Contemporary Dance on the Move
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E-MOTIONAL Bodies & Cities is an EU funded two-year mobility and artistic exchange dance programme gathering artists and managers from six European countries – Romania, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia, United Kingdom, and Turkey. The Irish partners are Dublin Dance Festival, Dance Ireland and associate partner the University of Limerick.

Dance Ireland is a core partner in Modul-dance, a pan-European project involving 22 dance houses from 15 countries.

Main image: Fearghus Ó Conchúir and Xiao Ke in Dialogue. Photo: Gustavo Thomas

Aoife McAtamney and Nina Vallon's Egg Parade

Liv O'Donoghue's Prompted Breathless. Photo: Luca Truffareli

Emma Martin's Dogs. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Fearghus Ó Conchuir's Tabernacle. Photo: Jonathan Mitchell

Contemporary Dance on the Move

Christine Madden explores international opportunities and mobility for Irish dance professionals and discovers that the Irish dance sector is leaping across the international stage, looking out across country borders for opportunities abroad.

When choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir was collaborating with conceptual artist Xiao Ke in China, he made an astonishing observation. While the two of them were on stage, he leapt and dashed into all corners of the stage, trying, in his Western way, to fill the space with his presence. He noticed, however, that Xiao hardly shifted at all, making very small movements.

For her Eastern way of thinking, he explained, “we’re all a part of nature, so she’s already connected with everything. Her small movements rippled out, already connected to the space.”

The image vividly symbolises the balance Irish dance professionals are currently attempting to achieve. More and more, as economic uncertainties force public funding for the arts into a trickle, the Irish dance sector is leaping across the international stage, looking out across country borders for opportunities abroad. In the meantime, they fervently seek to maintain their energy and power of communication at home, and send ripples out into the Irish performing arts sector.

There’s nothing really new about this, as Ó Conchúir notes. Because of the lack of professional dance education opportunities in Ireland, most dancers have been forced to go abroad to find training – and traditionally, many have remained there. The boom years made returning home to Ireland possible, which enabled the development of a vibrant dance sector. What has changed is the urgency and degree of necessity in seeking partners abroad.

Ó Conchúir and other dance professionals, such as Liz Roche and John Scott, and Robert Connor and Loretta Yurick of Dance Theatre of Ireland, have been very active in creating contacts abroad and working together with international partners. But also up-and-coming artists such as Liv O’Donoghue, Emma Martin, Aoife McAtamney and Charlotte Spencer are making the most of their funding by pairing it with international programmes and opportunities. “Dance has a great advantage over other arts forms,” acknowledges Elisabetta Bisaro, Artistic Programme Manager of Dance Ireland. “There’s no language barrier. It makes it easier to be mobile. And being mobile is a necessity at the moment.”

egg_parade_small.jpgEmerging choreographer Aoife McAtamney, for example, came across her current creative partner, Frankfurt-based  Nina Vallon five years ago. Increasing contact over the years led to a currently on-going residency in Frankfurt with a full-length performance in Dublin in the coming year

“That type of connection is the way forward,” asserts Scott. “And it doesn’t happen in a night. It’s about finding niches, making contacts.” The scale of Scott’s mobility, which encompasses making work in Dublin and New York, and performances and professional collaborations Europe and North America, “wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago.”

LIV_prompted_small-(2).jpgA new aspect increasing the prospects of mobility is the fact that not only Irish arts are wincing in the pinch of economic downturn. Performing arts sectors in other countries are being pared down, with dance professionals everywhere seeking greener fields. North America was a “big focus” initially, says Paul Johnson, chief executive of Dance Ireland, which has consistently created and maintained relationships with dance houses and organisations abroad and facilitated strategic exchanges in New York, Boston, Vermont, Philadelphia and Canada. Recently, however, the connections with the US have “hit a wall”, as O’Donoghue says, so she and other Irish dance professionals are looking to Europe for sustenance. And what they’ve found are pivotal initiatives to promote dance and enable professional relationships to exist across borders and produce new work.

Programmes such as Modul-dance, E-Motional Bodies and Cities and Tour d’Europe des Chorégraphes are providing ready-made networks for their participants. Programmes such as these require a participating organisation or dance house in the respective countries to form a network. Luckily, with the now nearly six-year-old Dance House and its excellent resources, Ireland can partake in  these programmes as well as other collaborations and partnerships.  As a result, Irish dance artists can avail of development and performance opportunities in a number of similar dance houses across Europe.

EMN_main1-(1).jpgO’Donoghue, for example, will be taking advantages of Modul-dance to make her Arts Council bursary go further in creating a new piece exploring the duality of her Irish-Norwegian heritage. She also took part in E-Motional Bodies and Cities. Building on her recent success at the Dublin Fringe with Dogs, Martin, who was recently chosen to take part in the Modul-dance programme, will use that together with her residency in Carlow to support a new piece about pan-European folklore. After visiting each of the five participating countries with Tour d’Europe, Spencer was offered residencies in two of the places she visited, Hamburg and Grenoble.

The connections represent a win-win situation for everyone involved. Dance organisations in different countries can pool their dwindling means to pull things together. “Utilising space and resources in other countries makes it possible to see the work through,” explains O’Donoghue. And travel and international exchange increases the visibility of Irish dance wherever artists work and perform. The resulting productions then have the opportunity to be seen not only in Ireland but also in other countries as the work is picked up by local venues as well as international presenters and festivals.

Tabernacle-4--photo-by-Jonathan-Mitchell--(1).jpgMaking the most of resources also necessitates the need for "balance, how you can connect, and what the Irish part of all that was," says Ó Conchúir, who conducted much of the work for his recent piece Tabernacle in Poland through Modul-dance. “There’s one kind of mobility when you’re running around, always in an airport,” he explains. There’s another kind, where you learn from people and exchange with them. This second kind of mobility is important, because I’m in a position to ask questions: what I’m doing, what’s important to what I’m doing now.”

Not only the artists themselves are working on stratagems to make the money go further. Culture Ireland has been active in pursuing a “two-pronged” policy to assist them in finding career opportunities that are in short supply at home, says Christine Sisk, CI’s chief executive officer. As well as showcasing work both in Ireland (for example, RePresenting Ireland  a collaboration with Dublin Dance Festival and Dance Ireland) and abroad (at events such as the Edinburgh Festival and the Tanzmesse in Düsseldorf), Culture Ireland also assists dance artists when they then get the opportunity to travel. Choreographers such as Scott and Roche, both of whom were chosen by the Tanzmesse to present their work there in August, had their work picked up by presenters. The policy has been so successful, says Sisk, that their key partner, Dance Base in Edinburgh, asked “what we could advise for Scotland”.

Economic woes and uncertainty are ironically pulling at least this element of Europe back together instead of apart. Supports for dance artists are there for the taking, and bring with them enormous creative and professional advantages. For those new to finding opportunities and support, Dance Ireland is a great place to start. Scour the Internet (such as sites for The Place and the European Dancehouse Network), “do the research, apply for stuff,” suggests O’Donoghue. But it’s a long game. “For every 10 e-mails you send out, you might get one back.” And although you might be lucky enough to experience instant success, contacts generally need to be nurtured over several years before a relationship bears fruit.

Other recommendations for creating international opportunities and connections include attending festivals and conferences – including the upcoming IETM conference, which will conveniently take place in Dublin in April 2013. And, Sisk suggests, “make DVDs, talk to people. Dancers need to be seen to be understood and appreciated.”

Particularly – but not only – because the funding situation for artists is currently so bleak, the example of international collaboration can light the way forward. “This is a really vital move for most emerging artists now,” asserts Martin, “Ireland won’t be able to sustain making the work that needs to be made. We need to get out there in Europe, creating work in Europe and not just in Ireland.”

Christine Madden is an Irish journalist, critic and dramaturg currently based in Berlin and Munich


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