Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Sunday 17 February 2019

Stage - Moving together: the exciting fusion taking hold of Irish theatre

Unidentified: Oona Doherty in Arlington. Photo: Patrick Redmond
Unidentified: Oona Doherty in Arlington. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Chris McCormack

Last year, Enda Walsh was interviewed on the Royal Court Theatre's Playwright's Podcast about his play Arlington, currently at the Abbey Theatre. "I keep on thinking about The Silver Tassie," he said, referring to Seán O'Casey's World War I play, first produced in 1929.

"In the first act he introduces a realism, showing circumstances around a guy going to war. Then the second act, set in the war, f**ks it up. It's like he sticks a needle into the First World War and injects it into the form of the play, and it's all broken and shagged."

For that second act, O'Casey borrowed from the 'Expressionist' style of theatre, then making inroads from Germany throughout Europe and America, creating a nightmarish vision of men at war by weaving snatches of nursery rhymes and gospel into a Dantean horror. It's as if this devastation is beyond the realism that shaped the first act; another mode of representation is required.

Walsh chose a similar route with Arlington, which surrenders its second act to dance theatre and choreography by Emma Martin. The play may begin with a woman named Isla (Charlie Murphy) trapped in a waiting room, urged on by an observer (Hugh O'Conor) who might set her free, but the second act is a dance showing an unidentified woman (Oona Doherty) in the same circumstances pushed to breaking point. Walsh, who draws allusions to anti-immigrant and classist rhetoric by the end, clearly believes that realities of internment and displacement are worth mining by way of two art forms as opposed to just one.

Arlington is an example of how Irish theatre and dance theatre are in exciting fusion right now, using broad movements to bring (inter)national concerns to the stage, putting the 'nation' into state-of-the-nation plays. Dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban defined dance theatre, or 'Tanztheater', by "a sense of community among members of a fragmented society". That would make the unknown dancer in Arlington more than another woman living in the same circumstances as Isla; she may be a stand-in for many individuals in those depressing conditions.

Through dance, bodies can come together onstage as a campaign, a community and even a nation. Individuals or entire groups can be shown as how they move or are frozen in society.

This mightn't have been the appeal for WB Yeats. His plays for dancers, At the Hawk's Well (first staged privately in a London drawing room in 1916) and Fighting of the Waves (premièred, more audaciously, on the Abbey stage in 1929), were based on the Cúchulainn myth but lacked the social engagement that marks much dance theatre. Samuel Beckett, whose plays often include painstaking directions for actors' movement, better understood our primarily bodily experience of the world when he said: "Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order." According to Aoife McGrath in her path-finding book Dance Theatre in Ireland: Revolutionary Moves, a precedent for Irish dance theatre was set at the 1963 Dublin Theatre Festival with a visit by American choreographer Jean Erdman and her work The Coach with the Six Insides (a dance theatre adaptation of James Joyce's madly modernist novel Finnegans Wake).

That production inspired Joan Davis to join a modern-dance class and eventually co-found the Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre in 1979. Its output ranged from pieces inspired by American avant-garde Merce Cunningham to a full-blown adaptation of Ulysses. It closed in 1989 due to funding cuts but its legacy remains tangible (alumnus John Scott just celebrated the 25th anniversary of his Irish Modern Dance Theatre).

Now, dance theatre is much more visible in Ireland. In fact, some of the most ambitious approaches in 2016 came from choreographers. David Bolger's choreography for his company CoisCéim, founded in 1995, is often regarded for its humour but the company assumed a more combative role with These Rooms, a co-production with immersive theatre company ANU to commemorate the 1916 Rising. Returning to the 50th anniversary of the Rising, Bolger's movements combined 1960s rock with disturbing signs of alcoholism and trauma, summoning those who lost loved ones in an uninvestigated civilian massacre in 1916.

Since 1997, Michael Keegan-Dolan's choreography has honed in on the silences and dysfunctions of Irish social life. His latest work, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, exchanged the sorcery of Tchaikovsky's ballet for the real horrors of clerical abuse in Ireland. But it also offered relief, after a decade of agonising reports, as an ecstatic finale with feathers had some punters stamping their feet with applause.

Jessica Kennedy, co-artistic director of Junk Ensemble with Megan Kennedy, often combines absurdist visuals with forceful grappling movement. That may have made her uniquely qualified to choreograph The Circus Animals' Desertion, a phantasmagorical work by Brokentalkers based on WB Yeats's poem. Kennedy put dancers through brutal cycles of unions and separations in a production that spun the warning signs of fascism as uncannily new.

These choreographers aren't alone. From the outsiders of Liz Roche's dance theatre to the architecture-like approach of Ferghus Ó Conchúir; the nude-empowering femininity of Áine Stapleton to the Caravaggio-inspired masculinity of Oona Doherty; spectacles by circus aerialists Fidget Feet to those by circus-deconstructionist Emily Aoibheann; from Philip Connaughton's humorous reminders of mortality to the animal-like instincts of Emma Martin: Irish dance theatre is in meteoric ascent.

Arlington finishes at the Abbey Theatre tonight

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