Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2020

November 25, 2020

Residency Centre Culturel Irlandais – Triptych

I’ve been developing movement material/a dance that turns on itself, gradually expanding the energy and scope of its gyre until it settles again (thanks to fellow Artist in Resident Emily Cooper who reminded me of the word ‘gyre’ when she came to watch me working).  At CCI, I repeated the dance regularly to get to know it and its possibilities and gradually I amassed these solo recordings that I thought I’d assemble into something bigger.  Working on video is a way to amplify the dancing when I don’t have access to other performers, a way to grow from the singular.  And it’s interesting that despite the potential megalomania of multiplying myself, the choreographer in me pays less attention to me as an individual performer in the triptych I’ve made.  What’s activated instead is the temporal, physical and energetic space between the bodies on the screen.  And of course not only the moving bodies, but the ever-present bodies in the large religious paintings at CCI that canonise versions of how bodies could be and that remind us of CCI’s long religious history not just as a centre of Irish culture but as a centre of Irish Catholicism.  Of course culture, politics and religion are not separate – and CCI’s building and evolution is a material manifestation of how they have intertwined and separated in Irish history.  And that history links Ireland beyond its geographical borders, not only to France but to wider European and global histories.  The courtyard at the CCI has plaques that commemorate the building’s use as a shelter for ‘displaced persons claiming America citizenship’ in the Second World War and of the Polish Seminary set up by survivors of theDachau concentration camp.  Thanks to a partnership with Dublin Fringe Festival, the CCI courtyard currently has three large posters which display utopian manifestos by three collectives: Glitter HOLE (a queer performance space and DIY drag collective), WeAreGriot (a collective of Nigerian-Irish poets and storytellers)  and gender.RIP (a trans- led art collective).  As I dance at CCI, I’m thinking about the kinds of embodiment and movement that this important Irish cultural space can support.  And I’ve been grateful that it has been so hospitable to the impulses and experiences that make my body.


The triptych has a long history in Christian art and as the name implies, it often refers to works that could be folded shut.  It’s hinged on a dynamic of opening and closing, of revelation and protection.  I’ve used this multiplication of the solo in video in collaborations with Dan Dubowitz, in the twelve screen installation of solo performances for Tattered Outlaws of History, and in a triptych for If the Invader Comes

November 16, 2020

Residency Centre Culturel Irlandais – Autumn

In traditional Chinese cosmology, Autumn is the time to let go, slow down and nourish oneself.  My room faces the courtyard of the CCI where I can see the chestnut trees shed their russet leaves, preparing for winter.

Lockdown in Paris has curtailed my movements across the city.  We are permitted travel for exercise no more than a kilometre from our residence – though essential shopping and work provide excuses to get beyond that limit.  I travel mostly between my room and the Salle de Conference or Salon des Residents where I dance – still moving a lot despite my asking myself what could I let go of, how could I slow down?  This question isn’t new.  When I was here in 2018 I wrote a post about sweat, the over-investment in effort as a signal of value, a demonstration of commitment.    It’s an old habit, born of a sense of inadequacy and need to compensate for not trusting my value.  Conor Horgan took a photo of me at the time which shows that sweat.  The portrait has just arrived at the CCI along with a number of others that will hang in the stairwell of the CCI.  It’s an honour to be included in the selection, though that is more a testimony to Conor’s art than to mine.  When I saw the portrait again, this time I thought less of the effort than of the stillness that I ‘earn’ after exertion.  I can see the possibility of rest and renewal.  Deepening more than changing.

Knowing that I return to a fortnight of quarantine in London in addition to the English lockdown, I think of myself storing dancing experiences here at CCI, squirrelling away the possibilities that I don’t expect to develop visibly until Spring.  The time here has made me keen to gather but a bit more patient about outcomes.  I sense the flow and don’t feel so anxious about its pace.

This small video comes from near the end of my residency time in Paris and reminds me of a video I did with Xiao Ke in 2007 on what was then a basket-ball court in the part outside of Dancehouse in Dublin.

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Like my CCI courtyard dance, this is also a November dance shot from a distance in a way that reminds me of the kind of Chinese landscape paintings that have a small human figure crossing a bridge in a corner, suggesting our place in a bigger arrangement of energies and cycles.  Xiao Ke has this week finished leading the remount of Jérôme Bel’s Gala in Shanghai.  Bel has decided to no longer travel by air to make his work and is instead working remotely with trusted collaborators on site to have his work show up around the world.  Still trying to show up in the bigger cycles.

October 06, 2020

‘We find ourselves at the centre of one another’

Image of the Pantheon Paris Dome caught by the evening sun, seen at the end of a narrowing street Since arriving in Paris to start my residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, I’ve been mostly in Zoom meetings.  Valuing the space for creative focus that that the CCI and Dance Ireland residencies provide, I’ve been trying hard to clear that space of other work.  I’ve postponed a lot of conversations and meetings until November but it’s been difficult to say no to everything, whether it’s the ongoing responsibility of the Arts Council Ireland work or other connections such an invitation to chair a roundtable for FICEP – an association of international cultural institutes and organisations in Paris – or joining in a conversation curated by Lian Bell between Maeve Stone, Gary Keegan and me as part of the Irish leg of IETM Multilocation 2020.  Part of the reason I find it hard to say no to these invitations is because I worry that not participating will lead to a self-centred disengagement.  I feel an obligation to be part of conversations that are working towards better futures for more people.  Happily being part of those conversations is also enriching and stimulating and I think more so because I’ve cleared space around them that allows me to reflect on their impact, their resonances, their calls to action, their hints at future direction.  Having space allows me to hear better and notice more.

Image of a brochure on a reception desk.  The brochure has a picture of a man (Fearghus) dancing in the courtyard of a n 18th century French buildingArriving at CCI, I saw centre’s recently published history on the reception desk and saw myself on its front cover, dancing in the CCI courtyard.  Though I was rushing through my checking-in to be ready for the first Zoom, the image reminded me that I have danced here before, that I have danced, that I have a history.  And I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to insert myself into some institutional histories.

Image of a poster on a wall. The poster has a black background, a reddish image of a tree and roots and white text printed over

One of the other things that I saw soon after my arrival was the series of manifestos for a new era that CCI co-commissioned from three Irish collectives with Dublin Fringe Festival.  Though the live connection that was intended as part of the commission didn’t happen as intended, the collectives’ words have a strong presence in the CCI courtyard.  There is a commonality of intersectional inclusion in the manifestos.  I was particularly drawn to a paragraph in the WeareGriot manifesto.  WeareGriot are a trio of Nigerian-Irish poets and storytellers (Felispeaks, Dagogo Hart, and Samuel Yakura) and their poetic power is evident in the language of the manifesto:

Now, here at the crossroads, a sudden and firm standstill, we find ourselves at the centre of one another, we rotate to see that we have been encompassed, each by the other, one body.  We must acknowledge a conversation that must follow and flow inward; into this global community.  The beginning is the resistance to singular comfort.

What resonated for me in these words was a recognition that looking inwards needn’t be solipsistic because we are already connected to, in interdependence with others: ‘at the centre of one another’.  I’ve written elsewhere about this important recognition of interdependence as a counter to the neoliberal pressure to present oneself as independent, self-sufficient, whole.  So to take this time of self-focus need not be a time of separation from others but a time of recognising the others that make me, my reliance on them and also my responsibility/responsiveness to them.  I plan for that to be my artistic focus during this time in Paris and with the frame that the Dance Ireland Hatch residency provides.

French philosopher, Lévinas cautions against the presumption to know the other, to comprehend and to apprehend the other’s difference.  I don’t think an acknowledgement of interdependence performs that violence:  to recognise my kinship with, my relationship of dependence on and responsibility for the never-fully-knowable other exposes us to an even more radical vulnerability, a risk we can’t ever fully mitigate but which is the necessary risk of love.

September 22, 2020

Bodies and Buildings renewed

When I applied for the Hatch residency at Dance Ireland earlier on this year, I was aware that I wanted to use it as an opportunity to reconnect with parts of my archive – the kinds of things I done in my career already – that might be relevant to where I find myself, where we find ourselves now.  There’s a risk for a ‘mid-career artist’ in looking back – it may seem like you’ve got nothing new to say and so much of our work in a contemporary art form has been about novelty and innovation.  But I’ve grown suspicious of novelty that doesn’t recognise its roots, its connections to lines of enquiry, networks of learning that others (perhaps less recognised) have provided so that this apparent ‘novelty’ can emerge.  There’s something sustainable in this return to the archive, this reworking and repurposing and from the deepening of knowledge that might come from looking again at what one has done.

A line of dance students on the grass  showing their muddy clothes to the camera

Today, I started teaching to 3rd Year students at Trinity Laban, solo material that I developed, danced and re-danced through the Bodies and Buildings research that I started in 2007 [The link is to my original blog but all of the material is on this website blog too].  There’s no definitive version of the material, But I trace its origins to a dance I did in Shanghai as I recovered from food poisoning (for all my aspirations to corporeal and conceptual openness, my body didn’t enjoy chicken’s feet) and that I evolved during my time as Artist in Residence for Dublin City Council.  I went back to this performance from outside an office block in the Dublin Docklands to provide the bulk of the material.

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A piece of red and white fencing marking a man-hole in the middle of a white circle on the grass in front of Trinity Laban's Creekside building

Because no dance text exists apparent from my body and the performance in different places, I taught a movement sequence today as scaffolding for the students to dance the solo.  By ‘scaffolding’ I mean that I taught a clear set of movements for them to follow, and I wanted them to learn these movements accurately in the same way that one would want one’s scaffolding to be strong and secure.  But the scaffolding is not the building.  And the movement sequence is not the performance.  It’s a support that will help them perform the solo live in relationship to the physical, emotional, climatic, social that they find themselves in.

Knowing that the Trinity Laban Dance Faculty is housed in a relatively new prize-winning building designed by architects Herzog and De Meuron and that its construction is part of wider projects of urban development that has transformed the former docklands environment, re-connecting with the original context of the bodies and buildings research in areas of rapid urban change (like the Docklands in Dublin that are now home to headquarters for Google and Facebook and the Irish Financial Services Centre) made sense.  It was also familiar to find the grass amphitheatre in front of the building where we’re doing the work was also the workplace for high vis clad engineers and workers who were sinking bore holes and using a variety of fascinating ‘sculptures’/markers and barriers to define and decorate the space.  Their digging reminded me, as before, that there’s a buried world supporting our existence, a hidden, subterranean network that literally and figuratively has the foundations of what we do in the light and on the surface.

Dance student lying down on the grass with three people  in hi-vis work outfits behind themI was also reminded of networks of support and influence when Ellen Van Schuylenburch – a teacher of Cunningham technique at Trinity Laban who also taught me when I was a student and whose class I’ve taken frequently since – appeared unexpectedly.  Her presence underlined the physicality that is part of the material I’ve given the young dancers, my own debt to the history and knowledge that Ellen carries and also to wider lines of choreographic work in public space .  Whether it’s Cunningham’s events or street dance battles or Darren Suarez voguing with friends outside Liverpool Catherdral, theres’ a long history of dance’s appearance in and claiming of public space.Three students dancing on the grass in front of Trinity Laban Creekside with red and white temporary fencing

September 19, 2020

In a studio

For the first time since March, I got to dance in a studio today.  It was still familiar.  And it felt great.


Screenshot_20200918-152318_Video Player I was at Trinity Laban to prepare for teaching some material from my Bodies and Buildings work.  That teaching will happen outside but I took the opportunity to request some studio time to make sure I’d be ready.

20200918_142950_resized  I’ve been asked to teach some of my work because I have this history of dancing outside the studio and the stage.  It wasn’t until I was back at the Trinity Laban building in Creekside that I realised how appropriate that the Bodies and Buildings connection would be.  That dance material and research was developed in areas of rapid urban regenerations – from its initiation in Shanghai where hutong were being cleared in preparation for the Expo, to Dublin’s Docklands, to Beijing and East London before their respective Olympics.  Creekside is another Docklands that’s been transformed by gentrification and redevelopment.

20200918_160404_resizedI don’t know Creekside’s history yet but it encourages me to know that reconnecting to the Bodies and Buildings investigation there will make sense and will extend the research in another place and through a different generation of dancers.20200918_151132_1

September 11, 2020


Understory is a project conceived and realised by dance artists who were aware of how difficult it would be for many people entering the profession at a time when it’s so hard for that community to come together in work, rehearsal or play.  It’s website describes itself:

Understory is for anyone entering the field of dance, including but not limited to; dance graduates, those who are self-taught and people learning outside of normative structures, at whatever stage in life.

A place for informal honest chat from people who work in dance focusing on the times when they had to navigate the unexpected in their career.

A collective act of solidarity from speakers of different backgrounds and on different paths, intended to offer some hope, inspiration, tools and humour whilst exploding the myth of a straightforward path through a dance career.

Understory is artist-led, independent and run voluntarily.

I’ve found it fascinating to read the contributions from a huge range of dance artists at different stages of their careers, some primarily choreographing, others performing and everything in-between.  My contribution is available here

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I responded to the questions we were asked:


What is your name? Where are you now? What do you do?
What was your pathway from study into the professional field of dance?
Tell us about the bit of your journey that’s not mentioned in your bio? What didn’t go quite as planned? How did it feel? How did you navigate it? Did something else come out of this encounter?

If you like, you can follow up with these (we appreciate they can be complex to respond to).

What advice would you give to your graduating self?
What advice would you give to a graduate now?
Share one hope for the future of dance that could come out of 2020?

Knowing that my contribution is part of a diversity of responses makes it easier to acknowledge my idiosyncratic route to dance.  I don’t offer my experience as a definitive guide – but maybe it will give reassurance to someone else who hasn’t followed the most familiar path.

Those that are organising Understory are performing a huge service and putting a huge amount of time into soliciting, editing, captioning, uploading.  They aren’t drawing lots of attention to themselves but we know who you are and applaud you.


August 13, 2020

Annwyl i mi: Passing it on

This week Faye Tan and Camille Giraudeau from NDCWales, are using movements from Annwyl i mi to teach young dancers (between 8 and 17 years of age) in a summer school organised by The Place.  It’s a summer school that would usually happen IRL but, like so much else, is being delivered online this year.  It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to know that work that originated  in small choices and impulses in one place can have an impact elsewhere in other bodies – in ways that maintain connection to the source but transform it in unanticipated ways.  In this way, Cami and Faye are continuing the process I used to make the work with them and many others.



Annwyl i mi at the Eisteddfod 2019 – Photo Iolo Penri

I’ve spoken a lot about how the Rygbi Project draws on input from a whole community, that it’s something we researched in a variety of bodies and experiences – a range of professional dancers, professional and amateur rugby players and communities of supporters etc.

Photo shoot for the Rygbi Project

Photo shoot for the Rygbi Project

NDCWales visit to Ospreys training

NDCWales visit to Ospreys training

But it’s also something that I was able to facilitate because it resonated in my body too – not just because of my own (limited) experiences of playing rugby but because of how I could recognise something in the way the sport and its physicality makes individual and group bodies.  Owen Sheers’ account in Calon of a place-kicker in any international arena connecting to his home ground and the hours he’s spent practising kicks under the eye of a grandfather or valued coach reminds me of how each performance is saturated with memory, with networks of support concentrated into individual nodes that express a community experience.  I feel that in my own performing and tried to include that in Annwyl i mi:  even if the focus is on team and group, sometimes the weight of performance falls on an individual in that team, alone and supported.

Rehearsals Dancehouse NDCWales

Rehearsals Dancehouse NDCWales

Outdoor rehearsal Bute Park, Cardiff

Outdoor rehearsal Bute Park, Cardiff

So as I think of young people learning movement impulses and material from Annwyl i mi – during this week’s summer school and already from the work of NDCWales Dance Ambassadors and dancers who have led workshops based on the Rygbi Project this past year –   I see a community of experiences concentrated into individual bodies, lived and processed by those bodies – including my own – and passed now to others in an exciting expansion whose impact I won’t ever see.  And though those activities have happened thanks to the work and vision of others, I still see it as part of the choreography of the Rygbi Project – a choreography designed with connection and community in mind, built on collaboration and achieved through the creativity and commitment of others.  I choreograph to ask questions, to invite responses to challenges: seeing the Rygbi Project unfold  teaches me what the answers could be.

Rehearsals Theatr Clwyd

NDCWales R&D Rehearsals at Theatr Clwyd

July 07, 2020

Hatch2020 – Dance Ireland Residency

Photo Teresa Elwes

Photo Teresa Elwes

For the past few years, Dance Ireland has provided Hatch as an incubation opportunity for a selected choreographer to research and develop new work.  This year, responding to the pandemic conditions when being in studios and meeting collaborators seemed at best fraught with uncertainty and at worst impossible, Dance Ireland reframed its Hatch2020 initiative as an opportunity for established artists to invest “in time to think, rebuild or reimagine creative processes in this period of recovery we are undoubtedly facing as a sector, and as a society.”  It also invited applications from early career artists who wanted to be mentored by those “more established in the sector”.  I am very grateful to be one of the award recipients.

When I saw the call-out for applications, I knew that it represented an important opportunity for me.  Stepping down as AD of NDCWales, I intended to find structures and support that would give me the space and time to reconnect with my creative source and motor.  However, because the end of my work at NDCWales coincided exactly with lockdown in the UK, instead of finding a moment to reflect and renew, I became very busy working with others to figure out ways through the uncertainty.  Hatch2020 has offered a framework and resources for me to prioritise the taking stock and first steps I’d like to design the next phase of my practice.

Because I conceived of my Hatch proposal during lockdown, its point of departure is my own body.  That seemed pragmatic at a time when we didn’t know if we could work with others but actually the return to my own embodiment is prompted just as much by my having spent two years working at a larger scale with a national company.  I have considerable experience as a solo dance-artist,  making work beyond the stage in ways that might suit the new socially-distanced realities, work that connects the dancing body to its physical environment, to the other human and non-human forces – on urban streets,  in rural settings, on beaches and on building sites.  I sense that reinvesting in a solo practice, informed by what I’ve learned in the past, will provide the flexible resources from which to rebuild a relevant connection with other artists and audiences.  It’s a process of connecting inwards to connect outwards that has helped me authentically make work with wide impact in the past.  This moment of global reset prompts me to reinvest in it as a process again.  I think there’s something in it too that’s about acknowledging the value of what I have worked on over the years and a resistance to throw it away under the pressure to generate something new – always new.  This building on or going deeper into what I’ve already done feels like a more sustainable practice than constant generation of newness.  And again, this feels like the right time to embrace that more balanced sustainable approach.  I’ve heard Sue Davies talk about offering her archive of work as ‘mulch’ for a new generation of creativity.  What has been done can nourish what is to come.

Though the focus of this research is personal, that does not mean that it is isolated or individual.  I’ve been keenly aware during lockdown that I draw on the traces of others moving when I move.  The movement patterns, choices, habits, knowledge of others that I’ve seen, that I’ve touched, that I’ve choreographed, that I’ve danced with have informed my capacities.  So I am designing this research as an opportunity to draw on the resources that I’ve gathered in my body already and also to place myself in relation to new influences that will resource me for the next stage of development.

The fact that part of the Hatch2020 is a commitment to mentor one of the earlier career artists builds in that connection with others.  I’ve been paired with Oran Leong who brings to his dancing a distinctive physicality developed through his experience as a world-class traditional Irish dancer and as a contemporary dancer.  I’m excited to support him and be in conversation with him as a next generation of Irish dancing, as I expect to learn as much from the exchange as I offer.

In the past, I’ve benefited greatly from Arts Council Bursary awards that have provided opportunities for creative renewal.  However, as a member of the Arts Council now, I can’t apply for those direct supports.  So Hatch2020 is a creative lifeline.  You could argue, financial resources aside,  that I could take this reflection and renewal time without Hatch2020 but by providing a framework the initiative acknowledges that even for a solo dance exploration, dance is made in community, in relation.  Hatch2020 recognises that reflection and renewal is part of the dance artist’s work.  It’s an investment in mulch and not just in blossoms and harvest.  It recognises that an artist’s lifecycle needs to be nurtured and I appreciate that very much.

Photo: Teresa Elwes Fearghus with Annie Hanauer, Isabella Oberlander and Wanjiru Kamuyu - Walthamstow Wetlands Residency 2017/18

Photo: Teresa Elwes
Fearghus with Annie Hanauer, Isabella Oberlander and Wanjiru Kamuyu – Walthamstow Wetlands Residency 2017/18




June 23, 2020

Developing Latex(2020) – dancing again

Screenshot_20200609-163939_Video PlayerOne of the things I’ve realised in lockdown is that, for the most part, I’ve separated my creative work from my domestic life.  Our home is a haven where I may do admin, squeeze a dance class into the space available and roll out a yoga mat, but it’s not really the place for making work.  So I’ve done my DownDog yoga, my Cunningham classes online with the teachers in New York and my Freeletics fitness training during lockdown, but I haven’t found it so easy to connect to a sustaining creative impulse.  I think it’s been deliberate that I’ve maintained a separation between home and that work over the years and I’m very mindful of how the imperative to connect online has forced many people to share their private spaces for work – whether it’s in lockdown performances or professional meetings.

I’ve felt it a kind of pressure to find what the next creative impulse would be.  Despite knowing that this should be a time for listening, for slowing down, a time where for me the lockdown corresponds with a period of post-NDCWales reflection and recovery, I’ve nonetheless been asking myself who I am if I’m not somewhere in a process of making work.  Having a chance to reflect on that in a talk I put together for the Modes of Capture Symposium helped me take some of the pressure off as I recognised that I had a body of work to build on rather than a blank canvas that needed to be filled in.

So when John Scott invited me to present a performance in his Dancer from the Dance Festival this year, I did have somewhere to go.  I’d spoken about Cure in the talk for the Modes of Capture symposium, as a work, though apparently solo, that was made through the support and care of others, a work of recovery that felt apposite today in personal and global terms.  I thought in particular about the final section of Cure, choreographed by Sarah Browne, which was developed from a latex sculpture she created.  The sheet of rubber was built up by repeated careful layering of liquid latex on a section of Sarah’s studio flooring.  It carried the distinctive markings of that floor like a fingerprint and I remember dancing with the sheet – a welcoming skin and a prophylactic barrier – and feeling like I was dancing with the physical work and focus it took for Sarah to make the sculpture.  I decided that I would return to this section for the Dance from the Dance performance and it was immediately energising to be back in creative conversation with Sarah.  It was energising to recognise that the work in Cure still had resonance, and that there are resources in what I’ve done already that will help me figure out what I should be doing now.

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The fact that I had two iterations of Sarah’s sculpture with me at home in London made this process possible.  The latex sheet is a dance partner, with a physicality and capacity that feeds what’s possible in the choreography.  In Cure, I would make an incision in the sheet at the end of each performance (one carefully marked out by Mags Corscadden, the stage manager) and then wear the sculpture over me.  I’d kept the one from our last performance (in Hong Kong) and had an additional uncut sheet.  As soon as I opened the bag in which I kept them, I remembered and felt the atmosphere the latex created – the smell of rubber and talc, the soft touch, the taste of salt from Stéphane’s section of Cure now mixed with my sweat on that sheet previously used in performance.  For this performance, I was reluctant to cut the only remaining complete sheet of latex, so I worked with the cut version instead, suturing the cut with sellotape that made it like a scar.


Screenshot_20200608-173351_Video PlayerTalking to Sarah by Skype, it was interesting to think about what this rubber sculpture communicated in the era of PPE.  We’d thought about HIV and the protective barrier of latex in intimacy already when we were making Cure.  In addition to those abiding health and medical resonances, Sarah’s recent work on fitness and bodily training, Public feeling,  came to the fore as I connected my work on Latex (2020) to the fitness training I’ve been doing in lockdown – an AI-mediated fitness app called Freeletics – and to the many others doing their fitness training around me on the cricket pitch near my home where I ended up filming the performance.  I filmed different versions over a couple of weeks, figuring out what to wear, what framing seemed right, what different weather conditions communicated.  The version we chose for the performance in Dancer from the Dance is filmed on a sunny day with a lot of bird song and planes flying overhead.  It’s Walthamstow in East London so not the rural Ireland I’ve seen in some of the work commissioned for the Modes of Capture symposium.  I was a little envious of the space and privacy rural living might afford those performances and was very aware on this cricket pitch in London that I was claiming public space for my less usual activity.  Part of the work of the performance was making that claim, mustering the courage to be visibly performing my physicality where others were doing theirs.

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Alma Kelliher who composed and designed the sound for Cure, reworked her design for Latex (2020) keeping the ambient sound of the recording to acknowledge the circumstances in which it was performed and filmed.  I’m very happy with the outcome – in the filmed performance that will be shared online through John Scott’s festival but also in my body and mind that have been re-energised by the chance to work on this choreography and with Sarah and Alma.  This, I hope, is the way to move forward.

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June 22, 2020

Cure – Recovering Through Others: Modes of Capture Symposium 2020

Along with many other dance activities, the planned 2020 Modes of Capture Symposium was an online experience this year.  The Symposium grew out of  a creative partnership between Liz Roche Company and The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL, and was presented as part of the Dublin Dance Festival‘s Digital Capsule.  This year’s theme was an exploration of

how dance artists exchange knowledge and experiences across extended networks and through multiple generations that span distance and time. It asks how we might reimagine ways of artistic exchange and how we think about legacy and connection in light of current social and environmental realities.

At a time when I was doing a lot of strategic thinking for others, I was really nourished by Liz’s invitation to me as an artist to record a talk for the symposium.  The idea of artists’ exchange and connection had been already on my mind as I thought about how to resource myself creatively in lockdown.  I’d started to think about Cure, a solo I performed made through the support of others, and so I used the symposium as an opportunity to think about what interdependence and connection might mean in a time of enforced physical isolation.

Here’s the video I recorded and below a partial transcript of what I wrote:

Last month I took part in Sous Influence, an online version of a participatory choreography and format created by Éric Minh Cuong Castaing. It’s a guided immersion into a kind of clubby trans-generational trance dance of togetherness , that I think Eric is brilliant at creating through his considered generous work, and though we were joining via Zoom, I enjoyed the sweaty freedom of it even if it was in my own spare room, where I’ve taken down the lampshade from the ceiling to stop my arms bashing into it. At the end of the session, in a cool down phase, Éric asked us to sense in our bodies all of the bodies that had touched us and I found myself emotional at the thought.

I realised that in this moment of physical isolation, that I am drawing heavily on all of the traces of others moving that make my body. The movement patterns, choices, habits, knowledge of others that I’ve seen, that I’ve touched, that I’ve danced with have informed my capacities. I move and recognise others in my movement and I smile, enriched but also a little sad that I don’t know how I will reinforce or top up those influences. Because to say that our bodies are made through others is not to adopt a wholly social constructionist account where bodies are blank pages to be written on by bigger forces that deny us agency and remove the responsibility for ethical choice. I am made through others but I have made choices about which others I open myself to, invite into influence. And in that ongoing process of making and performing my corporeal self, I have agency which is not the same as control. Instead I think of it as a skilled improvisation where the roles of leading and responding are shifting between the movers and perhaps with a speed, clarity and sensitivity that make it impossible to tell what is leading and who is following.

In contrast to an ideology which I’m afraid I’ve accepted and reinforced for much of my career, I am not independent, not an independent artist, not an independent body. In her book, Artist at Work, Bojana Kunst shows how the artist and particularly the mobile dance artist has become the model worker of the neoliberal economy – creative, flexible, communicative, ‘incessantly active in all its possible forms and in the realisation of its potentiality’ (p.139). Against that exhausting and isolating vision of independence I want to acknowledge our corporeal interdependence, which offers me a different kind of ethics with which to imagine how I might respond to the world in which we find ourselves at the moment.

To explain a little of how I understand all of this:

I want to share a project called Cure that I premiered in the Dublin Dance Festival in 2013. Cure was a piece I set about making to figure out what it takes to recover. It seems like it’s research that I need to renew now. Like now, The idea of recovery was very much in the public domain in 2011-2012, as Ireland was still trying to make its way back from economic collapse, from a loss of faith in political and religious authorities and perhaps from a loss of faith in ourselves as citizens who had somehow been complicit in all that had gone wrong. Recovery also had a very particular personal physical resonance for me, as I was returning to dancing having had knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, a tear that finally manifested itself when I was dancing on the concrete floors of the Ireland Pavilion in the Shanghai Expo in 2010. My body couldn’t keep performing for the nation’s attempt to attract global investment in conditions that wouldn’t support it properly. It declared a vulnerability that demanded care. Geographer and philosopher Paul Harrison argues that ‘Vulnerability… describes the inherent and continuous susceptibility of corporeal life to the unchosen and the unforeseen – its inherent openness to what exceeds its abilities to contain and absorb.’ (‘Corporeal Remains: Vulnerability, Proximity and Living On After the End of the World’, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 40, 2, pp. 423-445, p. 427). Instead of thinking of bodies as endlessly active and capable, recognizing their fraility, fragility, tiredness, illness opens up the possibility of connecting to others, of acknowledging my reliance on them.

Ostensibly, Cure was a solo for me but to make it I commissioned the five dancers and visual artist who had been involved the previous work I’d made called Tabernacle. Mikel Aristegui, Bernadette Iglich, Matthew Morris, Elena Giannotti and Stéphane Hisler were the dancers and Sarah Browne, the visual artist. I asked each of them to make a ten minute solo for me on the idea of Cure and I assembled those solos into a single piece. I’d known all of the dancers for a long time, having created, rehearsed and performed alongside, on top of, underneath them (except of Elena with whom I worked for the first time on Tabernacle but whom I’d seen perform often in the work of Michael Klein for Daghdha and for Rosemary Butcher). They had created with me and carried my choreography over the years, and what I call ‘my’ choreography took form through their thinking, feeling and moving. With Cure I wanted to more clearly acknowledge their creative agency and my dependence on them, to shift the traditional power relationship of choreographer and performer (though the reality of collaboration in the studio counters that dynamic, the structures of financial reward and professional advancement still usually favour the one who gets called choreographer). And I wanted to put my own body in play – not the god-like absence invisibly directing action from outside, but a vulnerable visibility available to act. I’d like to think that the dancers always felt that more collaborative and equal power relationship in our work but with Cure – and the communication around it, I wanted to make it more visible to others outside the process and make that visibility part of the overall curation and choreography of the project. This shift away from old structures also felt right because this recovery wouldn’t be about going back. My knee would not be the same as before surgery. So, moving on demanded that things be done differently.

In practice, for the process of creation, instead of gathering to me all the choreographers (as would have happened if I’d been choreographer), I travelled to where they were – to Australia for Stéphane, to Berlin where Mikel was based, to London with Matthew and Bernadette, to Dublin with Elena and to Limerick with Sarah. Our working processes would have suited an era of social distancing since there were usually just two of us in ample studios with minimal physical contact in the creative process. The material was generated through my responses to their instructions and stimuli. I think all of the movement material came from me and yet, responding to their ideas, shaped by the atmospheres of their creative processes, and knowing them through years of seeing them, I carried something of each of them into the work too. Even Sarah, whom I didn’t know as a dancer, I knew as a dedicated long-distance swimmer. And something of her physical practice informed how I responded to her choreographic input that was mostly communicated through the latex material she introduced into the creation.

I look back on Cure, on the care (the Latin root of cure – curare means to take care) the choreographers took of me and on the challenges they set me, and think that I have never felt more at home in performance than in that piece.
‘[C]are’ Karen Till tells us, ‘challenges the Western Enlightenment assumption that individuals are autonomous and self-supporting, forcing us to recognise that not all humans are treated equally in society.’ (Karen E. Till, ‘Wounded Cities: Memory Work and a Place-based Ethics of Care’ Political Geography 31 (1),pp. 3-14, p. 12; ). Taking care and allowing oneself to be cared for acknowledges and enacts interdependence. I experience this care from each of the choreographers but also from the whole creative team. After the initial phases of creation with each choreographers, I assembled the work in the studio in Dancehouse with Mags Corscadden as Stage manager as a constant presence to witness my otherwise solo rehearsals. And Alma Kelliher as composer and Ciaran O’Melia as designer became regular allies in the rehearsal room too, offering the support of accompaniment, that of their design and creative skills but also their presence. And we tried to offer some of that experience of care to people beyond the creative team too. Just before premiere at the Dublin Dance Festival, we held a supper on the idea of Cure with Create, Dublin Dance Festival and FireStation, making food for a group of people who signed up to share their own experience of recovery in beautifully philosophical and personal ways. Sharing insights that could resource me in my performance on the work. I recall the Create and DDF teams helping to make and prepare that food and I’m especially grateful to them for recognizing how this work was already part of the choreography we were making. We continued this practice of sharing food and discussion when we toured the work around Ireland, and this process of sharing not only the work but some shared conviviality helped assert that performing the work wasn’t just a commercial transaction between audience and performer but a work of shared reflection and experience, with care activated in both directions.

I’m reminded of the Irish phrase trín’a chéile – it means upset or in disarray and often has a negative meaning because of that. It literally means through one another, and for me there is a positive potential in this through otherness. Because the disarray and upset of the usual allows for a new array, for a change of old habits, old patterns. It is the surprise of otherness that makes new things possible and maybe new things better. The risk of never being in disarray is that nothing ever changes and everything remains the same.

So, in thinking about what it takes to recover, which is never really a going back to what has been, but a moving on from where we are, the surprise of otherness is helpful.