Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2019

October 07, 2019

Annwyl i mi in Japan

It wasn’t ideal that Ireland (first in the Rugby World Cup rankings) should be beaten by what’s currently a second tier rugby nation –  Japan.  But the hosts played a beautiful game and deserved the win on the day.  The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, congratulated the country’s team on Twitter by remarking that the win was made possible  “ by teamwork“.  It’s that building of team,  a sports team in this case, but also a community of support (as is happening now in Japan, a country where rugby isn’t the main sport but where people are committing to getting behind the sport) that animates Annwyl i mi.

Rehearsals in Oita

Rehearsals in Oita

We arrived in Japan to prepare for our performances of Annwyl i mi at various places associated with Wales and the Rugby World Cup.  Rather than fly everyone back to Cardiff to rehearse some of the Company’s other repertoire for shows in Spain that follow immediately our Japan tour, we avoided the double jetlag and flights by rehearsing in Japan, specifically in Oita, a smaller regional city where we were to perform at the opening of a Wales-Oita visual arts exhibition at OPAM.  The advantage of this extended rehearsal in Oita was that we got to establish a working rhythm in the city that helped ground us in Japan.  And for me, after the busyness of Hong Kong, Oita was a quiet city to work in.

 

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Though we would perform in Oita, our first performances in Japan were to take place at the Wales House Dome in Shinjuku in downtown Tokyo, where the Welsh Government was using the World Cup and the Welsh rugby team’s profile to promote Wales.  The Welsh Rugby Union had also embedded itself in  Kitatkyushu (a couple of hours north of Oita) where the team’s training camp was based and where a two-year programme of public engagement resulted in the city’s turning red for the World Cup to support Wales.  I managed to see the Welsh team in training in the stadium in Kitakyushu and brought back to our rehearsals the connections that I saw between their work and ours.

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Wales team training in Kitakyushu

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Our rehearsals of Annwyl i mi  in Oita were focused on bringing Mat into the team to replace Folu who wasn’t available to dance for this tour.  Mat had been part of the R&D that I’d done with the Company at various points in the past year, so he had a sense of the background of how I was working with the dancers and what was at the heart of the work.  I was pleased nonetheless that we were expanding the team.  I always wanted it to be permeable – a structure that was strong but also flexible, adaptive and inclusive.

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We had to draw heavily on our flexibility and adaptability in preparing for our performances in Shinjuku.  Our original performance location was changed to another of different dimensions which for bureaucratic reasons initially and then because of typhoon warnings meant our scheduled performances were cancelled.  Undeterred we found ways to bring some of the material to Shinjuku and to improvise the piece across an afternoon in Tokyo.

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The strength of Carl’s costume designs was evident as we travelled across the city, signalling our connection in the busy city.  Seeing how the dancers could respond to the changes that were necessary confirmed that we’d done the right kind of work in preparing the piece, building flexibility in to it, practising adaptability and also maintaining the structure that allows for the change.  That clear structure and support is fundamental to achieving spontaneity and freedom to respond.

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Photo by Charlie Knight

 

Our return to Oita for the performances there was a return to familiarity.  In the few days I’d been away the city’s preparation to welcome rugby fans to the stadium had ramped up even more.  I brought into the studio a number of the images of rugby that were prominent in the city.  I wanted the dancers to keep refreshing their own image store of what rugby could look like, while also reminding us that the people’s physicality is shaped not only by what they do, but also by what they see.  Images suggest what’s possible.

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Our hosts in Oita invited the Company to see a recently opened exhibition of Japanese prints and I was struck by the exaggerated facial expressions and contorted body positions of the Kabuki actors depicted in a number of the prints.  In one of the sections of Annwyl i mi I’ve encouraged the dancers to extend the pressure and resistance in their limbs into their faces also and the Kabuki-like results are not to suggest that I intended them to be like Kabuki actors but that, being in Japan, we can accumulate their influence, let it pass through the piece as we perform in Japan, so that the piece stays open, receptive and alive.

 

69723305_2348959291987722_1229467764670857216_n 71223843_2348959158654402_1562537114061504512_n 71142746_2348958961987755_3625201295473770496_n 70158504_2348958788654439_9042208735761530880_n 70881243_2348959188654399_399510466235203584_n 71282868_2348959121987739_1947537333934882816_n 71117465_2348958891987762_4168795635178274816_n 71297570_2348959091987742_4022184212109983744_n 71300601_2348959338654384_6247545358172291072_n 70987809_2348959451987706_6903807032332124160_n 71842564_2348959248654393_5069790752091930624_n 70927686_2348959675321017_1687371236167909376_n 71184545_2348959631987688_2096854375946256384_nIn Oita we performed in the light-filled, airy atrium, with the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and the Mayor and Governor of Oita in attendance, along with a large audience.  The piece looked wonderful in the generous space and it was fun to add the dignitaries to our line.  The line of support has stayed with me from The Casement Project.  In The Casement Project that line was mobile and linked.  I’ve tried to bring a similar fluidity and support to the line I’ve created in this Rygbi world.  It’s a line of solidarity I’d like to see increase, and to remain inclusive of possibilities for transformation.  That support for transformation and development is an aspiration I want to keep building in my work.  There was a certain amount of protocol to navigate in making our performance happen in Oita but the official response was very positive and it reminded me that the work, the dance, is what matters.  Getting all the protocol right wouldn’t have had half as much value without a compelling and engaging performance.  The performance was what changed something, brought people together, generated connection.  It’s not by accident that culture is a vehicle for diplomacy but that can only be of use, if the intrinsic value of the art is cherished, supported and facilitated.  Let the work do the work.

 

 

EFnnXcOX0AEKzePOur final performance was in the Fanzone at Yokohama, back on the grass in the open air and I loved seeing the dancers embrace, surrender to and dance with environment.  Sky, ground, water all add energy to the piece that the dancers have learned to harness.  In my introduction to the performance, I mentioned again that:

 

And at the very end of our Japan tour, I got to perform myself.  I had considered dancing in the piece before I started making it in July -knowing I’d add some age diversity to the cast!  But in that process, I found my role as support for the building the dancers’ readiness to give the work.  In Yokohama we were asked to do a second performance before the Wales-Australia match but the organisers couldn’t provide the space on the ground that they had for our performance earlier in the day.  So I agreed to dance a five-minute improvisation on a 3 x 12m carpeted stage space in front of the big screen and asked Faye, one of the dancers who wasn’t just about to fly to Spain, to join me.   I introduced the improvisation as a five-minute taste of the piece, and for me it was also a distillation of our experience in Japan.  It passed in a flash but it was special for me to get to express in some small way something of the energy I’ve taken from watching the dancers perform my work.  The work started with me and is now passed on to and through many other bodies.   It’s good to acknowledge the resonances of those other bodies in mine and be nourished for whatever comes next.

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August 25, 2019

Annwyl i mi / Dear to Me: a hidden landscape

20190808_072405It was important that people would recognise some of the familiar choreographies of rugby in Annwyl i mi.  However, there are other structures in the work that try to acknowledge and give form to less obvious movements in the game and in the experiences of those who play and support it.  Though Welsh rugby has a significant urban aspect, Welsh countryside and the natural environment is never far away.  Except for the occasional roofed stadium, even in towns, the game is open to the elements, connected to the soil, reaching between earth and sky. (Though lest the reference to soil and earth seem too atavistic it’s worth remembering the artificial, engineered genesis of most professional pitches).

Reading Owen SheersCalon, I came across a quotation from Seamus Heaney’s Postscript that Sheers uses to describe the experience of the Welsh rugby supporter emotionally buffeted by the vagaries of the national team: ‘to catch the heart off guard and blow it open’.  I was struck by the surprise, thrill and implied violence of the description and it made me seek Heaney’s poem to understand the context of the quotation.  The poem describes a landscape and weatherscape  through which the narrator drives.  It’s a kind of rural environment (with implied road) that I recognise and from which I’ve always drawn some of my own creativity.  And it’s one I recognise in Wales, when I get beyond Cardiff’s suburbs.  Knowing that Welsh rugby connects with that landscape too, I asked the dancers to generate solo material in response to the poem and inserted it into the choreography.  They begin in their own imaginative world and gradually share their material between them, flocking like the swans to which the poem refers, buffeted by unseen impulses that pass between them.  It’s a moment when the choreography shifts from familiar rugby references to something more dreamlike – but that shift is very important as I think it reveals something about what underpins the familiar and the usually visible.

20190809_175531It was struck by the relevance of landscape when we journeyed to Llanrwst for the Eisteddod.  Not only did we drive through very beautiful rural environments to get there, and not only did we get to perform in a beautiful valley but we stayed in an outdoor adventure centre on a lake where I felt the energies of water, mountain, forest and sky support us for our dancing on the Maes.  The way such an environment transforms human bodies is not to be underestimated.

August 10, 2019

Annwyl i mi/Dear to Me: Eisteddfod – Balchder

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It happened.  We performed at the Eisteddfod – on the Maes, in the middle of the festival field.  A dream and hope that the National Dance Company could perform at the Eisteddfod became a reality.  It was a first for NDCWales and I know people acknowledged that it was a big deal.  It also attracted attention beyond Wales with Front Row interviewing me about the piece - a slightly odd experience as I followed a tricky interview with Candace Bushnell talking about sex in retirement homes! That kind of attention was also a first for the company and something it deserves.  And it’s clear that our participation in BBC #DancePassion paved the way for this interest.

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We performed on two days.  The first was gloriously sunny and though the dancers had to find stamina to cope with three performances, it was a relatively straightforward experience.  It was great to see us reaching a different audience to those that would come to see us in a theatre – a greater age range and many more men than usual for us.  There was lots of media attention, lots of positive feedback and huge sense of relief and achievement for me.  

EBg9FN7W4AA9MiIDay Two was more of a challenge as there were severe weather warnings and so we sacrificed one performance and prepared to do our final show indoors.  However that wasn’t ideal in terms of space or the potential to attract audiences and when the weather wasn’t as bad as forecast, we had to consider what we would do.  Should we perform outdoors in the space we knew, even if it was wet and more muddy.  We knew that rugby happens in that kind of environment but we also knew that the dancers needed to be safe to be in rehearsals on Monday for our Hong Kong tour.  The uncertainty was worrying but it was also something we planned for, something we accepted when deciding to do our work outdoors.  A certain amount of improvising and surrender to place and environment was necessary.  Having assessed the risks, we performed outdoors, mostly in the sunshine but with a much more cut up ‘pitch’.

The word balchder/pride is often used in relation to the values of Welsh rugby.  I felt hugely proud of the dancers for their resilience, commitment and skill in embracing the environment.  I saw them pull together, to take care of each other and of the work that we’d done together.  And I was moved to see a community and team in action.  Ultimately that’s what the work is about.  Building a community of support, one that is resilient, inclusive and strong, feels like an important artistic, political, and human activity in these fractured times.

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July 27, 2019

Annwyl i mi/ Dear to me. Weeks Two and Three

 

Photo Pablo Sansalvador

Photo Pablo Sansalvador

A year ago, I was dancing outdoors on the Walthamstow Wetlands.  This week in Cardiff Bay, we’ve started to take Annwyl i mi from the studio in Dancehouse to a piece of grass nearby.  Because our first iteration of the the Rygbi Project will be outdoors, it’s been important to build this experience of responding to the unpredictability of environment, public and surface into the choreography and into the dancers’ knowledge.  Though we’re building a structured performance, we’re also improvising with the material regularly so that we are practised in adapting together to whatever the necessities of performance that arise.  On grass, in public space, in the open air, that adaptability is a necessity if we’re to remain open and responsive to the possibilities of the place we’re helping to make through our performance.    It’s been exciting to see how quickly the dancers have adapted to the challenges of being in a public environment, with people passing, children playing etc and how they’ve still held the focus of the work.  Better still they’re finding how to be porous to that environment rather than trying to fight against it for attention.  So we can see the butterflies that pass through while someone dances a solo or notice the wind rustling through the trees as the group flows across the grass, and they’re not distractions but enhancements of the work.  And they’re gifts that we’d never have in the studio.

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We decided to use the fact that Annwyl i mi is an outdoor piece to have one of our regular open rehearsals in Bute Park this week.  It takes quite a lot of work to ‘show up’ on the grass of a public park, particularly since we wanted to set up a surround sound system to try out Tic’s music.  There are permissions from the council to secure, power sources, toilets, parking, as well as all the extra technical kit to put in place.  It’s not quite the same as the pop up solo dances I’ve inserted into public spaces in the past.  But the effort was worth it.  Seeing the work in the beautiful outdoor setting confirmed that it works in the way I’d hoped and the dancers showed really commitment but also pleasure in bringing the environment, the sensations of the grass and the brightness of the evening sunlight into their performance.  The audience, both for our official Open Rehearsal and for the earlier run though we did, was engaged.  In our discussion session after the rehearsal, people talked about how seeing the dancers engage with their environment made them appreciate their own sensations of the place.  They also recognised the emotion of the piece which pleased me especially.

One of the dancers commented afterwards that doing our rehearsal in the park made them feel like we’d arrived in Cardiff, by which they meant that we were able to connect with people, incidental passers by, that would never come and see us working in the Dancehouse.  I’m proud that the company can show its ability in this generous and porous way.  And I know it takes effort, skill, resilience and care to be that generous and porous.

I wanted Annwyl i mi to be an outdoor work to demonstrate our resilience and to show the ability of dance to resonate in worlds beyond the stage.  I’m happy to see the dancers proving the power of that resonance already.

 

July 14, 2019

Annywl i mi/Dear to me. Week One

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It’s the end of the first week of our making Annwyl i mi/Dear to me (the piece we’ll premiere at the Eisteddfod in August).  The team has gathered: the dancers (Aisha, Ed, Elena, Faye, Folu, Tim, Nikita), the composer (Tic Ashfield), the costume designer (Carl Davies) and everyone in the NDCWales company who’s been working in different ways on the project for a while already – communicating about the work, organising how it will all happen, planning for it, raising funds for it, ensuring there are opportunities for learning and participation through it.  Though we’ll see the company’s performers visibly carrying the work, it’s a work that’s made possible by many more around them.

66778915_10155966839561626_5243498591254740992_nWe’re excited because while we’re aiming for our premiere in Eisteddfod, it’s just been made public that this outdoor piece is going to be presented in Japan as part of the Welsh government’s cultural programme around the Rugby World Cup in September and as part of  UK in JAPAN 2019-20 a British Council and British Embassy Tokyo initiative.  It’s a big opportunity to present our work around the World Cup, an opportunity for the company and for dance to be visible in that context.  Exciting but also some pressure.

66524199_10155966840416626_7455640287541460992_nHowever, that pressure isn’t useful in the first week of a making a new piece.  Instead I’ve wanted to continue the spirit of exploration that we had in our previous two weeks of Laboratori so that we could use this work inspired by rugby as a way to forge relationships, communities, teams of support  – support that would take care of people but also that would support them to take the risks necessary to excel.  I want the work not to be about community but to model it and that means taking time to figure out the structures and approaches that will support our community.

July 05, 2019

Rugby around Wales: The Rygbi Project

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For the most part, we’re not rugby experts in NDCWales but we are good at absorbing and transforming information in creative processes and I want to make sure we have plenty of information to digest.

So we’ve visited the Principality Stadium, we went to see Mold RFC training and had one of its players come to talk to us about the culture, about the difference between rugby in North and South Wales, about being temporarily paralysed, about not being afraid, about playing as an antidote to depression, about knowing your teammates so well that you know how they’ll play the ball and can be there to support them.  When we did some movement research for the Rygbi Project at Theatr Clwyd, we also spoke to the rugby fans in their Company 55 who told about rugby as the focus of a community, in good times and in bad.  Screenshot 2019-07-05 at 20.16.25

We’ll continue this process of asking people to tell us about their experience of rugby, as players and fans, so that we can carry this diversity of experiences into our work.  Our work is a work of transformation, of taking these ingredients and making something new, but it won’t be possible without this input from people all over Wales and beyond.

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May 05, 2019

The Rygbi Project – beginning

Website 1420 -610 (5)_2I haven’t posted for quite a while.  It’s just over six months since I started my role as Artistic Director of National Dance Company Wales and getting to know the company and the people who care about it and invest in it has taken a great deal of energy and attention.  And in my spare minutes, I’ve been using Duolingo to learn Welsh.  (As an Irish-speaker, I’m keen to honour the equivalent of an súil eile – another eye –  that comes from having a different linguistic frame of reference).

I’ve been fortunate that I have arrived in a company with plenty going on and in particular with strong programmes of work that display the skills of the company.  It’s been a pleasure to support them and to see audiences respond so positively.  Meanwhile, I’ve been busy trying to make sure that we have diverse, stimulating programmes for next year and beyond, when the kind of perspective I’m offering the company and its audiences becomes evident.  The press release announcing some of next season’s activities gives the detail but one of the things that I’m grateful for is the chance to make work with the company.

The work I’m starting is a project that uses rugby –  a physicality already familiar to many people in Wales and around the world – to explore what it means to make a team and a community of support.  It’s a project that continues some of the preoccupations of my work, like Match and The Casement Project.  In the current political climate, it feels relevant to use what dance knows about the making of individual and collective bodies to research and model what new forms of coming together could be, new forms that allow for a greater diversity of bodies to flourish.  I hope The Rygbi Project will connect and transform people’s existing knowledge to provoke thought and provide experience over the next few years.

The work has already begun (and I’ll write about that in my next posts) but its first official performance  will be as an outdoor piece (called Annwyl i mi/ Dear to me) for the professional dancers of NDCWales at the National Eisteddfod in August.  Another version of the work will tour small scale venues across Wales in the Autumn and another manifestation will be part of our Spring 2020 Tour.  So it’s a project that I hope will build on the structures the company already has for connecting to audiences.  And, like The Casement Project, it’s a way of working that will reach into other formats, offering different ways for people to connect to and contribute to the work as spectators and participants and in the process, helping us developwhat NDCWales could be.