Sunday 17 December 2017

Stage: The dancing queen of the Kilkenny Arts Fest

Liz Roche joins her company on the stage of Bastard Amber
Liz Roche joins her company on the stage of Bastard Amber

Maggie Armstrong

Of all the scary female figures that have made it into fairytale and folklore (dragons, witches, vixens, harridans, evil step mothers, bluestockings), it's amazing that the ballet teacher has got off so lightly. Any little rich girl (rarely boy) who was sent to ballet classes will have etched into their memory the cold and merciless approach of these disciplinarians, and some of us (rich and poor) still shudder at the word "choreographer".

But Liz Roche, a former ballerina and renowned Irish choreographer, does not come near the stereotype. She is softly spoken and wide-eyed, with a shy nature, but she still beat formidable contemporaries like David Bolger, John Scott and Emma Martin when she became the first ever Irish choreographer to have a full-length dance piece commissioned for The Abbey. The show, Bastard Amber, a gold-lit spectacular with live music and a flying set, was attended by the president and first lady when it premiered in May at the Dublin Dance Festival, and it now repairs to the Kilkenny Arts Festival for two nights.

Liz Roche is one of the pioneers of modern dance in Ireland - a form that prefers bare feet to ribboned shoes, and exploring the body to stretching its limits. Liz left school in south county Dublin aged 15 and moved to London to pursue her ballet training in London Contemporary Dance School - a life she has described as "insanely disciplined and competitive" and "harsh on the body".

She chose a "softer road," and in 1999 established the modern dance company Rex Levitates with her sister, Jenny - now Liz Roche Company. She makes and choreographs the work, though in this show, she will also be dancing.

"It's nice to keep contact with the other performers," she says. "I like being there with everybody, going through the same frustrations to make it happen. You get the same cut on your foot as everybody gets, you've the same problem trying to work out a section, you're all there in it together."

Liz believes that modern dance was a reaction to the strict hierarchies of ballet. The new expressive art form rippled through the 20th century in the US, from Ruth St Denis' modern ballets, to the Martha Graham Company to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

"I think everything is a revolt. Contemporary dance, once of its founding principles was a sense of democracy. The choreographer was onstage with the performers, and it was a sense of a collective. All of the boundaries got crossed, they took away all of those hierarchies that you might associate with ballet."

In making Bastard Amber - an intricate narrative work guided by WB Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium and by Patrick Scott's gold paintings - Liz had to do some "hat-swapping". Because this was her baby, she was inevitably more self-critical than the other performers.

"By the end I was the one who was floundering," she says. "I was all over the place, and they were like, you need to relax. Before the audience came in I was saying, 'Maybe we could change this, it's not moving fast enough, there's something about the pace, the audience are going to get bored' or whatever. Any amount of madness would be going through your head."

In our gabby culture, boredom is certainly a concern for an art form that relies on movement, not words. In making a piece of work, Liz finds herself having to "pass through the boredom barrier" to what she describes as an almost trance-like state. "I'm quite happy to see anyone do anything really off the wall, as long as they're really committed to it. And I'm always in awe of anybody that gets up on the stage. Life is busy and I have kids, it's all very happy and everything - but for me, going into the theatre and watching things is a pure gift - the joy of having all this space to myself and having everything else blacked out."

Do her two young sons know that their mummy is a dancer, and a very good one too?

"My eldest came to see a preview of the show in The Abbey. The next morning, I was in bed, 'cause it was a show day, it was opening night, and I was furiously trying to get some sleep. He was going to school with his dad and I shouted after him, 'What did you think of the show?' and he came back and was like, 'Yeah it was good, I really like the gold. But why couldn't we have had that earlier?' I said, okay, enough of that, off to school."

So when she is with her cast, is Liz a hard taskmistress, channelling her old ballet teachers? "No, I'm absolutely lovely. I'm so nice, I'm so nice," she laughs. Is she being serious? Who can tell. We would have to hang around the pubs and winding streets of Kilkenny to find out.

See for more events. Attend a 'Byzantine Trio' for €35: 'Bastard Amber' (Watergate Theatre August 14-15) and two keynote lectures, 'The Lost Music of Byzantium' by Alexander Lingas and Yeats' 'Byzantium' by Roy Foster (Parade Tower, both Saturday 15).

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