On an upward spiral
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Actions, choreographed by John Scott, part of the 'Re-Presenting Ireland' double-bill at Dance House. 

Photo: John Scott

On an upward spiral

Duets stole the show at showcases of new Irish contemporary dance in the first week of Dublin Dance Festival 2010, which saw dancers and choreographers mixing humour, melancholy and athleticism. 

It starts with incongruity. Why is the large cushioned sofa on the lawn? Already intrigued, we peer expectantly at the half-lit figures behind the glass screens of Aedín Cosgrove’s inventive design in the opening sequence of Junk Ensemble’s terrific show, which jump-started Dublin Dance Festival 2010.

In Five Ways to Drown choreographers Jessica and Megan Kennedy have set us up, as usual. Their penchant for site-specific work has led to a reversing of the usual position of audience and stage in Project Arts Centre, creating a sense of lives off balance. We can assume that nothing is at it seems. This energy-filled dance work, with an imaginative mix of quirky humour and melancholy, fulfills its intention of measuring the routine against the unexpected.

The dysfunctional scenario is developed in the continuation of incongruous images and moves which propel an underlying fragmented narrative: an abandoned slipper, a woman in scarlet evening dress attached to a drip, a half-papered wall, fully clothed people stepping in and out of the bathtub which is also centre stage. There is an impending sense of interrupted domesticity, of the dull beige of an ordinary life splintered and taken over by colourful swathes of incident. A series of vignettes is played out, like re-enacted snapshots from a family album or scenes from a home movie, all recording the lead up to a life-changing incident. The accordion playing of the woman in red adds to the tenor of nostalgia, while the collaboration of Broken Talkers sustains the sense of narrative, despite being enveloped in memory and illusion.

Early on in the unraveling of this family tale, dancer Lee Clayden stumbles and clatters on to the stage, one foot in a slipper, and his ensuing energetic solo is marked by wide dance moves, as he flails expansively across the stage. Meanwhile the child (an accomplished and truly athletic performance by eleven year-old Joshua Dyson) is seen complete with uniform, preparing for his cub scout badges.
As usual with Junk Ensemble there are characterful dance performances and enduring images. The Kennedy sisters and Clayden interchange as brother and sisters, father and daughters and more, with Dyson intervening as annoying brother, endearing child and versatile actor. The dancing visuals abound too: a phrase of dance sees Clayden and the Kennedys in close, elbowing, clambering moves, clustering legs around bodies, shouldering and protecting each other as if to ward off loss. Equal urgency pervades an ingenious and hilarious sequence where a trampoline replaces a more conventional ladder in tackling the unfinished wallpapering job.

Then there is the duet with the inter-venous drip and the spewing of water from the mouths of the performers in their final circle of dance, a last allusion to uisce beatha, water of life. Elusive, playful, uplifting and haunting, the ever-original Junk Ensemble were more than equal to the task of igniting this year’s festival.

More uplifting Irish presence was on show in the 'Re-presenting Ireland' double-bills. Curated by an international panel, these 'Mixed Bills, 1 and 2' showcase a range of recent work in Ireland as it emerges – in progress, in extract, in development or, in some cases, in polished work which has already been performed abroad. Solos and duets were the order of the day and choreographers and performers are clearly on an upward spiral.

The duets for the most part stole the show. In the first programme, we had a feast of a youthful quartet presenting an extract of a longer work, Handle with Care from Dance Theatre of Ireland. Dance-makers Robert Connor and Loretta Yurick’s vocabulary teems with perfectly tuned liquid gestures signalling challenge and vulnerability in relationships. We watch a permutating series of duets where the choreographers’ experience and skills seem untarnished and given fresh energy from the supple technique of their young dancers as they explore the consequences and distractions of the transforming power of love.

For sheer impact and perfection in performance, nothing could touch the athleticism and polished ease of African-American dancers Michael Snipe and Marc Mann in John Scott’s Actions. Here was lean, raw movement, a series of urgently driven lifts and falls where a humorous competitive sequence is followed by a loose and gentle phrase, or where closeness accompanied by Meredith Monk’s melodic voice is counterpointed with a return to separation. Actions brims with exuberance, and while these dancers undoubtedly could make any work shimmer, Scott has created reams of lively and coherent material for them. An even match.

Iseli and Chiodi’s beautifully wrought duet, Me Seeing You, played with performance and image in a collaboration with visual artist Elaine Hurley. The duo danced in front and at angles to dual screens where their video images moved and were manipulated as the work began to explore the concept of live performance and artifice. It was particularly apt in this showcase where all artists perform in a white space devoid of production techniques and design. Resident artists in South Tipperary, this experienced Argentinian/Swiss partnership drew us increasingly into their performance, which was offset by the almost frozen recorded images, underlining their awareness of audience interaction.

Two of the solos in the programme focussed more on internal process. In The Lightly Fragranced Solo, whose title exudes an oriental delicacy, performer Anglie Smalis slowly unfolds her body, as if wondering where she is going. Her very soft and meditative movement seemed destined for eventual take off. Maybe it was the soundscape of urban noise that created this sense of imminent departure but in conceit and improvisational practice it showed that this dance-maker - who is also artistic director of Limerick Youth Theatre - is defining that journey for herself.

Elena Gianotti has undertaken the journey already, and under the mentoring eye of influential British choreographer Rosemary Butcher she has engaged in concentrated work. An experienced international dance artist now working in Ireland, Gianotti has created a work, The Crow, that belongs to a series of solos. There are subtexts and a narrative stirring under her precise hand and body gestures, so that each tiny movement can be revealing. We watch the arms flutter, a wing span movement, one hand behind her back as she crouches and rises, another dancer ready for take off

Finally, a new solo excerpt that promises to take off in several interesting directions. This Woman/Met is by Irish dance artist, Liv O’Donoghue, who opened the first of the 'Mixed Bills', and who was also seen in Rex Levitates’ festival show. Her starting point was her soundscape, a stand-up comic routine brimming with cheap laughs and a sneering undertone regaling the shortcomings of an unconventional woman. Her authoritative presence and proportionate movement were well suited to paralleling and exploring the vulnerability of the imagined stereotypical character. There was originality of conceit and a sense of how to articulate through a personal dance vocabulary that left us wanting more.


Seona Mac Réamoinn is a dance writer for numerous publications including the Irish Times, Sunday Times and Metro.

Dublin Dance Festival continues until Sunday 23 May. Read Duncan Keegan’s festival blog here.



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