Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist
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.

February 04, 2023

Tearmann Aiteach/ Queer Sanctuary research

A woodland setting in late autumn.  Many leaves on the ground.  Two pale skinned long limbed figures are intertwined on the left hand side, their bodies naked except for black briefsThanks to a residency opportunity from Dance Ireland, Isabella and I have spent a couple of weeks of research together at Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig. We applied for the residency time to deepen an investigation of how two queer dance artists in Ireland choreograph new arrangements and interactions of their bodies beyond the familiar patterns of heterosexual or homosexual desire. We also wanted to keep investigating what presentation formats would best support an audience to engage with the choreography.

It’s almost twenty years since I first visited the Tyrone Guthrie Centre when I attended a Dublin Fringe Festival workshop called Thread (a forerunner of the current Make artist development programme). The workshop brought together artists of different disciplines among whom were filmmaker Oonagh Kearney, composers Julie Feeney, George Higgs and Áilís Ní Riain, theatre-maker Jason Byrne and actor Dónal Toolan. It was from work that I started there with Jason and Julie that Cosán Dearg subsequently grew and I’ve continued to have a sense of kinship with the other artists as they’ve developed their singular creative careers. (Dónal’s death in 2017 was a huge loss to the arts and to disability rights in Ireland).

It may seem superfluous to refer to this history, but I am increasingly aware of how much of my experience of people and places I carry with me when I dance. And I want to recognise and also honour those experiences, especially when I return to a location, where the energies of previous visits, crossings and connections offer a potent material to work with. Dancing is liveness – aliveness – and when I dance now, I am dancing as I am, mindful of the experiences – conscious and unconscious, physical, emotional, historical and environmental – that shape that sense of the dancing I am. Tearmann Aiteach is a project that creates space for that engagement with the I am, the I that is being created, with the more that I that has created it and with the other than I it might be and could become. Tearmann Aiteach/Queer Sanctuary is a space for transformation, for the becoming of other possibilities, recognising the material that I and we bring into the dance sanctuary.

The we is important because the space Isabella and I are creating is one that happens between us, made possible because of some physical resonance between us that isn’t dependent on a long history of working together. In fact our two weeks in Annaghmakerring have been the longest stint we’ve spent together. Until now we’ve built our performance on the lightest of interaction between our separateness. We’re drawing on the resonance between the solos I made for each of us (and in Isabella’s case remotely via Zoom) and to which audiences at Uilinn drew our attention. Having layered those solos on top of each other for our performances at Originate in the Dublin Dance Festival and in John Scott’s Dancer from the Dance Festival, we are encouraged by audiences that have been willing to follow us in the space of possibility that our dancing is trying to make and maintain. And though I initiated the solos, what happens now is a shared endeavour between Isabella and me, and between us and the collaborators and audiences we are drawing into the experience.

Fearghus and Isabella selfie after a swim in the lake seen behind them.  They're under a tree.  He's wearing a blue hoodie and smiling,  She's wearing a bikini top and has a hand raised to her short hair. The sunlight is shining in their faces
While not aiming for a homogenous physical aesthetic between us, it was good for us to gain a deeper understanding of our similarities and difference so that we can support one another more effectively in the ongoing work. Part of the benefit of Tyrone Guthrie was the physical environment where we could explore the stimulus provided by a natural environment – by forest, field and especially the lake. Swimming in the lake offered us a bracing physical experience that activated our bodies and released unexpected creative possibilities. Being in the lake was also a useful metaphor for our work: our daily swim (for me more of a dip) became part of a practice shared together, a challenge, but also a reward, something we did differently but together, something where our separateness was contained by the lake with its thrills and danger, something which occasionally inspired others as our fellow residents joined us, made confident by our presence and example. In this way, working between the comfortable studio and the readily accessible outdoors allowed us to integrate embodied reflection on the interface between human and non-human life under the rubric of queer sanctuary.

The company of other artists at TGC gave us an opportunity to share our practice as performance. The opportunities we took to invite others into the process highlighted the importance of performing as part of the deepening of the practice and research, rather than as a single end-point and destination. And as a result it indicates that the future of the work lies in expanded formats that are anchored and energised by performance and invite exchange. With a residency at Dance Limerick in January and an opportunity to present work at What Next in Limerick in February, we have come from this period of residency with a strong choreographic structure that we already know engages audiences. All of this is hugely beneficial, especially at a time when, thanks to my role on the Arts Council, conventional project-based resources are not available to us. The restriction however has allowed us to develop this work slowly, sustainably and pleasurably without some of the market-driven responsibilities of the project-funded approach. That sidestepping of the market doesn’t mean introspection however. Our aspirations for Tearmann Aiteach are to create shared spaces for flourishing and we’ll continue to develop those aspirations whenever we can. Performing in the studio at Annaghmakerrig for some of the other residents opened the sanctuary. We are starting to think about a format for sharing the sanctuary, a residency, a practice, performance, for queer-identifying artists and for others happy to enter that space of queering.

If it’s something you’d be interested to hear more about, do ask. We’re looking for the practical structures and partnerships that could support that space.

October 29, 2022

Augmenting and filtering – Paris

I visited Paris in September to attend the celebrations for the Centre Cultural Irlandais‘ 20th Anniversary. Image of a dark courtyard with figures walking through smoke.  The sky above is lit with blue lasers

The following day, as part of Journées Éuropéenes du Patrimonie – similar to Open House weekends elsewhere – I visited some of the buildings in the 5eme near the CCI, including the Mairie du 5eme. The city/district hall sits to one corner of the Panthéon and has all the neoclassical grandeur of the building project to which it and the Panthéon belong. Finding myself alone in the expansive Salle des Fetes, I couldn’t help but celebrate with a little dance. I’m familiar with placing my dancing in relation to urban architecture, using dance to explore what’s possible for a body in these spaces. And I’m familiar with sharing videos online of this work. inviting others into the often solitary dance experiences. What’s different about this video posted as an Instagram reel, is that I used one of the standard filters – Pixie – that adds a sparkle to the image and, though this video doesn’t foreground it, a little eyeliner to human faces. The filter adds a glamour to the image, not out of keeping with the opulent surroundings. It also creates a space on Instagram that’s different from the one in which I danced and even the one I made by framing my dancing on the cameraphone video. This augmentation is supplemented by the sound of Shahab Coohe playing the shantoor on a track with the band Tulca. I met Shahab during a previous residency at CCI and enjoyed dancing to his improvisations very much. Music, physical and digital environment, movement all combine in this short dance to create something I’d like to investigate further.

July 26, 2022

Abú – What people said

Thanks to Rachel Sheil, we got to hear some of the things people said about the Abú performances at UL and Ahane GAA pitch.