at the Mapping Spectral Traces 8: The Place of the Wound Symposium, I was spoke about The Casement Project and especially Féile Fáilte as a choreography of visibility. The symposium at Maynooth University was organised and curated by Karen Till as part of the Mapping Spectral Traces network. Here’s a video of my talk:

August 02, 2017

Communications, Reach and Impact Report: The Casement Project

From when I started thinking about The Casement Project I knew that communicating it so that it could reach many different kinds of people was a key part of how it would work.   So often in dance, we do great work, but don’t have the resources to tell people it’s happening, why it’s happening and what happened when it’s done.  Being able to tell those stories is important since there are people we can attract to see the work and become involved in it, as well as people who might never see a performance but who are drawn in to the ideas of what the work is about.  I wanted The Casement Project to have ways in for all those kinds of people.  Thanks to the brilliant Annette Nugent and  Kate O’Sullivan, we’ve been able to put together this report that tracks some of the way that communications worked for The Casement Project, how we did it and who we reached.  The ART: 2016 commission was an opportunity to show what dance can do when it is resourced to succeed on a large scale.  But I’m hoping that there’s useful information in this for many artists, funders, commissioners and programmers, regardless of what scale we’re working on.

Let me know, if you find something for you.

 

May 14, 2017

Coming full circle

As I’ve written before, David Rudkin‘s epic radio-play Cries from Casement as his Bones are brought to Dublin was an inspiration for me when I started to research Casement and the politics of his afterlife.  Made by the BBC in 1972 and using its experimental sound design expertise, I had asked Alma to use the play as a source of material for our sound design in The Casement Project.  While I’d imagined a large role for it initially, its significance diminished as Alma’s composition took on its own life.  Nonetheless there are traces of the radio play in the sound design for Butterflies and Bones and for I’m Roger Casement,  in particular the litany of the executed that accompanies Philip’s solo and the subsequent circle of turbulent running.  Philip-Connaughton-Butterflies-and-Bones-rehearsals-01

It was a surprising set of connections that made it possible for me hear the radio play in the first place and to get permission from David Rudkin and the BBC to use it.  Reading the play script, which is available online, I saw that John Tusa, whom I knew at the time as Chair of the Clore Leadership Programme, was listed in the cast, playing himself as a World at One Commentator.  So I asked John if he could point me in the direction of where I could find the recording in the BBC’s archives.  He put me in touch with the play’s producer John Tydeman who discovered that the recording was in the archives but not accessible at the moment.  But he put me in touch with David Rudkin who kindly sent me tape recordings he’d made of the original broadcast.  It was these crackly analogue recordings that I listened to originally, mindful that they were a copy of a copy of a play about a man reimagined artistically and politically many times in the one hundred years since his death, if not already before it.

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Thanks to Ellie Beedham at The Place, I was introduced to Eva DelRey, Curator, Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance at The British Library.  Through Eva, we partnered with The British Library to organise our Hospitable Bodies symposium but Eva was also able to tell us that the British Library had a recording of a re-broadcast of the play in the eighties, as well as Rudkin’s archive.  She secured us a digital copy of the play (much easier to work with than the cassettes) and arranged for us to see the original radio script from the recordings as well as some of the Casement material that the British Library has in its collection.

A year and a half later, I’ve been trying to track down the actor who voiced the roll call of death.  The script is no help since it lists all of the actors without allocating their roles.  David Rudkin couldn’t recall either which of the actors it might have been.  But I remembered that the script from the recording was in Rudkin’s archive at the British Library and I hoped it might have some clues about who voiced which part.  Having secured permission to see the script in the Manuscripts Reading Room, I discovered that Rudkin indeed provided detailed notes about the many parts played by each actor.  Except that the part of ‘He’ that voices the role call of the executed wasn’t assigned to anyone.  A little more sleuthing in his notes however led me to the realisation that ‘He’ was in fact the World at One Commentator – John Tusa, chosen by Rudkin, (along with ‘She’,  the female World at One Commentator, Meryl O’Keefe)  to be a familiar voice of 197o’s BBC officialdom.  He’d specifically asked for the anchors of World at One and I wonder if it’s the authenticity of their voices – they’re not actors playing parts – that drew us to having what I now know is JT’s voice in our sound design.

April 28, 2017

Creative Bodies: Next Moves – my speech for 2023:Future Retrospectives

 

On 4 April, the Arts Council presented  a symposium to reflect on its ART:2016 programme.  Curated by Róise Goan, it asked: What does it mean for the State to support artists in examining a key historical moment that is future focused? What is the impact on the artist and their work? What is the impact on the community that engages with that work?

I was moved to see and hear the work of the other artists involved in the programme, and especially to feel the strength of the values that drive them.  You can see more of what happened on the day on the Arts Council’s Facebook page where the event was live streamed.  Here’s what I said (more or less)…

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Buíochas mór le Róise agus leis an gComhairle Ealaíon as ucht an deis labhartha libh inniu. I’m taking this opportunity to celebrate what we’ve achieved in The Casement Project. It’s not something I’ve often done on previous projects and I want to recognise what’s different this time. This time we were able to allocate enough resources to finish the project well, to pay people for the time it takes to reflect, discuss and write reports, reports that aren’t just fulfilling the obligations to our funders, but that generate learning for me, for us, for anyone else who might value some insight into what we did and how we’d do it next time. And there is a claim in this taking time to reflect, to evaluate, to learn for next time – because it boldly imagines a next time. And for an artist who has no guarantee that he will ever be funded again, that imagining of a next time and of a future in which a next time would be possible, is one of my best creations (with all the physical, intellectual and emotional energy creation entails). So in starting today with a celebration and commemoration of what The Casement Project has been, I hope you can see that the looking back is a strategic contemporary intervention with a changed future in mind..

 

The Casement Project, was a choreography of bodies and ideas that took place across multiple platforms and national boundaries. In the context of our centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising, but also of the First World War (and the sometimes fraught interrelation between them), the work danced with the queer and complex body of Roger Casement – British knight, Irish rebel and international humanitarian. [And of course, Casement was imprisoned in the Tower of London that has featured in Deborah Shaw’s wonderful description of the Poppy project.]

 

The choreography was designed to reflect on the relationship between nationalism and the body, to ask the questions: Who gets to be in the national body? Whose bodies represent the nation? What bodies are empowered or excluded? How might the national body move? How permeable are its borders?

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Behind the project was a belief that despite our verbal skills, our linguistic creativity, that many Irish people are not fluent with or about bodies. And in the past hundred years, our individual and collective bodies have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of that lack of corporeal articulacy. Though Casement is renowned for his words – his reports denouncing human rights abuses in the Congo and in the Amazon, his poems, his letters, his diaries – it is his body, what it did and where it went, both in life and in death, that has always been most troublingly political. His always mobile body, always in transit, responded bodily to the bodies he desired. He also read the marks of exploitative colonialism and capitalism on the bodies of indigenous people in the Congo and the Amazon, and ultimately linked those bodies with the malnourished bodies of children in the west of Ireland under British rule. After death, his own body, intimately probed to examine his sexual history, was discussed at the British Cabinet, and the resting place of his bones remained a point of political dispute between the British and Irish governments for a further 50 years. When, in 2016, politicians have celebrated the artists who authored the Easter Rising, I think they usually have poets and perhaps a musician in mind. In mobilizing Casement and his complex body, I wanted to make sure that choreography of the Rising and of the State it set in motion could be visible; that the value of dance as a art form that knows about the formation of individual and collective bodies could be applied as a way to re-imagine that foundational choreography. I also wanted to use Casement’s international profile as a way to remind us that we can’t think about the flourishing of a particular national body without attending to global questions of justice and to the kind of inclusive, dynamic and permeable collective body such a global perspective might necessitate.

 

All of this is pretty much what I said in my Open Call application. And I’m still saying it because just as puppies aren’t just for Christmas, Casement, or more properly a better understanding and experience of a diversity of bodies, isn’t just for Easter or even for 2016. And I’d like to talk a bit more about in a moment.

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Over the past year almost 90,000 people engaged with The Casement Project in various ways, joining in, seeing us on stage, on screen, participating in conversations, dancing on the beach. We started the year with the Bodies Politic symposium at Maynooth where we invited artists, academics and activists working with the body and commemoration to share common concerns. And I will co-edit this year a book of essays we commissioned from some of the contributors to the event. We had a second symposium in the British Library in London before opening our stage show, Butterflies and Bones at The Place Theatre, across the road. That London premiere was always important for me as a way to expand the context of the 2016 commemorations, to extend a narrow conception of what a national body might be (both in Ireland and in a Brexit-inclined UK). As part of the 1418NOW commissioning strand in the UK, commemorating WW1, as well as part of ART:2016 programme, The Casement Project was designed as a choreography of partnerships, contexts, and histories as well as a choreography of bodies on stages.   My mission is to see and work with those macro-choreographies through the micro-choreographies we explore in the studio. Following Casement’s lead we presented Butterflies and Bones in London, Dusseldorf, Belfast and Dublin, as well as on the beach in Banna as part of our day of dance to welcome the stranger. Over 2000 people came to Féile Fáilte on the beach where Casement had come ashore 100 years before. We also filmed our I’m Roger Casement short film there and it was shown on RTÉ at the start of this year to 83,000 people, spilling beyond the 2016 container in a way that I hope will continue with further broadcasts and screenings. We had a club night, our Wake for Roger Casement, at Kilkenny Arts Festival. Alongside those public events, we had opportunities for creative engagement with all kinds of people in open rehearsals, lecture demonstrations and in workshops with LGBT refugees and asylum seekers (that are still going on as an important legacy of the project). Too often, people make great work that no one hears about and so I wanted to integrate communication into the artistic strategy of The Casement Project, not as an add-on but as part of the material and the medium of the project. Annette Nugent, who was communications consultant for The Casement Project, will talk later about the practicalities of choreographing the way the project was manifest in print, broadcast and digital media. She and Kate O’Sullivan brought particular creative skills and expertise to the project, alongside like Ciaran O’Melia, Alma Kelliher, Dearbhla Walsh, Brenda Morrisey, Lian Bell(when she had so much else going on with Waking the Feminists), Cian O’Brien, Marcus Costello, Aaron Kennedy and the dancers, Mikel Aristegui, Bernadette Iglich, Philip Connaughton, Liv O’Donoghue, Matthew Morris and Theo Clinkard. And I want to acknowledge that part of the impact of the whole project comes from having paid attention to how it has lived and will live in various media.Slide38

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So nearly 90,000 people saw or participated in The Casement Project. I’m stressing this for myself, as much as for you, but while 90,000 is an encouraging number, even more encouraging was the care and feedback that one individual gave at Féile Failte during the summer.

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The night before the event, when the amazing technical team had put everything in place and we’d rehearsed until late on the beach at Banna, a man arrived over the dunes with a satchel of tea and coffee for us. He’d seen that we were working late and responded with this kindness of refreshments. Perhaps in his sixties, he chatted with the dancers and me about what we were doing, but I didn’t find our much about him. I don’t even know his name. I only appreciated the welcome and care he showed to strangers, that seemed already a model of what I hoped our Féile Fáilte would be. After the event next day, after dancing, and pyrotechnics, and the disco, when I was exhilarated but exhausted, as people were leaving the beach, the man came to us again this time with snacks, and tea and whiskey. He gave me a set of post-it notes with his response to the day. He had written: All love is to be celebrated. You show how individuals can rock empires. You can feel the joy of hidden love in your dance. The mighty powers tremble before individual universal desires. Rebels like Roger will always be with us.

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If I am keen for many people to see my work, it is not with the expectation that everyone will like it. (I was taken to task by an audience member at a talk in Kilkenny Arts Festival for giving credence to the ‘lie’ that Casement had sex with men. And following reports in local press and radio about the performance of Butterflies and Bones at Féile Fálite, a local councillor in Cork who hadn’t been there decried the work as disrespectful to the Casement family and to the audience.) But if we didn’t take the risk to claim public space, on a beach, on the internet, or on television, for a kind of work and a kind of world we want to embody, how would people like that man find us

I’m tired and that makes me anxious because I worry that my existence as an artist and my subsistence as a human being depends on my being active and productive. The artist in me knows that I need some fallow time to listen to what I should do next and I wish I’d had the courage to build that fallow time into this project and its funding, since we all know that the fallow time is an important time in the productive cycle. But in retrospect there are a number of things we left out of the budget. I’ve called myself an independent artist for a long time and I’ve valued the flexibility and mobility it’s allowed me. But it is a fiction, one that’s encouraged by a neo-liberal ideology that has promises self-employed autonomy, and delivers precarity instead. I’m not independent. I’m  an inter-dependent artist, reliant on and contributing to networks of support, alliances of solidarity and encouragement that enable me to make work with others. The Casement Project depended on the skills, creativity and good will of a small team that we assembled for the project. We hadn’t all worked together on a single project before, though we all knew each other and shared values. We jumped straight into delivering this major project. We had to. There was so much to do. What we didn’t do was invest time and resources into figuring out how we would work together. That would have seemed like a luxury, an unnecessary expense, and of course because it was an amazingly competent and generous team of people we were fine. However, in being fine, we were drawing on existing capital, not investing and that’s not sustainable in the long term. And we pushed on when there might have been moments of reflection that would have helped us make the work even better. What we budgeted for was delivering, but the reality is that delivering is only part of life-cycle that makes something like The Casement Project possible. And maybe part of the tiredness I’m feeling is that we only invested in delivery and not so much in preparation and recovery.

Some of the team on a recce to Banna

Some of the team on a recce to Banna

 

 

The other impact of not investing in building the temporary organisation that The Casement Project turned out to be is that leaping straight into delivery meant there was no time to take a risk on new, inexperienced people. I worked with a team of highly experienced, talented people, mostly people I already knew. That was great, but in the long run, its not good for me or for the sector since it deprives people who are less experienced of the opportunity to work on a project like this and it deprives me of the chance to work with them. It’s not good for diversity. In talking about investing in building a team, I’m not imagining that I want to set up a permanent company. But to realise projects of this scale, a team is essential and one of the things I’d encourage us and the Arts Council to think about is resourcing the structures of support that enable work outside the companies to happen. Project Art Centre was the invaluable anchor of support for me, and has been for many years, but it still required a dedicated Casement Project team to work with that support structure.

 

One of the other questions I’m left with after this amazing opportunity is what I’m supposed to do now with this experience of and appetite for working at scale. The Open Call asked us to be ambitious and offered unprecedented resources to support that ambition. Given that the upper limit for a dance project award is €50,000 (with a prioritisation of projects that can squeeze into that budget a broad range of touring alongside the creation and presentation) the opportunity that the Open Call represented was huge, more for a dance project than perhaps for a theatre project where the upper limit for production is €150,000 and where that production might also have benefited from previous development money not available to dance. I didn’t have to think differently to imagine a project that could take advantage of the resources of the Open Call award. I’ve always been trying to make work in the multi-dimensional way I have in The Casement Project. But on smaller budgets, I could only manage one dimension at a time, for a short period of time, without the communication support that makes an impact that in turns supports the further life of the work. The Open Call resources allowed The Casement Project to exist over a long period of time, and by existing over that time frame, to build momentum, impact and engagement. It has also been the case that resources have attracted resources with additional opportunities coming to us because of the Arts Council’s anchor investment.

So what am I supposed to do with this kindled and exercised ambition now? Having shown what dance can do when it’s resourced to succeed, do I settle for a diminished vision?

 

My answer, for the moment, is definitely not. I’ve heard myself talk endlessly about the need for greater fluency with and about bodies and sometimes wondered whether it’s time to move on. But just when you think we’ve made progress and outgrown restrictive legacies, the neglect of bodies like those of the babies buried in Tuam, or of those that live the penal choreographies of social and spatial exclusion in direct provision, the denial of bodily autonomy to a majority of our population all remind me that there is work to do. So in the spirit of Future Retrospection, I want to imagine a 2023 in which we will have commemorated the independence of the Irish national body by celebrating the confident freedom of a diversity of Irish bodies, autonomous but interdependent, recognising that individual flourishing depends on the flourishing of many others. I imagine that this celebration of Creative Bodies will have had artistic self-expression at its heart. It will not have been a keep fit programme, We will have built on the knowledge of dance as an artform that knows about how bodies are developed and explores what they could be. It presents different possibilities for how bodies come together and offers to society new choreographies for our lives together. We will have built on the knowledge of dance, and of other art forms that foreground embodiment. We will have built solidarities between artists, policy makers, scientists, sportspeople, educators and technologists, because it’s going to take a shared knowledge to make the kind of transformation that’s needed here to liberate a resource that’s been contained for too long.

So this is what I’ll continue to work on. I hope to see you in the dance.

 

photo by Kate Heffernan

photo by Kate Heffernan

Lian Bell, our brilliant Project Manager for The Casement Project but even more brilliant Waking the Feminists activist and leader

Lian Bell, our brilliant Project Manager for The Casement Project but even more brilliant Waking the Feminists activist and leader

Annette Nugent (Communication Consultant for The Casement Project) with  Kris Nelson, Eugene Downes and  Tom Creed

Annette Nugent (Communication Consultant for The Casement Project) with Kris Nelson, Eugene Downes and Tom Creed

Áine Philips, Future Histories, ART:2016

Áine Philips, Future Histories, ART:2016

Fearghus Ó Conchúir and Karen Downey (Project Manager, ART:2016)

Fearghus Ó Conchúir and Karen Downey (Project Manager, ART:2016)

 

 

 

 

March 26, 2017

A response from Quarto Collective to Butterflies and Bones at The Mac

It’s always great to hear people’s response to the work.  Here’s a thoughtful post from the  Quarto Collective Blog:

Recently I went to Butterflies and Bones, performed at the MAC as part of The Casement Project, and the Belfast International Arts Festival. The piece was choreographed by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, together with his team of dancers. Fearghus happened to be performing that night, too, and spoke about the work onstage afterwards.

In art college I had become interested in performance art as a feminist strategy to foreground bodily, sensory experience and the present moment. As a novice to viewing dance, it was enlightening to hear Fearghus talk about the genesis, development and outworking of his ideas for the piece. He made a number of points that relate to Gemma’s and my earlier conversations in this blog about bodily engagements with place.

First, when asked about where the ideas had come from, he connected them back to his experience of growing up on the margins of certain identity constructs in Ireland. This provided the impetus to imagine Casement, and all that his figure is used to conjure with, from the outside. That is, from outside nationalism, republicanism and imperialism, religion and heteronormativity. These were referenced in the performance, but only tangentially, and through a critical lens.

Second, he made clear to me (in my ignorance) just how significant dance training is, in terms of being present in the body. More than this, dancers are taught to be present in different ways, and communicate differently, even in repeating movements and actions. This ability to be present in each moment means each performance is subtly different, a very special skill.

Third, Fearghus spoke of the way in which history is not simply a textual record of what happened when, where and why. It is also about the sensations and gestures of the bodies who make history. In Casement’s case, the feeling of putting on a dress suit to be knighted, the act of sex with a man, the plunge through the scaffold’s trapdoor. I like this notion of history. To explore it takes imagination and creative licence, since by definition these feelings and gestures are ephemeral and subjective.

Imagining what a historical body may have felt and done must be a very effective exercise in empathy. Fearghus spoke eloquently about the role of empathy in Butterflies and Bones. It is work that aims to fragment our assumptions of who belongs and who does not, who is inside and who is outside. The dancers’ bodies are interactive and interdependent throughout, even when in seeming conflict. Amid public arguments about who belongs in the United Kingdom and who does not, it is a timely message.

March 26, 2017

A response from Quarto Collective to Butterflies and Bones at The Mac

From Quarto Collective Blog:

Recently I went to Butterflies and Bones, performed at the MAC as part of The Casement Project, and the Belfast International Arts Festival. The piece was choreographed by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, together with his team of dancers. Fearghus happened to be performing that night, too, and spoke about the work onstage afterwards.

In art college I had become interested in performance art as a feminist strategy to foreground bodily, sensory experience and the present moment. As a novice to viewing dance, it was enlightening to hear Fearghus talk about the genesis, development and outworking of his ideas for the piece. He made a number of points that relate to Gemma’s and my earlier conversations in this blog about bodily engagements with place.

First, when asked about where the ideas had come from, he connected them back to his experience of growing up on the margins of certain identity constructs in Ireland. This provided the impetus to imagine Casement, and all that his figure is used to conjure with, from the outside. That is, from outside nationalism, republicanism and imperialism, religion and heteronormativity. These were referenced in the performance, but only tangentially, and through a critical lens.

Second, he made clear to me (in my ignorance) just how significant dance training is, in terms of being present in the body. More than this, dancers are taught to be present in different ways, and communicate differently, even in repeating movements and actions. This ability to be present in each moment means each performance is subtly different, a very special skill.

Third, Fearghus spoke of the way in which history is not simply a textual record of what happened when, where and why. It is also about the sensations and gestures of the bodies who make history. In Casement’s case, the feeling of putting on a dress suit to be knighted, the act of sex with a man, the plunge through the scaffold’s trapdoor. I like this notion of history. To explore it takes imagination and creative licence, since by definition these feelings and gestures are ephemeral and subjective.

Imagining what a historical body may have felt and done must be a very effective exercise in empathy. Fearghus spoke eloquently about the role of empathy in Butterflies and Bones. It is work that aims to fragment our assumptions of who belongs and who does not, who is inside and who is outside. The dancers’ bodies are interactive and interdependent throughout, even when in seeming conflict. Amid public arguments about who belongs in the United Kingdom and who does not, it is a timely message.