Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2019

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.