Sunday 23 July 2017

Dance: Survival strategies and dancing in the face of death

Inclusive choreography: Philip Connaughton
Inclusive choreography: Philip Connaughton

Chris McCormack

The truth, they say, is out there. Talking to Philip Connaughton ahead of his new dance-opera Extraterrestrial Events, the choreographer sounds like a stargazer or conspiracy theorist. The thrill lies where the worldly and otherworldly meet.

The blurry line between reality and fantasy has been Philip's obsession since he was a child. He once joined pantomime legend Maureen Potter onstage during a performance of Mother Goose at the Gaiety Theatre. Asked if he had a song, he delivered Irving King's 'Show Me the Way to Go Home'. "It's one of the events that threw me into show business," he says, smiling.

Sweet and honest, Philip paints a picture of a childhood watching Irving Berlin movies and the incandescent steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. His parents eventually signed him up for tap-dancing lessons. That led to the Rambert School of Ballet in London and then Barcelona, where he lived for 14 years.

"As I started to make my own work, I felt my references and what was important to me were intrinsically Irish," he says. "Dance in Spain is heavily influenced by flamenco, which is incredible and beautiful. But when I was asked to bring that energy, I felt it was coming from a false place. When I began making my own work, it wasn't presentational in that way".

Philip had been busily working between Barcelona and New York before taking a job at the Abbey Theatre in 2012, as dance captain on Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell's musical Alice in Funderland. That contract required him to stay in one place, but he discovered Dublin was vibrant with dance. In 2013 came his first produced work, Mortuus est Philippus, in which he used movement as an arch device to list conceivable ways of dying.

"It was just after the death of my father," he says. "I was very angry and probably in grief. Only retrospectively, I realised it was all about my own mortality."

Survival strategies are to be found throughout Philip's dances, which are frequently populated by dancers either in their underwear or naked. His 2014 work Tardigrade was inspired by the micro-animal of the same name which he found on his roof. "They're everywhere," he explains. "You probably have a couple of them on you right now. But they're very sweet."

Tardigrades can survive extreme climates, from mud volcanoes to icebergs. Philip thought it was a brilliant metaphor for hope. But his references continued to come in from far afield, including Hieronymus Bosch's orgiastic painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, a supposed warning against sensual pleasures. The production acquired nearly as many elements as there are positions in Bosch's painting, with a dog broadcasting from webcam, stilettoed singers, a string quartet and nude dancers covered in body paint.

A sensory overload may very well be the point. "That sense of never being able to fully connect with the environment around you, that happens in all of my work," he says. Extraterrestrial Events is no different, having come out of reports of UFO sightings made to the French Space Agency since the 1970s. It's the kind of material that's either out of this world or out of someone's mind.

Appropriately, Philip allowed himself to be propelled by the unknown in making it. When he received one of the Arts Council's 16x16 awards last year, awarded to promising artists, he invested it in working with collaborators who avoid easy categorisation. "You have to stop putting barriers on yourself because maybe what you want to achieve is outside that," he explains. So Extraterrestrial Events best resembles a dance-opera, featuring soprano Kim Sheehan and music composed by Michael Gallen.

Philip leafed through 446 UFO sightings reported to the French Space Agency. While they insist on something extraordinary, the language, which has been incorporated into the production's lyrics, reads as very banal. "Kim sings things like 'I took my Renault 19 for a drive. I was tying my shoelace. Then I saw something'," he says. Yet, these observations are set to transcendental music, suggesting the choreographer's empathy for those witnesses. Their claims aren't to be easily dismissed.

"It made me realise that someone's reality is as important as anyone else's," he says. He goes on to talk a little about his mother, who has dementia and whom he regularly takes care of. That might explain Philip's choreography, which is exceptionally inclusive, its reach ranging from micro-animals to people's private universes. Equally, it seems to dramatise their right to have a say. Movement in Extraterrestrial Events, for example, takes inspiration from the chorus in Greek tragedy, the individual versus the collective and the agonising result of truths not listened to.

Since Mortuus est Philippus, Philip has found some way to dance in the face of death. "There's no escaping those major events in life you have to pass through, like losing loved ones or dying yourself. You can only soften the blow."

Extraterrestrial Events runs at the Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of the Dublin Dance Festival, May 27-28

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