Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Tripping the Rhythm Fantastic

The Macushla Dance Club for over-50s, which will perform at the Project Arts Centre, has given people a chance to express themselves as artists for the first time, writes Michael Seaver.

‘Collapse?” says Teresa Fleming with incredulity. She is sitting on dancer Stephane Hisler who, in turn, is precariously balanced on choreographer Ríonach Ní Néill, when the instruction comes to collapse the human sculpture.

The three are rehearsing Ní Néill’s Tipping Point a week before its premiere at Project Arts Centre as part of Triptik , a three-part performance by Ciotóg Dance Company and the Macushla Dance Club. As a member of Macushla, the only thing that separates Fleming from the two dancers from Ciotóg is 30 or 40 years.

Soon the odd-shaped totem-pole has slowly crumbled and Fleming is in a sprawl of giggling bodies on the ground. Once laughter subsides, they pick themselves up and concentrate on the next section of the dance.
“We can have a laugh during the rehearsals,” says Fleming, but she is still a bit apprehensive about performing with the professional dancers in a theatre. “This is a big step for me. Some nights I’m lying in bed thinking, ‘How can I do this?’”
Ní Néill has no such worries. “Teresa is an incredible performer and has this intensity that you can’t find in a younger dancer,” she says, adding that it’s a trait she has discovered in many older dancers. “There’s almost a ferocity there, which is noticeable to anybody coming into the studio.”

Macushla is a dance club for the over 50s, but in reality, the youngest is 64 and the average age is well into the 70s.
Ní Néill formed the club in early 2007 when she returned to Ireland after a career with Tanztheater Bremen in Germany and wanted to create dance opportunities for older people. Almost three years on, it has about 70 people coming and going, but a dedicated group of 35.
Weekly classes at DanceHouse meant that the Macushla members, who mostly had a background in social dance, came into contact with contemporary and ballet dancers, something Ní Néill encouraged. “It was all quite casual,” she says. “I knew most of the other choreographers rehearsing in nearby studios, so I’d invite them in to show five minutes of their works-in-progress and talk about their ideas.”

One of the first to show their work was Rebecca Walters, who has created The Show for Triptik with a cast of eight from the Macushla Club, including two retired showband musicians. “ The Show is primarily a celebration of the club,” she says. “I think it’s fantastic that this group of people gets together every week to socialise, dance and interact on a creative level.”
Along with the performers, Walters has created what she calls “a Broadway-esque building, with a few small contemporary dance rooms in it”. Rather than a detour from her normal professional practice, this work with the older group fits perfectly with what she does as a choreographer.

“Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more interested in showing ‘people’ dancing. I’m not interested in suppressing performers’ personalities in order to present the audience with ‘pure dancing bodies’. For The Show , I am working with a group of unique individuals. They don’t have the shared history that a group of professional dancers might have through training, working methods, or the culture of the profession. This means I have to really try to get to know each of the performers and to draw out the strengths and movement personalities of each person.”

In Tipping Point , Ní Néill has drawn on the influence of artist Francis Bacon, a suggestion the came from Macushla member Eithne Doyle during rehearsals. As with some of Bacon’s paintings, Tipping Point is seen through multiple frames, and includes a video projection of Doyle, who will be virtually dancing, since she is unavailable for the performances.

“It is quite a melancholic and heavy work,” says Ní Néill, adding that none of three dances in Triptik deal with age. “Right from the beginning, the group didn’t want to make pieces about being old or the ‘issues’ for old people.” It’s also not an issue for the choreographers. “Older is a comparative term and makes me wonder what’s the norm we’re comparing with,” says Fearghus Ó Conchúir, whose dance film Sweet Spot completes the triptych. “My norm for dancers isn’t 21-year-olds.”

In his recent work, Niche , all but one of the performers was over 40, so he reckons some might say he regularly works with older dancers. “Many of the Macushla dancers are over 60, but the difference between them and Merce Cunningham performing at 80 isn’t age; it’s experience of using their bodies and their movement as a consciously expressive medium.”

Ó Conchúir describes Sweet Spot , created with director James Kelly of Feenish Productions, as a piece about being in your element. “It celebrates the playful side of this group of women, but the fun is built on a powerful wisdom gained from long experience of life’s joys and difficulties,” he says. “I’m also interested in balance, a very traditional Chinese concept so, to balance the women in the film, there will be a male solo as an introduction and coda to the film that’s performed live.”

There is no doubt that the Macushla group is having fun, so much so that dance is becoming part of their lives. “I go to yoga classes in Sheriff Street on Mondays,” says Fleming. “Then I go ballroom dancing on Tuesday nights in the North Strand, on Wednesdays to Phillipa’s group and on Thursdays to Macushla.”

“Phillipa’s group” is an outreach programme by Coiscéim Dance Theatre run by Phillipa Donnellan. Along with weekly classes in Clarendon Street and Donnycarney, this year she organised a city-wide dance project, La Vie En Rose , with other company members, which had the support of Dublin City Council.

“The participants’ openness and willingness to learn new forms of dance is incredible,” she says. “Initially their reason for coming along is social, and that’s a focus we maintain, but they are soon eager to become part of the creative process in making the dances. Contemporary dance can give them a freedom of expression that they would never have experienced before.”

That enthusiasm also feeds the choreographers. “Working on Sweet Spot has reinforced my sense that there’s always more to learn,” says Ó Conchúir. “The Macushla performers may be in their 60s and 70s, but they are hungry for new experiences and it’s that appetite to keep pushing one’s own limits that I will take with me from working with them.”

For many of the Macushla members it’s a second chance. “Many of them were lucky to go to school until they were 14 but now, in their 70s, they are able to express themselves as artists,” says Ní Néill.

“When I went to school in Ringsend there were 60 in the class. You were lucky if you were asked a question!” says Paddy Behan, chairman of the Macushla Club. “Now I see my 17 grandchildren doing drama and dance in school. We are getting our chance now. Adult dance clubs are coming back throughout Ireland and they are changing people’s lives, getting them out of the house and meeting people. My father died aged 88 and was dancing a week before he died. I hope to make it to 89!”

Triptik runs from Dec 16-19 at the Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.