Thursday 12 December 2019

Finding its feet: Contemporary dance in Ireland

Contemporary dance has come a long way in Ireland but the audience's fear of the unknown is still holding it back

All the right moves: Oona Doherty in 'Tundra'
All the right moves: Oona Doherty in 'Tundra'
Emma Martin

Sophie Gorman

'There is no such thing as bad dancing, we all dance and Irish people are no worse at it than anyone else, – better I think." So says choreographer Emma Martin, with admittedly a small laugh, before going on to make a very strong point about movement and our bodies and our very Irish self-consciousness. But ultimately, as she says, all dancing is about is moving to music, responding to it – even if you miss the beat.

"I particularly love watching people in nightclubs dancing, they lose their inhibitions and this natural virtuosity comes out." Apart from this sideline spying on unsuspecting nightclubbers, Emma is the dance artist in residence at the Visual Contemporary Arts Centre in Carlow. She was selected as a Modul Dance Network Artist last year and was one of four choreographers selected for DanceLines 2013 at the Royal Opera House, London. If that wasn't enough for this young Irish choreographer, she has now been chosen to open the 10th Dublin Dance Festival with the world premiere of her latest show, Tundra.

The festival, dublindance, runs for 11 days from next Tuesday and features some impressive dance and non-dance names, including the much anticipated Still Current, a collection of work by Sadler's Wells' Russell Maliphant, regarded as one of the world's leading dance creators. Catalan Sonia Sánchez will be pushing the limits of the traditional flamenco form and France's Clément Dazin will lead audiences on a poetic journey using a mix of contemporary dance, hip hop and juggling. And, in a sideways approach to dance, two Irish companies Pan Pan Theatre and Arcane Collective will be exploring Samuel Beckett.

With the honour of cutting the opening ribbons, Emma is no dance dabbler. She started studying ballet "pretty much as soon as I could walk, or that's how my memory has it. I really enjoyed it but didn't take it seriously at all until I was about 12 and my ballet teacher told me about a fantastic Russian teacher in Dublin that I should consider taking lessons with. Everything changed then and I put all my energies into begging my parents to let me go off to study dance.

"My persuading worked and I went off to study ballet in Germany when I was 15. When I graduated, I danced in a German company for a year, but then I wanted to get away from Germany, just wanted a change. So I came home and did two seasons with Ballet Ireland and then took a total break, a hiatus from dance for a couple of years."

Of course, that self-enforced break was only ever going to be temporary. Emma found a new way back to dance after that and it turned all the classical ballet strictness on its head.

"I didn't really have any contemporary dance vocabulary in my body, but I started to explore. Ballet is my first love, it has a very special place for me, but the movement I make now is quite far away from that. I think very visually and when I approach work I see it as a whole, the music, the costume, the lighting, the atmosphere, the world of it."

And Emma's visual constructs clearly strike a chord beyond just traditional dance audiences. Her last show Dogs took Best Production and Best Design awards at the 2012 Dublin Fringe Festival.

"The starting point for Tundra was thinking about how time moves in cycles.

''And then I started to look at Dante's Divine Comedy. It isn't visually heavily referenced in the piece, but I was looking at the ideas of purgatory and paradise as atmospheric tones, not as an afterlife concept but rather in our daily lives – without getting too existential about it all."

Thanks to Modul-dance, a European cooperation project involving the participation of 20 dance houses from 16 countries, Emma spent time developing the piece in Poland, Slovenia, Italy and France. And this has introduced an Eastern European element to the work, which will be enhanced by Balkan band Yurodny, who will be performing live at the Samuel Beckett Centre.

Does she consider the audience when she is creating new work? "In Ireland, we're not very fluent in the language of contemporary dance, we don't have enough exposure, which leads to an almost anxiousness at the prospect of attending a performance, fear that they simply won't understand the meaning," she says.

"And this fear can actually prevent people from taking a chance on something new – trust me, the number of people who have turned down an invitation to a dance show just because they think it's not their thing, even though they've never been to one.

"I really want to make sure that people do have a way in. I think one of the problems we have that is unique to contemporary dance is that people arrive anticipating, not understanding, so before the performance has even started they have their brain far too switched on to over-analyse everything in case they miss the secret key to it.

''Tthis can distract them from just sitting back and experiencing it, from being in it rather than outside examining every detail. Sometimes there is a traditional narrative with chapters and characters going on journeys, but often there isn't and audiences somehow need to learn not to try to read it as they would a play but maybe experience it like visual art. Just let go and see what happens. At the end of the day, contemporary dance is just human bodies on stage moving about, and we all move, we all dance."

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