Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Label: Bodies and buildings

June 01, 2014

Bodies in Urban Spaces at the Dublin Dance Festival

I’ve been aware of Cie. Willi Dorner‘s Bodies in Urban Spaces project for a number of years as it’s been a fixture in dance festivals across the world and videos of its various iterations have provided eye catching and arresting images of dancers squeezed into the crevices of urban space. My own research in the relationship between bodies and rapidly changing urban infrastructure recognises a kinship in Dorner’s project. It was fascinating for me to see my first live version of Dorner’s choreography (though he calls the assemblies of bodies ‘sculptures’) in Dublin, as part of this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, where I did so much of my own bodies and buildings work.
The route of Dorner’s performance started at the corner of the Lir Theatre, on the edge of the Docklands and brought the carefully marshalled crowd on a back street route towards Merrion Square, Stephen’s Green and St Patrick’s Cathedral, discovering surprising arrangements of dancers in brightly coloured clothing (mostly hooded in a way that diminished individuality. In fact I read one of the dancer’s comment on a picture of her on Facebook that it was a pity that her face was visible.). The vocal delight and wonder of the many children in the crowd was particularly enjoyable to witness, as it expressed out loud much of what I felt: ‘Wow!’. One young girl, on seeing a dancer suspended between a wall and a signpost, told her mother: ‘I’m going to so that at home – on my bed.’
Of course adults and children might have had different reference points for these arrangements of bodies. I overheard one man on seeing a dancer splatted against a corner: ‘Erotic or disturbing? I’m not sure’.


The dancers with their bright colours and athletic anonymity sometimes reminded me of superheroes who’d lost their bearings.
I loved that near the end of our route, a group of boys in bright hoodies noticed a sculpture of bodies, inspected it and followed the crowd to the next arrangement. Seeing them run and cycle alongside us, I felt the choreography had expanded to include them in a way that reminded me of the effect of Keep Walking in our E.motional Bodies and Cities work: the choreographic structure that is introduced can provide a lense for seeing a bigger choreography beyond it.


I was aware that there were elements of the wider choreography that irritated me. Travelling in a big group required marshalling for the purposes of health and safety and also to keep the performance moving along so as to allow the dancers to keep moving on to the next sculpture. Some of the marshals managed to do their job effectively and with good humour. Others were a bit more hectoring in tone in a way that diminished my enjoyment. It reminded me that that experience of the choreography is not just in the performance but in the often impossible-to-control contextual elements that become constituent to and not just framing of the experience. There were times when I felt I was in a tour group being directed by the tour leader to get my tourist shot of the designated ‘photo-worthy’ view. We were encouraged to photograph Dorner’s sculptures but also hurried on with an assumption that a photograph of the image was all the experience to be had. I appreciate that the physical demands on the performers and the pacing of the whole experience meant that they couldn’t hold those positions indefinitely. But being able to see the effort involved, to see the tiring of the dancers bodies as they jogged ahead of us to make the next sculpture were important elements of the live experience for me, reminding us that the delightful spectacle has a cost and impact on individual bodies with differing resources and capacities. What I would have wished is to be able to discover and consider these corporal interventions rather than be guided in a group to glimpse them.

It’s a testimony to Dorner’s concept and execution and to the dancers’ stamina that the work still manages to surprise.

July 24, 2009

Toyo Ito: An architect for individuals

“I sometimes feel that we are losing an intuitive sense of our own bodies,” Mr. Ito lamented at one point during my visit. “Children don’t run around outside as much as they did. They sit in front of computer games. Some architects have been trying to find a language for this new generation, with very minimalist spaces. I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body.”

“The in between,” he added, “is more interesting to me.”

Nicolai Ourousoff’s essay in the New York Times on Japanese architect Toyo Ito caught my attention because it contrasts the ‘unassuming’ Ito to the ‘diva’ Zaha Hadid and ‘intimidating’ Rem Koolhaas. The essay paints

Looking for a way forward Mr. Ito was drawn to the work of Kazuo Shinohara, a vocal critic of the Metabolists who believed that if architecture could change the world at all, it would do so not by promoting radical social visions but by creating small, modest spaces to nurture and protect the individual spirit. His houses, mostly build it in the 1960s and 1970s, were conceived as private utopias, with delicate interiors supported by muscular concrete pillars that seemed designed to resist the outside pressures of a corrupting society.

But eventually this vision seemed as limiting … and Mr. Ito would locate his architecture in the space between two extremes: the social idealism of late Modernism and the inwardness of Shinohara’s work.

Much as I am a guardian of the individual spirit and an advocate for the protected spaces that nurture that spirit, I acknowledge the need to connect individuals through their idiosyncrasy. I’ve been imagining how we could create public spaces which support people to be alone with themselves – among others. Perhaps it’s something like a cloister where there is traffic and passage but which have a contemplative quality that allow people to reflect and revive.

I guess I was also attracted by the comparison drawn between Ito’s latest design for a new opera house in Taichung and a choreography that acknowledges the complex contradictory quality of humanity.

The sense of inside and out, of stillness and motion, becomes a complex, carefully composed dance.

It is a striking vision, as beautiful as anything built in the past decade. And it sums up Mr. Ito’s philosophy about both architecture and life, about the need to accommodate the many contradictions that make us human.

July 17, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: We opened

Owners came, friends came (having painted walls in the tower while rain seeped down them), a mayor spoke. Dan and his son, Zach, wore linen suits.

We gave Caroline flowers to thank her for joining us on the journey. We had a big marquee and Irish music. There were queues of people to make it to the viewing platform. I had to breath deeply when I couldn’t turn on the power and Dan couldn’t turn on the power. But Zach saved the day with the rhetorical question: ‘Shouldn’t that be plugged in?’

And here’s how it all began and ended up. Footage from our very first visit to Skerries and from the day of the opening.

Tattered Outlaws of History / Public Arts Project from Fingal Arts on Vimeo.

July 14, 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Braving the elements, indoors

Even though I am used to the vagaries of Irish weather, when you organise an indoor event for the middle of July, you don’t expect that torrential rain will be a problem. I arrived in Skerries today to start the preparations for the opening of Tattered Outlaws of History on Thursday. When we opened the door in to the tower it was clear that the drips and dampness we’d had to contend with in the past had escalated to extensive leaks that didn’t bode well for our system of electrical wiring and fancy plasma screen set up. More heavy showers are forecast for the next few days.

Fortunately, the water damage was mostly on the perimeter of the first floor, leaving the place where the screens will go relatively dry. We installed the TVs and covered them for the night with plastic shrouds. I know the electricity works so if they survive tonight, Dan and I will test them more fully tomorrow.

They keep you on your toes, these buildings. But returning to them, I feel very happy that they are part of my physical memory now. I’ve been rain-soaked, sunburned and wind-buffeted on them; I’ve rubbed my skin on their stone, slid on the tussocks of grass that have survived in their cracks. I know what the towers feel like and how they dance.

June 11, 2009

Beijing Parkour – making sense of Beijing

The Goethe institute in China has published a pamphlet called Beijing Parkour, assembling a series of maps and elevations of various districts in Beijing that together creatively revisioning space in the way that Parkour encourages.

The pamphlet contains an interview with Michael Kahn-Ackermann. He was an exchange student in Beijing in the seventies and returned there as director of the Goethe Institute in China in 2006.

In the interview, conducted by Shi Jian and Cui Qiao, the institute’s Commissioner for Cultural Programs, Kahn-Ackermann discusses his own cross-cultural experiences:

Cui Qiao: What do you think Beijing is lacking?
MKA: Beijing lacks – I’m not sure what it’s called in Chinese, but it’s the urban atmosphere of a major metropolis. Beijing has it all except for that particular atmosphere of its own. Shanghai can’t compare to Beijing in many respects, and from a cultural perspective Shanghai is a desert, but it has that atmosphere, which you can sense if you’re walking around. Beijing’s problem is not one of size but one of space. It’s empty, regardless of the area you’re talking about.
SJ: Not the notion of emptiness in traditional Chinese culture, but geniune emptiness.
MKA: Pure emptiness.
SJ: There’s no urbanity.
MKA: Right, no urbanity. I feel that the fundamental issue is that old Beijingers have a sense of mission. In the 70s, Beijingers could still feel that it was “my Beijing” – they “administered” the city; sure, they way they administered it was not by demonstrating, not like the citizens of metropolises in the west, where if you want to put up a tall building, a crowd will form immediately in opposition. Not that type, but it still was absolutely an identification with the city. No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission: this is my city, this is the city I want, this is where I was born, where I grew up, and I will die in this city. Today, because of Beijing’s changes, that sense of mission is gone: these changes have nothing to do with me, I’m someone whose life has been transformed, entirely involuntarily. I feel that this is not a problem unique to Beijing, it’s shared by all of China’s major cities.

What interests me here is the sense that the physical transformation of the city has deprived its residents of the means to identify with their environment. Kahn-Ackermann doesn’t quite explain the difference between earlier change (‘No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission.’) and this more recent phase of development that has rendered the city empty, even as it is full of gargantuan building projects. Is it the scale of this latter development, that bears no relation to human proportions, that is so alienating?

I’m still flummoxed by the huge towers in the Central Business District. I can rarely find the entrance. Intending to join a friend for drinks in the China Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt in Guomao, I spent a half hour trying to locate the building when I was just across the road from it and another ten minutes pacing the perimeter of the building trying to find the entrance which, in case you need, is on the inside of the building complex. I just don’t know how to read these constructions.


May 07, 2009


In the morning I hear firecrackers and late in the evening too. It puzzles me as I don’t know of any festivals going on at the moment. I asked my composer friend why people are setting of firecrackers and he explained that in the villages people set off firecrackers to celebrate the completion of various stages of construction: the foundations, the walls, the roof. Each stage is also an opportunity to invite the neighbours to a celebratory meal. So in this culture, each house is also an exercise in community building. A wall can bring people together as well as separate them.

The frequency of the firecrackers in this small village suggests that the building boom hasn’t stopped here.

April 16, 2009

Tattered Outlaws test installation

I arrived in Skerries yesterday to see what our installation of twelve Tattered Outlaws films look like. From the Skerries tower you can see the Martello Tower on Shenick’s Island, so I’m reminded straight away that however solitary each tower seems, it is an echo of another tower. It is part of a family that share a structural DNA, however the vagaries of history may have shaped its members in different ways.

We’ve persuaded the council to clean out the layers of bird droppings from the tower but it’s still a rough environment with scaffolding supporting the rotting ceiling and floor.

Dan has been working with Pickle to install the screens, stairs and viewing platform so that when I arrive, I can climb from the gloom of the ground floor to the viewing platform and be dazzled by the unexpected brightness of screens. Dan has designed such an elegant and simple construction that the screens seem to grow out of the damp floor like high-tech mushrooms. That’s a good thing.

It was wonderful to be able to show the work to a variety of people today: for many the excitement of the project lies in the opportunity to be inside the towers and to see what the other towers look like. It occurred to be that the towers are a bit like the areas subconscious – a repository of stories with not quite understood associations, present but mysterious. Reading the towers as an unconscious helps me make sense of the place of the dancing bodies on the towers. I think the movement can communicate the less rational associations of the towers, their strangeness and the permission they, as outlaw buildings, give people to shelter the outlaw aspects of their consciousness.

We’ve had to dismantle the installation now to protect the screens from damp and damage until July when the exhibition opens properly. There are still jobs to do, as Dan’s list suggests, but we know it can work.

January 16, 2008

Fox on Foley Street

What I see are the passing people, the separate place where Stéphane dances, the bare trees that are being cut down, the new apartment buildings, the hoardings around new construction.

What I hear is the sound of timber boards and jack-hammers and one strong bird whose whistle momentarily defeats the mechanical music.

What I know is that the blob under the tree is a concentration of Bernadette energy and that Stéphane is fighting the inhospitable cold and yet the fight, vulnerable and strong, moves me.