Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Yearly Archives: 2021

November 09, 2021

Unreeled at Uilinn/ West Cork Arts Centre

A man with right and raised and left hand touching his chest.  He's wearing a dark sparkly top and a velour gold trousers.  His shadow is visible on the white wall behind.

Photo courtesy Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre

When I was asked by Luke Murphy if I’d like to present something at a season of dance he was curating at Uilinn – West Cork Arts Centre, I was keen to accept but to also make clear that over the past two years I haven’t had the opportunity to produce any work, as in prepare it for stage with the usual support of lighting, design and costume that an audience might expect. The combination of pandemic restrictions plus the fact that as an Arts Council member, I’m not able to apply for funding in my own name, has meant that while I was able to dance, I couldn’t pay the teams of collaborators that I’d usually work with to shape and refine how a performance meets its audiences. What I did have to offer was the beginnings of a repertoire born out of the pleasure of dancing and a belief in dance as a way to connect to ourselves and to others, to ourselves through others and through attending to this apparently solo activity, to connect to others.

Dancer in black facing away from camera with hands raised and balancing on one leg with the other bent.  Against a white wall

Photo courtesy of Uilinn West Cork Arts Centre

What I assembled was an evening of dance made from the different elements I’ve been working on this past couple of years: For Tove, the solo that has evolved through a number of screen and streamed versions for this first live performance; the Déambulations audio piece from the Walthamstow Wetlands; Unreeling, the solo I performed at Tipperary Dance Platform and finally For Isabella, a solo I’ve created with and for Isabella Oberlander via Zoom that draws on the Wetlands as sanctuary. I trusted that these pieces, still fresh, still with potential to develop further could work as companion pieces for the evening. I liked that they had aspects that drew from my own experience but that the evening ends up with Isabella who transforms my experience through her own.

Female dancer in black with both arms raised and her face blurred

Photo courtesy of Uilinn West Cork Arts Centre

We performed in the gallery space in Uilinn, a space with a concrete floor that I really shouldn’t dance on, and a generous height that is a pleasure to be in. The audience was limited due to pandemic restrictions but felt warm and supportive. It included family, dance colleagues and friends as well as other artists from the area. I tried to create a relaxed atmosphere by encouraging conversation between the audience members. And so when it came to a short exchange at the end of the evening, it was rewarding to hear what people had connected with. Some mentioned calmness after a difficult day, some memories of London through the audio piece, another a memory of their father in the middle-skin of my bare torso (she didn’t call it middle-aged but she did mention the particular quality of skin that my body now has and that I couldn’t have evoked when I was younger. There are connections this older body can make that younger ones can’t. And vice versa.)

Male dancer with eyes closed and both arms raised over his head against a white background.

Photo courtesy of Uilinn West Cork Arts Centre

As with TDP, I was energised by performing and by the realisation that sharing the work with others does do something more that the pleasure of dancing alone can offer me. It has an intensity that teaches differently and the work is clearer (and by work I mean the choreography and what I’m trying to achieve by dancing) when it’s undertaken in relation to audience.

I come away from the experience grateful to have been able to dance, to dance for an audience, to be in a team with Isabella and with Jared who looked after the sound. I wonder about how to develop this work: the same challenges exist in terms of resourcing the collaboration of others. But I trust the material and will wait to see where it can grow next.

October 06, 2021

Layering, filaments – AR and Dance Research

Male dancer in grey sports top viewed from waist up.  Left arm raised, right arm to the sideWhen I saw that the Lightmoves Screendance Festival was expanding its programme to support  research on work that combined dance and digital technologies, I recognised that it was an opportunity for Rob Eagle and me to continue the work on dance and AR that we had initiated at NDCWales with the support of Clwstwr.  When I stepped down as AD of NDCWales in 2020 we continued to explore the development of the initial research with the Company but with the uncertainties of the pandemic and the necessity for the Company to pivot so much of its engagement with the public to online formats, the particular queer live-digital experience that was at the heart of our research wasn’t straightforward to pursue.  Rob and I knew ourselves that conceiving an audience experience that involved shared AR headsets wasn’t going to be achievable in a climate of anxiety about hygiene and proximity, though that anxiety about intimacy that’s part of our queer/gay inheritance already haunted our exploration of AR.  With NDCWales’ blessing we’ve been able to progress the work independently and the Lightmoves Open Studios residency offered a space and context for a welcome resumption of our collaboration.

As with everything this past year and a half, Covid and attendant travel restrictions have been challenges to choreograph with.  The week before we were due to arrive in Limerick, Ireland increased the mandatory quarantine period for travellers from the UK who were not fully vaccinated.  Rob was able to respond quickly to arrive for the lengthy isolation period.  The extra time commitment was a signal of how important it was for us that this would be an in-person research.  Rob and I shared an apartment when I got to Limerick 5 days later and worked as a bubble for the week at Dance Limerick’s beautiful church space.  From the start of our collaboration we’ve been keen to foreground the bodily impact of augmenting technologies and the seduction of immersion.  While some of the other projects on the Lightmoves Open Studios residency had chosen to work remotely and made that remote collaboration part of their research focus, it was a delight and release and inspiration to be in a studio/performance space together.  Some of that had to do with feeling part of a familiar creative community, being in an environment where I’ve danced before and being able to meet in-person friends and colleagues who remind me of my place in a wider network of dance. 
Person with blue hair and red top draws on another's lower leg with black pen.  Both are sitting on a wooden floor
Another part of the pleasure was finding an easy working process with Rob that was testimony to what we had learned from our earlier Clwstwr/NDCWales research.  On a practical level we had to relinquish our earlier investigation of the AR headset, the wonderful group of dancers we’d worked with and with them some of the explicit references to Hylas and the Nymphs.  Instead we shifted to an exploration of AR on smartphones with me as the performer.  And yet what we achieved during the week – the nature and the extent of it would not have been possible without a shared language, a shared approach and a clarity about the fundamentals of our joint focus in this this dance and AR collaboration.  

As with the Waterhouse picture of Hylas and the Nymphs, we remained interested in the threshold of immersion, the queer flow back and forth between the seductive pleasure of being immersed and the estranging awareness of what that immersion entails.  As with using the Oculus headset when working with with smartphones we started with existing AR apps as a point of departure, using Instagram as a platform for activating filters that Rob was able to adapt to our use.  This meant that we could dive in quickly to a testing phase to which I also brought some of the solo material I’ve been working on.  On the one hand this meant that we inherited assumptions, content, approaches already built into what we were bringing to the collaboration.  But it also meant that we were working with something that was already layered, already tested, already viable.  And it meant that the collaboration between dance and technology was an encounter between robust elements that was made productive (rather than combative) by the work of mutual understanding that Rob and I had done through our previous research.

Image of inside of right forearm against a black floor with another pair of hands drawing with a pen an ink tattoo of three lines

We worked with AR layers activated by codes marked on my body – marks which made us think of tattooing and other body adornment whose long history proves how fundamental augmentation always been to the human bodily experience.  The invitation to draw people and their phones close enough to my body to read a code and activate a photographic layer prompted the questions of intimacy and safety that hasalways been our preoccupation.  The set up brought up questions that are technical and artistic as we tested the transparency of layers, the effectiveness and durability of mark-making on sweating skin, the dramaturgy of revealing marks and their attached images that might enhance a narrative and finally the experience of viewers who might see others coming close but who would maintain a distance to observe the process unfold and therefore have a different perspective.  

June 21, 2021

A space to dance in

A man dressed in black sweats and t shirt holds his body in an s-shape with his right arm raised and obscuring his face while his left hand touches his chest.  He's in the middle of a wooden panelled studio with a black floor and white panelled ceiling.I’ve been cautious about celebrating publicly that fact that I’ve had access to studio space recently.  Aware that I’ve fretted reading social media posts about others working (how are they doing that?  where is that possible?  are they bubbling?), I haven’t wanted to contribute to any one else’s anxiety – especially when my achievements in the studio have been of the most basic kind.  I can’t contemplate any grand schemes of making when I’m not confident that I have a handle on what I’m experiencing, let alone what anyone else is experiencing.  What I feel I have managed to do is be in a studio, thanks to the generosity of Artsadmin as it tests out its new protocols for opening up the Toynbee Studios again.  I’ve experienced again and with great appreciation the pleasure of going out of the house to work in a space that has enough volume to draw out more movement possibilities.  And crucially, a space big enough to allow me to invite some other dance artists to share that space physically.

I have been connecting with Isabella Oberlander with Zoom as she’s worked in the Dance Limerick studio and though mostly I’ve done that from the spare bedroom at home, seeing her in a studio has felt like a valuable reconnection with a generative working environment.  However, connecting with her via Zoom from the Toynbee Studio felt even better, when we could share work spaces – one in London, one in Limerick – where we could both move to communicate ideas rather than my just indicating things to her from the bedroom confinement.

Equally, I cherished the fact that I could talk with Alexandra Waierstall today from the studio, sharing movement material with her, seeing what she saw via Zoom, knowing that the digital media could extend the very strong connection I have to her beautiful work and that I could feel her supportive attention from experience and from the screen.

But what was particularly thrilling and emotional for me today was getting to dance with another dance artist in the same space.  Though I’m still making my own way through the processing of our current experience, I know that doing that work with and alongside others is not only enriching but essential.  So the generosity of Toynbee allows me to share space with others.  Today Rob Bridger and I maintained prescribed social distance in the studio, and yet found connection across the space in gentle lines of energy that felt so nourishing.

Three dancers in a wood panelled studio with a black floor.  They make angular shapes with this bodies

I want to claim a space for the validity of moving together, of rediscovering the pleasure and necessity of that wordless connecting (alongside useful spoken conversation), of retuning our antennae.  It’s not the time for me to design performance.  It’s the time to cherish, nurture and celebrate the value of corporeal connection – not just for those of us for whom dance is a profession but all of us

April 01, 2021

Surviving or Thriving Podcasts

One of the best things about taking part in the Surviving and Thriving Panel (organised by Waterford Healing Arts in partnership with An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council) was that, though online, it was an opportunity for some of the dance community to gather.  David Bolger acknowledged as much at the beginning of the session chaired by Maureen Gaffney and also featuring Catherine Young.  Of course this virtual presence also reminded us of physical absence – a loss of our possibilities to dance together and also the very definitive loss of the much loved, much admired Emma O’Kane.  Though our focus was on positive strategies for survival, there was no attempt to paper over the loss, the confusion of uncertainty, the destabilising realities we’re experiencing.

You can hear all of the podcasts here  including the dance panel.

What I took away, having begun to speak about what it takes to dance more wisely, is that there is a prevailing narrative that accepts that dance is fragile, temporary, threatened by the unfolding cycle’s of life.  I want to propose an alternative narrative where dance is worthy of being sustained over a whole life.

February 26, 2021

Addressing the Nations

When I was Paris last year, Nora HickeyM’Sichili, the director at CCI invited me to be one of the forty artists she was commissioning to be part of Addressing the Nations in short videos for the start of 2021. Her premise was that

Worldwide, 2020 was the year of the televised address of the nation, with diligent speech-writers working in over-drive, constructing emotive speeches which have both reinforced our awareness of the fragility of human existence and inspired altruistic acts of humanity. New language has been developed to describe new circumstances. Unfamiliar words have become common currency.

She wanted to balance those political addresses with artistic ones.  The resulting videos and downloadable texts are available here on the CCI website.

It was a interesting challenge take on but also an important opportunity to channel a creative practice based on movement into this format of videoed headshot (some of the artists managed to stretch the rules in ways that added helpful diversity to the assembled programme).  I’m not sure how, but I started to write about grief.  Before Christmas and before the recognition of the new Covid variants, the mood seemed to be lifting around the pandemic and I sensed that we were all in a hurry for it to be over and while I desperately shared that need for joy and release, I could also feel a tug against the rush, a tug I recognised as grief.

I’m not the only artist to have mentioned grief in their address: Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi feels grief in the pandemic and in the context of racial injustice as a ‘ravenous animal, rabid and roaming around a parched wasteland’.  While I’m not sure how I started writing about grief for this address,  in truth grief has been intertwined with my dancing from early on.  My father died when I was twenty and my mother when I was twenty four.  These were also the years in which I met and fell in love with dancing and in which I met and fell in love with my now husband.  My first works at London Contemporary Dance School were Caoineadh (the Irish word for lament) and Slán (‘Safe’ but also ‘Good bye’ as in ‘go safely’).  These weren’t necessarily sad works, even if they have a nostalgia.  But I recall in them a determined liveliness (me dancing around to John Sheehan’s fiddle playing on Kate Bush’s Jig Life) and a request to be seen living even while grieving. “Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement, as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony was now the way to speak” – Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa.

Dancing is an art form of liveness and aliveness.  I can’t help but look at my personal history now and see that dancing has been a way for me to respond to grief, to be alive and dancing while that is possible, knowing that it will not be possible indefinitely.  When my father suddenly fell ill, I flew back urgently from Pearson College in Canada.   I returned to Canada from my father’s sick bed a month later and remember that one of the first things I did there was perform in the Ukrainian folk dance group I loved for the College’s annual gala show.   I left rehearsals of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker when my mother fell ill unexpectedly a couple of years later.  And after her death, I returned to London Contemporary Dance School to finish my training.  My body has been saturated with grief in its formative moments as a dancer.

And as a young gay man, I’ve survived, experienced and anticipated the threat of death as we navigated the AIDS/HIV crisis in the West (The crisis remains acute in other parts of the world, even as treatment and prevention options have reduced its danger for richer people in richer countries  – death is common to all but the particulars of our vulnerability to it are not equal distributed). Acknowledging grief as an important part of life, learning from it and from which it can teach us about living, and about our relationships to each other and to our environment – all of this feels particularly necessary now as more people are faced with the loss of loved ones and the loss of certainties and futures they depended on.