I was taken aback to hear how viscerally some people responded to my performance in Galway last week. Someone described holding his breath while I danced the Mo Mhórchoir Féin solo in silence. Another commented on how it felt painful to watch but that she was compelled not look away. Both of these people said that it was easier to go from watching the live performance to watching the film.
I was presenting the live version of the film material during the Corp_Real Performance and Symposium that Ríonach Ní Néill had curated as part of the Mapping Spectral Traces conference and the Dancing Days Festival (There were a lot of partners). One focus for the conference was the relationship between body and place. I wanted to show the Mo Mhórchoir Féin material live to indicate that it existed independently of the religious context in which most people will now have seen in – whether that’s in the film or in the reworking of it as the opening and closing of Tabernacle. As I pointed out in the talk I gave as part of the symposium, the material was generated first during my residency at the Red Gate Studios in Beijing in 2009 and I experimented with it in the videos I shot in unfinished art spaces on the northern outskirts of the city. Of course there were specific and clearly potent gestures, such as the beating of the chest – ‘trí mo mhórchoir féin’, that I added for the film version of the material but I still maintain that there is an internal life to the material (and by extension to its performer) that is not overwhelmingly determined by the context in which it is viewed. While many people respond to a perceived pain in the film, I recall that as I performed it on the day, I felt happiness: I was happy to be able to be dancing in a church, to be making a space for my perspective, my existence in what might often be considered an inhospitable environment. I was happy to be staking my claim to be included.
That’s why I was taken aback by the discomfort some people felt watching the live solo. Again, I felt good about performing it. I haven’t performed live since last year and it feels good to be able to do so again, after my knee surgery and despite my getting older! Neither of the people who spoke of their own very physical reaction to watching was being critical of the piece. I think they considered it a mark of the power of the work that it could effect them in that way. However, I don’t know if I want people to feel pain – at least I don’t want them to feel pain unless it’s part of a process that eases that pain, recognising and acknowledging it, understanding it, overcoming it.
And as I reflect further maybe I should be grateful for these troubled but appreciative responses to the performance. The conflict between discomfort and pleasure suggests a complexity of response that feels like a better recognition of the conflicts that animate Mo Mhórchoir Féin and hopefully give it an internal life that matches the complexity of lived experience. In short I don’t like to be pinned down and, despite the fact that many of the assembled academics are artists in their own right, there is always a danger when a theme has been set that an art work is reduced to being an exemplar of that theme.