Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2020

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.

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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.

April 28, 2020

Taking the time to Listen: Leading from a distance

Hilary Carty, Director of the Clore Leadership Programme asked me if I would share a video of my thoughts on leadership in the current crisis.  I wasn’t sure I had anything to offer, and didn’t want to be adding to the digital noise, but I thought I’d share my experience of uncertainty and vulnerability as a truth from which to build.

April 28, 2020

A video by Clwstwr on the Moving Layers Project

Clwstwr put together this video after the first phase of our Moving Layer research.  In an environment where I was busy with many other things as Artistic Director of NDCWales, I take some selfish pleasure in having been able to dance alongside these creative performers.

March 21, 2020

Moving Layers – Week 2

Photo by Kirsten McTiernan

Photo by Kirsten McTiernan

Coming back to our Moving Layers R&D, I felt some pressure to round it up, to turn it into an outcome, despite realising that two weeks of a very new kind of R&D was very preliminary.  Often when we do R&D for a performance, the research is towards a relatively defined destination with relatively familiar tools and resources: the trajectory of the research is linear.  In this case, however, the research and the consequent learning was multi-dimensional:  we aimed towards some kind of scratch performance outcome, but that was to give ourselves forward momentum rather than a destination.  We didn’t know what the performance outcome/event/experience would be.   Our previous sharing suggested that the value of dancing remained at the heart of the work but what else could it be?  We didn’t know what form it might take, nor what its content/subject might be.  Through Hylas and the Nymphs we gave ourselves a focus (seduction, immersion, desire, fluidity, transformation) that also reflected on the process we were involved in, allowing us to see ourselves considering the interface between the live and the augmented and to see bodies being transformed by the interaction with the technology.

Photo by Kirsten McTiernan

Photo by Kirsten McTiernan

Alongside that evolution of  process and content, we also continued to get to know each other.   With a new duo of dancers – Theo Clinkard and Folu Odimayo – there were conversations to repeat and in the process deepen as we introduced the process to new people and opened to their perspectives.  We continued to work out the rhythms of a rehearsal process with dancers and, in this week, a composer (Tic Ashfield) and a developer (Roderick (Rob) Morgan) in the room.

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While much composition and coding could happen before or elsewhere, I know from working with Tic  (and with Alma Kelliher) the benefit of having the composer in the room, soaking up information that might not be articulated otherwise, sharing physical and affective space.  I think the same is true of having a developer in the rehearsal room.  Even though Rob Morgan was busy with the coding, often focused on the laptop rather than the moving bodies, having him with us, sensing the energy in the room, created human links that fed the work.  It’s the preciousness of affective, kinaesthetic, embodied connections that we took care to maintain in our R&D, despite the seductions of the augmenting technology.  We wanted to use the technology to help an audience to step from viewing to dancing, to use the distraction of augmentation to give people three-dimensional scripts and visual rhythm to prompt their movement.

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Photo by Kirsten McTiernan

Photo by Kirsten McTiernan

We also discovered that for an audience, the technology – in particular the Hololens headset – can stimulate the viewers’ imaginations even if they’re not wearing it.  They imagine what the Hololens wearer is seeing, maybe desire to see, and sometimes their imagination is richer than what the technology is capable of delivering – though it’s clear that for other viewers whose first reaction to putting on the headset is ‘Wow!’ that there is pleasure and surprise.

clwstwrrehearsalskirstenmcternan138Doing this research from the experience of people who identify as gay – predominantly but not exclusively gay men – was a deliberate choice to propose that generalisable knowledge could be created from minority experience.  Despite its apparent openness to transformation, much immersive digital technology is developed from a heteronormative position, with assumptions about who is active, who is watched, who is subject and object.  As dancer and dance tech pioneer Ghislaine Boddington commented:  “A high proportion of VR content is male heterosexual porn.. […]Content creators need to think in a much more diverse way”.  Of course all generalisations are open to challenge and in this instance, it was the female in the room – Tic – who was the most avid gamer.  With gay men of different generations (in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s – pre and post-PREP generations,) of different different cultural origins, it wasn’t as if we approached the research from a single perspective.  What might seduction mean to those of use more comfortable or at least more familiar with cruising or flirting online rather than in ‘real’ space [and in which particular places rather than abstracted ‘space’ – on a street, in a club, in a studio, in a classroom?].  While the perspectives we brought to bear on the research were neither homogenous nor exclusively ‘gay’, it was important to be in an environment where it was possible to bring our gay experiences into play, with sufficient trust and mutual understanding to be able to delve into the differences between our experiences too.

Photo Kirsten McTiernan

Photo Kirsten McTiernan

Waterhouse_Hylas_and_the_Nymphs_Manchester_Art_Gallery_1896.15Having just seen the film Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire which BFI describes as ‘a countermeasure to centuries of the male gaze in art, reaching out to other female artists and poets in its study of desire and creation’ , it’s clear that these questions of gaze, of seduction, of the brilliance and danger of being ‘on fire’, or ‘immersed’ are not exclusively male nor heterosexual. Working on this research has allowed an engagement with the intimate, the playful, the poetic, as well as the risky, the provocative and the uncertain.  As well as continuing to develop our particular experience for audiences and participants, I think there’s scope for us to share this approach to immersive and augmented technologies with other makers, developers and technologists to help to shape a more inclusive, diverse and embodied approach to how these technologies evolve and in evolving, change us.

Photo Kirsten McTiernan

Photo Kirsten McTiernan

 

February 04, 2020

Moving Layers – Clwstwr R&D NDCWales

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Moving Layers is an R&D project I’m doing for NDCWales with experience-designer Rob Eagle.  It’s a project funded by the Clwstwr programme, a partnership between Cardiff University, University of South Wales and Cardiff Metropolitan University  ‘to create new products, services and experiences for screen’.  The Cardiff partnership is one of the UK government’s Creative Industries Clusters Programmes,

 

part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund that is being delivered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation. This unprecedented research and development programme will keep the UK at the cutting edge globally; creating jobs, developing talent and driving the creation of products and experiences that can be marketed around the world, significantly contributing to UK economic growth, both nationally and regionally. (Clwstwr)

 

It’s good to note the economic imperative that’s driving this opportunity but at this stage, what Clwstwr has provided us with is a valuable opportunity to do some very initial research on how Augmented Reality and dance might work to produce new kinds of dance experience and new ways of experiencing it.  National Dance Company Wales has proposed that we:

 

will prototype an experience that enables a diversity of people to witness and participate in dance stories that change the audience/performer relationship and that connect people to their own physicality. This project will explore knowledge-exchange between choreographers, academics, mixed reality designers and programmers to build a basic demonstrator that addresses a longer-term ambition to connect to audiences outside the traditional touring model and develop vital new markets for dance. (Clwstwr)

 

The reference to connecting people to their own physicality was particularly important for me since my experience of Virtual Reality experiences was that they drew people away from their physicality (sometimes, as in the case of pain relief VR experiences, for beneficial reasons).  But what we in dance have an expertise in, is in liveness.  Even when working with Dearbhla Walsh on dance films, it’s always been a digital mediation that connects people to the visceral sensuality of movement in others and in themselves that’s been a goal.  With Augmented Reality, it feels that there is more opportunity to main that connection with the organic while adding the extra possibilities of the virtual.

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I came across Rob Eagle’s work through Twitter.  I noticed that he was developing AR experiences with a queer edge: his Through the Wardrobe project invites people to inhabit gender fluid and gender non-binary experiences.  I was also aware of his documentary work on identity in gay fetish communities and the intersection of the queer and the technology attracted me.  For NDCWales, working with Rob could be at once an opportunity to innovate in formats of dance creation and presentation and it could also bring gender diversity and sexuality into greater focus in the Company’s creative work.

 

Given it was a new relationship, Rob and I spent some time discussing how we would start and what would be a point of common departure for our first week of R&D in the studio.  We were interested in a notion of fluidity and liquidity, something that linked the distinctive quality of dance that can keep ideas, experiences and consequently identity in motion,  and the potential of an augmented reality to transform experience.  In that idea of fluidity, for me was also a sense of the queer as a verb – an action of deviation, of motion – rather than a noun – a label and fixed identity.  From the discussion about fluidity and fluids emerged a an acknowledgment that for a gay man of my generation, fluid was something to be protected against.  It related to desire and also death.  For a younger generation, that might no longer be the case, but we realised that  the language of seduction, desire and danger connected our bodies and the technology.

IMG-20200124-WA0002My research in preparation for the first week of studio time with Rob and with dance-artists Meilir Ioan and Rob Bridger, took me from the Taoist understanding of water (the element of winter, of inward reflection, of multiple forms that imbalanced could mean vacillation and indecision), to the Welsh Ceffyl Dwr – the mythological water horse that sometimes draws unsuspecting riders to their doom (something in the solid corporeality and power of a horse also transformed into water still resonates) and a reading of Greek water-related creatures that brought me to the Pre-Raphaelite painting of Hylas and the nymphs.

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The painting,  by John William Waterhouse, depicts Hylas, the lover and companion of Hercules, who has gone to fetch water on a stop off during the voyage of the Argonauts.  Hylas was so beautiful that the nymphs of the pool wanted him and seduced him into the pool where he was trapped/elevated in immortality.  Hercules was distraught when he didn’t return and called for him.  He only heard the words Hylas, Hylas, Hylas  come back to him.

 

IMG-20200124-WA0003The story is one of seduction, desire, immersion, danger, loss and suspension (in time).  As with most stories of desire it is one of repetition (Hylas, Hylas, Hylas).  Hercules loses Hylas but gains him because he has murdered Hylas’ father.

The painting suspends the moment of seduction just before the immersion.  Apparently, Waterhouse used two models for the seven nymphs so there’s repetition there too.  The painting gained notoriety recently when it was taken from permanent display at the Manchester Art Gallery as part of an intervention by Sonia Boyce: ‘The act of taking down this painting was part of a group gallery takeover that took place during the evening of 26 January 2018. People from the gallery team and people associated with the gallery took part. The takeover was filmed and is part of an exhibition by Sonia Boyce, 23 March to 2 September 2018′.  The intervention aimed to challenge the ‘Victorian fantasy’ of the female body as either a ‘passive decorative form’ or a ‘femme fatale’. (MAG)

It was reinstated after public outcry at what was regarded as censorship and perhaps a misreading of what could also be regarded as a depiction of active female desire rather than simply the presentation of passive female nudity.

I don’t feel the need to resolve all of these tensions in the painting, in its inspiration, genesis and reception.   It’s still a useful focus for teasing out the appeal and dangers of engaging with virtual reality and bodily desire.  And as Manchester Art Gallery acknowledged after their experiment: ‘the painting has been a barometer of public taste since it was painted in 1896 and continues to be so.’ (MAG) The notion of the pool as the place of immersion provided us with a spatial reference for the choreography.  And if at moments, Rob and Mei and I imagined ourselves seducing the beautiful young man, this queering of the apparently heterosexual image (already queer in fact given Hercules and Hylas’ intimacy) allowed it to be a useful resource.  Adrian Rifkin’s response to the Manchester Art Gallery removal acknowledges the latent queerness of the work: ‘ as a young gay man growing up in 50s and 60s Manchester – and queer art historian to-be – Hylas was one of my lifelines to an imaginary world of desire found in images of men.’

Forty years after Laura Mulvey’s critique of the male gaze, which was an attempt to understand pleasure, not to outlaw it, this rather trivial gesture can only be understood as politically shallow. But more than that, as an insult to someone who has lived at a tangent to the heteronormative discourses of which, indeed, it is a fragment. (Rifkin)

Our week involved talking and dancing – and delightfully I got to watch and to dance with Mei and Rob Bridger.  From last year’s Laboratori at NDCWales with Éric Minh Cuong Castaing, I learned that we could think about working with digital technologies that allowed us to see their impact, their ethics and their ideologies.  Inspired by that approach, I wanted us to invite our audience to be immersed at moments, but also to see immersion, to imagine immersion without augmentation and to experience the physical impacts of immersion in others.  These layers of experience, as much as the layers in the experience, seem like valuable ingredients if we are to understand and appreciate the full impact of augmented and immersive realities.

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It was clear from the feedback to our sharing that the experience provokes different kinds of desire – a desire to know what the other sees, to be involved, to watch it unfold.  These are not new points of view, as lighting designer Caty Olive pointed out, but what the technology does is augment this familiar experience and give us an opportunity to reflect it and reflect on it.

January 01, 2020

Nigel Charnock’s Lunatic for NDCWales

78825291_2454765468070084_7028765300468219904_oThe energy that Nigel Charnock managed to dance, scream, laugh and whack into the world still reverberates despite his too early death 7 years ago.  Last week, the dancers of NDCWales, many of whom wouldn’t have been aware of Nigel’s work,  received that energy channelled through Jo Fong and through some of Nigel’s archive that was on loan  as part of the process of reviving Lunatic, a piece Nigel made for the Company in 2009.  Jo was one of the original cast and has, with Graham Clayton Chance and Nick Mercer, who are looking after Nigel’s legacy, and with Gary Clarke who also danced in Nigel’s work, helped plug the NDCWales dancers into the specifics of Lunatic and into the wider source of Nigel’s work.  It’s been exciting to see the dancers take the permission and the challenge that Nigel’s work offers to everyone – performers and audiences – to be more, to risk going further and to have fun in the process.

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When I started dancing in the nineties, I was aware of Nigel as a fierce performer – fiercely funny, fiercely physical and fiercely moving.  I was also aware that he was gay and that his dancing in DV8 gave me a permission to explore a life through my dancing that might not have been possible otherwise.  Something in his energy also made it clear that, in the time of Section 28 and the AIDS crisis, that the life I might live had to be fought for with energy and determination.  I saw that insistence in his performances.  What I didn’t realise at the time is that before helping to found DV8, Nigel had been an equally iconoclastic performer with Ludus, a dance in education collective of the most radical kind.  I came to know Nigel’s solo work by the time I was in dance training myself and remember the thrill of being one of the students at The Place chosen to dance in a drama called Citizen Locke (based on the life of the philosopher) for which Nigel choreographed some scenes – thrilled and intimidated, because I felt in Nigel a standard to be achieved.  We wore very brown clothes.

Later, when I was beginning to choreograph, I had the opportunity to ask Nigel to be a mentor to me when I did a residency at Firkin Crane, working with Rebecca Walter and Ríonach Ní Néill on a piece called Vespers.  I didn’t quite feel adequate to his attention at the time and yet despite my sense of inadequacy, I knew that what he proposed, by being the studio, by asking me difficult questions, by warming up in the morning with such immediate and relentless vigour, would remind me that there was more to for me to give in everything I did.

79433221_2451985591681405_4648435141591433216_oWhen I arrived at NDCWales as Artistic Director, I started to think about the choreographers that I thought it would be good for the Company to commission.  But I also knew that one of the distinctive qualities of a repertoire company is repertoire – a sense of history that in our contemporary art form isn’t always cherished.  But proposing to revive Lunatic, a work Nigel made for NDCWales in 2009 , wasn’t about just about history.  Lunatic, like so much of Nigel’s work, explores sexuality, gender and national identity.  The energy of that work grew out of the oppressive society and politics of eighties and nineties Britain to which Nigel’s work responded.  We might have thought we’d moved beyond that context and therefore the fight that Nigel’s work represented.  But in 2019, that context, questions of national, gender and sexual identity, threats to the rights of minorities (and in the case of women, majorities) around the world, make Lunatic as relevant as ever it was.  And I love that a queer working-class choreographer who grew up in North Wales, trained in Cardiff and whose ashes are scattered across the Bay from the Dance House can still provide a radical energy to NDCWales work.

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