Agnes Bernelle: dancer, director, singer, spy
The extraordinary life of Agnes Bernelle, and her bitter-sweet songs about life and its trials, are celebrated in CoisCéim’s new dance show
When David Bolger of CoisCéim Dance Theatre started making a dance about the late actor and singer Agnes Bernelle he didn’t quite know what kind of piece he wanted to create. But he knew what he didn’t want to create. It wouldn’t be a sentimental tribute, a gala celebration of her artistic achievements or a biochoreography reflecting her extraordinary life. Instead he wanted to find a way to embody her recordings of bitter-sweet songs about life and its trials.
“I felt a strong need to articulate them physically,” he says. “And I wanted to offer a performance space for Agnes to come back to her spiritual home at Project Arts Centre. ”
Bernelle, who died 15 years ago, was a creative director and long-time board member of Project and performed many times at the Temple Bar venue. Her life was truly extraordinary. She had an affluent childhood in Berlin, where her father was a theatrical impresario. Then, at the age of 13, she fled to London to escape the Nazis. During the second World War she broadcast as “Vicky” on a black-propaganda radio station, sending morale-sapping misinformation to German troops. She was also the first actor to perform Salome fully nude in the West End of London.
She moved to Ireland when she married Desmond Leslie (who punched Bernard Levin on live television after he wrote a bad review of Savagery and Delight , Bernelle’s first solo show, based on songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht). After their marriage broke up she moved to Dublin, where she was active in the alternative arts scene and social movements.
“Even now I’m discovering more and more Agnes stories,” says Bolger. “The other day I learned that she entered her dog Phoebe in the Alternative Miss Ireland contest.” Phoebe came third – the only dog to ever receive such an honour.
The real Agnes Bernelle
Discovering the “real” Agnes Bernelle behind the events of such a dramatic life would seem almost impossible, but Bolger had a close relationship with her. She was his (and this writer’s) neighbour, and gave him early encouragement when he took an interest in dance and drama, taking him to shows at Project and driving him to Saturday-afternoon drama classes.
He vividly remembers her house, with its classy black-and-white tiles, wind-up telephone and gilded mirror propped against a wall. He also hasn’t forgotten, on her desk, a white leather-bound album full of photographs of her life and career.
“It was only when I flicked through that album, with photos of her as a child, on film sets or about to go on stage in Salome , that I first realised how unique she was. Her son Mark sent me some images that I remember seeing in that book. They took me right back to that sense of discovery I first had about her life and career.”