Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist
February 04, 2020

Moving Layers – Clwstwr R&D NDCWales



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


November 30, 2019

Tir Cyfreddin/Shared Ground – Workshop in Cardiff Dance Festival

Chris Ricketts, the Artistic Director of Cardiff Dance Festival, asked me to offer a workshop as part of this year’s festival.   Given my recent preoccupations and experiences, I proposed a workshop using movement as an intelligence for working out how groups could be made, thinking about hospitality, inclusion, support and challenge.  Here’s what embedded critic Eva Marloes made of it:

The highlight of the Dance Festival, for me, has been the workshop offered by Fearghus Ó Conchùir, Artistic Director of the National Dance Company Wales (NDCW). It was not only an opportunity for those like me, without dance training, to participate, but also a personal gift from an experienced and professional dancer to whoever wanted to be part of it. The workshop was open to all, with no financial or skills barrier, and it was led by Fearghus with an open attitude, making no impositions.

We began with some basic ballet moves. My lack of dance training meant that movements were like foreign words which I stumbled to pronounce. The repetition at the beginning helped me fix the plies that, judging by my aching legs, I used throughout the day.

After the initial ‘structured’ session, Fearghus told us that we would do ‘contact improv’ in couples and in group, an announcement which was met by a terrified expression on my face. Being used to intellectual work alone, having to focus on the body and make sense of it with others is daunting. In the dancing space, I can only express myself through my body. There is nowhere to hide.

I have done some ‘contact work’ before. This time, we began as couples where one touched the other’s body gently, while the other became attentive to their own body and then responded to the touch. A simple touch, an attentiveness to one’s body, and a response to touch formed the essential elements of our dance for the day. I quickly found myself in duets and in group in synergy with others without effort, so much that asked to improvise alone, I complain that I lost my partner.

The togetherness that Fearghus wanted us to explore requires listening to one another’s bodies and being in dialogue with one another. It is not achieved by putting aside differences, rather by working with them. Perhaps the most interesting exercise was one of imitation. We were all asked to dance a solo for one (very long) minute while observed by the rest of the group, who in turn had to replicate something of our movement.

Like impressionists, we tried to imitate, but soon became interpreters with our own bodies. We tried to extract the essence of a person’s movements and recreate it, but this process of analysis and reproduction soon became one of interpretation. Other people’s movements sat differently in our bodies. It was a beautiful exercise in discovering the other as well as oneself.

Outside competitions and professional performances, dance is a gift of one’s way of expressing oneself through movement. It makes one vulnerable. It makes one risk judgment and rejection; yet all giving is thus. A soulful gift is the giving of oneself with no expectation of reciprocity.


This article was first published on Groundwork Pro Blog and republished on Get The Chance

October 07, 2019

Annwyl i mi in Japan

It wasn’t ideal that Ireland (first in the Rugby World Cup rankings) should be beaten by what’s currently a second tier rugby nation –  Japan.  But the hosts played a beautiful game and deserved the win on the day.  The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, congratulated the country’s team on Twitter by remarking that the win was made possible  “ by teamwork“.  It’s that building of team,  a sports team in this case, but also a community of support (as is happening now in Japan, a country where rugby isn’t the main sport but where people are committing to getting behind the sport) that animates Annwyl i mi.

Rehearsals in Oita

Rehearsals in Oita

We arrived in Japan to prepare for our performances of Annwyl i mi at various places associated with Wales and the Rugby World Cup.  Rather than fly everyone back to Cardiff to rehearse some of the Company’s other repertoire for shows in Spain that follow immediately our Japan tour, we avoided the double jetlag and flights by rehearsing in Japan, specifically in Oita, a smaller regional city where we were to perform at the opening of a Wales-Oita visual arts exhibition at OPAM.  The advantage of this extended rehearsal in Oita was that we got to establish a working rhythm in the city that helped ground us in Japan.  And for me, after the busyness of Hong Kong, Oita was a quiet city to work in.



Though we would perform in Oita, our first performances in Japan were to take place at the Wales House Dome in Shinjuku in downtown Tokyo, where the Welsh Government was using the World Cup and the Welsh rugby team’s profile to promote Wales.  The Welsh Rugby Union had also embedded itself in  Kitatkyushu (a couple of hours north of Oita) where the team’s training camp was based and where a two-year programme of public engagement resulted in the city’s turning red for the World Cup to support Wales.  I managed to see the Welsh team in training in the stadium in Kitakyushu and brought back to our rehearsals the connections that I saw between their work and ours.


Wales team training in Kitakyushu

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Our rehearsals of Annwyl i mi  in Oita were focused on bringing Mat into the team to replace Folu who wasn’t available to dance for this tour.  Mat had been part of the R&D that I’d done with the Company at various points in the past year, so he had a sense of the background of how I was working with the dancers and what was at the heart of the work.  I was pleased nonetheless that we were expanding the team.  I always wanted it to be permeable – a structure that was strong but also flexible, adaptive and inclusive.


We had to draw heavily on our flexibility and adaptability in preparing for our performances in Shinjuku.  Our original performance location was changed to another of different dimensions which for bureaucratic reasons initially and then because of typhoon warnings meant our scheduled performances were cancelled.  Undeterred we found ways to bring some of the material to Shinjuku and to improvise the piece across an afternoon in Tokyo.

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The strength of Carl’s costume designs was evident as we travelled across the city, signalling our connection in the busy city.  Seeing how the dancers could respond to the changes that were necessary confirmed that we’d done the right kind of work in preparing the piece, building flexibility in to it, practising adaptability and also maintaining the structure that allows for the change.  That clear structure and support is fundamental to achieving spontaneity and freedom to respond.


Photo by Charlie Knight


Our return to Oita for the performances there was a return to familiarity.  In the few days I’d been away the city’s preparation to welcome rugby fans to the stadium had ramped up even more.  I brought into the studio a number of the images of rugby that were prominent in the city.  I wanted the dancers to keep refreshing their own image store of what rugby could look like, while also reminding us that the people’s physicality is shaped not only by what they do, but also by what they see.  Images suggest what’s possible.

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Our hosts in Oita invited the Company to see a recently opened exhibition of Japanese prints and I was struck by the exaggerated facial expressions and contorted body positions of the Kabuki actors depicted in a number of the prints.  In one of the sections of Annwyl i mi I’ve encouraged the dancers to extend the pressure and resistance in their limbs into their faces also and the Kabuki-like results are not to suggest that I intended them to be like Kabuki actors but that, being in Japan, we can accumulate their influence, let it pass through the piece as we perform in Japan, so that the piece stays open, receptive and alive.


69723305_2348959291987722_1229467764670857216_n 71223843_2348959158654402_1562537114061504512_n 71142746_2348958961987755_3625201295473770496_n 70158504_2348958788654439_9042208735761530880_n 70881243_2348959188654399_399510466235203584_n 71282868_2348959121987739_1947537333934882816_n 71117465_2348958891987762_4168795635178274816_n 71297570_2348959091987742_4022184212109983744_n 71300601_2348959338654384_6247545358172291072_n 70987809_2348959451987706_6903807032332124160_n 71842564_2348959248654393_5069790752091930624_n 70927686_2348959675321017_1687371236167909376_n 71184545_2348959631987688_2096854375946256384_nIn Oita we performed in the light-filled, airy atrium, with the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and the Mayor and Governor of Oita in attendance, along with a large audience.  The piece looked wonderful in the generous space and it was fun to add the dignitaries to our line.  The line of support has stayed with me from The Casement Project.  In The Casement Project that line was mobile and linked.  I’ve tried to bring a similar fluidity and support to the line I’ve created in this Rygbi world.  It’s a line of solidarity I’d like to see increase, and to remain inclusive of possibilities for transformation.  That support for transformation and development is an aspiration I want to keep building in my work.  There was a certain amount of protocol to navigate in making our performance happen in Oita but the official response was very positive and it reminded me that the work, the dance, is what matters.  Getting all the protocol right wouldn’t have had half as much value without a compelling and engaging performance.  The performance was what changed something, brought people together, generated connection.  It’s not by accident that culture is a vehicle for diplomacy but that can only be of use, if the intrinsic value of the art is cherished, supported and facilitated.  Let the work do the work.



EFnnXcOX0AEKzePOur final performance was in the Fanzone at Yokohama, back on the grass in the open air and I loved seeing the dancers embrace, surrender to and dance with environment.  Sky, ground, water all add energy to the piece that the dancers have learned to harness.  In my introduction to the performance, I mentioned again that:


And at the very end of our Japan tour, I got to perform myself.  I had considered dancing in the piece before I started making it in July -knowing I’d add some age diversity to the cast!  But in that process, I found my role as support for the building the dancers’ readiness to give the work.  In Yokohama we were asked to do a second performance before the Wales-Australia match but the organisers couldn’t provide the space on the ground that they had for our performance earlier in the day.  So I agreed to dance a five-minute improvisation on a 3 x 12m carpeted stage space in front of the big screen and asked Faye, one of the dancers who wasn’t just about to fly to Spain, to join me.   I introduced the improvisation as a five-minute taste of the piece, and for me it was also a distillation of our experience in Japan.  It passed in a flash but it was special for me to get to express in some small way something of the energy I’ve taken from watching the dancers perform my work.  The work started with me and is now passed on to and through many other bodies.   It’s good to acknowledge the resonances of those other bodies in mine and be nourished for whatever comes next.