Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist
January 28, 2024

Heaney dancing

What a poet can establish in the act of writing a poem is something a reader can get from the completed work, that is a realisation that as persons and as peoples we can get further into our selves and farther out of ourselves than we might have expected; and this is one of the ways that poetry helps things forward.

Seamus Heaney “Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain”, Finders Keepers p. 377

Heaney’s work resonates with many people. My particular connection is not only through the poems learned, parsed and analysed in primary school and secondary school (the “poppy bruise” on his dead brother’s temple imprinted itself on my memory). But through Heaney’s time as Professor of Poetry at Oxford while I was a student there. I didn’t study Heaney as part of my course – nothing quite so contemporary in our survey of English Language and Literature. But Heaney was a good friend of my Old English tutor, poet, Corkman and gentle saviour, Bernard O’Donoghue. I think that’s why as Professor of Poetry, Heaney became an honorary fellow of my college, Magdalen. And I remember being invited to an honorary lunch on his appointment. I have no epiphany or personal revelation to report in being so close to literary greatness. It didn’t help me gain access to his oversubscribed lectures and indeed by the time Heaney’s professorship finished in Oxford in 1994, I was already completing my first year as a dance student at LCDS.

So it’s in retrospect and at a distance that I appreciate this proximity and the many aspects of Heaney’s reflections – on Irishness, in Britain, on art’s navigation of personal and cultural identity, on the responsibility of art to impulses that aren’t about contemporary politics – that help me make sense of what I experienced in Oxford, and that I continue to work on as an artist today.

In the quote from “Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times”, I can easily substitute dance for poetry (another poet, Thomas McCarthy, told an event at the Firkin Crane in Cork that dance and poetry emerged together in the rhythmic songs and movements performed or expressed around campfires by our ancestors). I may quibble with Heaney’s valorisation of forward movement: it’s perhaps inevitable in the progression of the poetic line (though rhyme so often takes us back in poems as much as forward, with its echoes of the past), while dance can go forward and back, progress sideways, upwards and downwards. But mostly I’m heartened by the combined aspiration of deeper inwardness and farther beyond ourselves, through others that his prescription for artistry proposes.

September 10, 2023

Art of Sport – Artists’ Talk at the Butler Gallery

It’s an honour and frankly a buzz to have Abú be presented in the Art of Sport exhibition, curated by Anna O’Sullivan, at the Butler Gallery as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival this year. The exhibition features beautiful work by a range of major international artists from Ireland and abroad, including Paul Pfeiffer, Julian Opie, Amelia Stein, Colm McAthlaoich, Dorothy Cross, Mandy O’Neill and Martin Parr. To have our dance work there, presented with impact on specially constructed screens and with Murli’s music filling the gallery, is testimony to the ability of dance to resonate with a wide range of audiences and in the most refined of artistic contexts. I’m also pleased to be able to show that work that’s created out of sensitive local and specific engagement can take its place in a global cultural conversation. Hurray for Abú and everyone who helped make it.

Anna O’Sullivan hosted an Artists’ Talk with Colm McAthlaoich, Mandy O’Neill and me as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. I enjoy these talks when artists find unexpected connections between their different approaches, and when audiences offer new perspectives on what we’ve made and so it proved for me on this occasion too.

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August 11, 2023

Step Up 2023

Five dancers pose with cheeky smiles in front of a blackboard that reads Welcome Step Up

As the first phase of Step Up 2023 comes to an end this week, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a curator of the programme. Step Up was established as a partnership between the Arts Council, Dance Ireland, Dance Limerick and the Irish World Academy as a way to introduce to the dance community in Ireland dancers from the country who, at that point of necessity, would have had their dance training abroad. Trained in schools in the UK and across Europe, the risk was that generations of dance talent would establish their networks abroad and never connect with the vibrant dance community and its audiences in Ireland. The programme has had a variety of curators over the years, each bringing their own perspectives and responding to the changing needs of dance. When I became curator in 2021 at the invitation of Jenny Traynor, then director of Dance Limerick where Step Up has been mostly based, I wanted to underline again the founding intention of Step Up to be a project that would connect early career dance professionals in and from Ireland to the community there. I use the language of ‘early career professionals’ deliberately since not everyone who is entering the profession is graduating from conservatoires and I want Step Up to be an opportunity for all kinds of dancers for all kinds of backgrounds. It’s been fascinating to find talented applicants who have maintained self-directed dance training alongside other studies or who have come through dance styles and backgrounds that don’t necessarily get validated in contemporary dance training. I don’t assume that applicants will be young, since I want to hold open the possibility that people might be discovering dance and could enter the professional world at any age. And ‘professional’ is an important word, since we expect applicants to have trained – whether formally or informally – to a level where the are able to work professionally. But with that expectation of the dancers, I worked with Jenny to ensure that the dancers would now be paid for their work in the programme. Even though Step Up is a professional development opportunity, there will be people who could never take up such an opportunity if their time wasn’t paid for. And as professionals they deserve to be paid professionally.

Soft focus photo of four dancers seen from chest up in grey tone costumes against a black background

It has also been important for me that Step Up offers early career professionals the chance to focus on being performing artists. The funding system in Ireland has tended to prioritise creative artists in a way that has incentivised performers to make work rather than see performing as a viable skill, craft and art that can be deepened and enriched with experience and opportunity. I’ve wanted to underline that contributing the performer’s art to the creative process makes work better for choreographers, audiences and other participants. That’s not to say that the dancers who have taken part in Step Up over the years haven’t also had choreographic practices that should be encouraged and developed. But I’m proposing that Step Up is a place to dancers to practice their skills as performers, in creation and in performance.

An instagram screenshot of five dancers in earth tone outfits standing in a river with their heads and hair dipping in the water.

One of the skills that I’ve found valuable in performers that I’ve worked with over the years is an understanding of the context in which they are dancing. Some aspects of the performer’s life can encourage us to think of it as separate from other parts of society. We can often find ourselves making work in closed studios, meeting audiences at the end of processes and sometimes only sensing those audiences as presences in the dark beyond the glare of stage lights. I realise that this is not the case for the kind of work that many artists want to make but it can be a default approach in the way we’re trained for our work. Therefore I’ve tried to use Step Up as an opportunity for the dancers to learn about working in a particular context. With my choreography last year, our goal was to understand the supporters and players of Gaelic games, especially in Limerick where Step Up was based. And this year, with the choreographer Maria Nilsson Waller, the focus was on the river Shannon and the flow of life around it. Both projects asked the dancers to connect with local communities as inspiration, creative informants and ultimately as audiences – engaging with people in this more rounded exchange that shifts what can sometimes be a passive one-way audience relationship.

In both instances the creative process has invited the dancers out of the studio, asking them to adapt to dancing in different physical and social environments, developing a sensitivity that has an impact on physicality and performance quality. It’s important for me that dancers understand the value of their choice to dance in the world but unless we are brave enough to interact with the world around us in ways that allow direct input and feedback, then we don’t get to learn that value. I’ve seen the impact on dancers of finding why dancing matters to them and why it matters that they dance in this world. It changes how they show up in performance on stages and off, perhaps giving a confidence or at least a clarity of knowing why they are dancing. It’s that clarity and knowledge that I seek for myself and that I hope Step Up, under my curation and with the team that enables the programme, helps the dancers to find for themselves.
Four dancers in grey tone costumes against a back background.  Arms raised with bodies upright and twisting in motion

Congratulations to the Step Up 2023 dancers – Ben, Fionnuala, Ghalia, Jessie, and Saoirse – , to Maria and her collaborators, to the teachers who shared not only their dancing but their life experience, to Mufutau and Finola who led brilliant masterclasses on the Ultima Vez and German Tanztheater repertories, to the Dance Limerick team, to Ella as producer and Lucia as lynchpin and rehearsal director and to all the people who shared their ideas and support with the project this year. Step Up 2023 isn’t finished yet but it’s had a great start.

Thanks to Dance Limerick and photographers Maurice Gunning, Stace Gill and @iaramphotos for the photographs

April 28, 2023

Some signs are secret, some manifest

This week in the STAC Chapel in Clonmel, I had a public “artists’ conversation” with Austin McQuinn a visual artist and performance maker. Austin’s solo show at the South Tipperary Arts Centre STAC is entitled Some signs are secret, some manifest and features a large sculptural work that resembles a Norman tower but covered in hundreds of Aran sweaters sewn together into a single enveloping piece, as well as paintings/collages made on, and in relation to, found often discarded prints.
Abstract image with pen and ink and cerise wash cascading out of the frame
Some of the prints are of religious scenes (Austin retains the titles of the original prints even if the images are completely transformed by his intervention) but most are images from the Victorian war painter Elizabeth Thompson, who became Lady Butler in Bansha, Co. Tipperary. Austin’s work often engages with found materials.

As well as the painting and sculpture, Austin makes live performance and when I met him today he had completed a 24 hour performance, Imperial Lunatic, in the STAC Chapel, which was formerly the garrison chapel of the Kickham Barracks. Chalk from his performance was still visible on the floor in front of us. It was in that chapel, before the barracks was redeveloped as a civic space for Clonmel that I met Austin after a long hiatus, when he came to see me perform Unreeling in the Tipperary Dance Platform, in 2021. Seeing him in the audience before the performance that day, I recognised how Unreeling and all my dancing is a celebration of having survived our shared history, some of which relates to being gay boys in an Irish boarding school in the 80s. I appreciated his presence at the performance as an act of support and solidarity and so I was delighted to be invited back to the same chapel that had since held his solo performance to talk about our histories, our futures, our inspirations and our routes to working expressively through our bodies.

The conversation covered a lot of territory but I was often drawn to the fact that we were pointing to places in the space where significant events happened: I pointed to where he was sitting when I performed, he gestured to where elements of his recent performance happened, we could locate where we spoke after the show. The space was charged with these memories that are presences now as real as the chalk that still marked the floor, presences that claim space alongside the official military and religious narratives in the chapel’s history. We, as many others have and will, are making different stories and experiences material in the chapel and in ourselves, working with histories that have been lived through us but that exceed us as individuals.

I’m grateful for the opportunity this encounter and re-encounter has provided me to think about the path we’ve traveled so far, so that I can see a little more clearly why it matters so much to me to keep dancing myself and to keep making dancing possible for others.