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

Fri, Mar 14, 2014, 13:00

One of Bolger’s early choreographic successes was Reel Luck , a sideswiping look at Irish society that took Éamon de Valera’s “comely maidens” speech as a springboard. “Agnes loved it and told me how wonderful it was to see satirical dance.”

In the same way that any smiles in Bernelle’s songs normally hid clenched teeth, the outward effervescence of Bolger’s choreography tends to mask an interior darkness. “I suppose that is one way that Agnes’s artistic sensibilities have influenced me,” he says.

One of the most striking aspects of watching rehearsals for Agnes is the extent to which Bolger has embodied the songs. As he directs the cast he not only knows every word, breath and phrase in each song but has also constructed movement patterns that are just as finely detailed.

“I want the dancers to become the music and find a way to understand the songs in the physical realm,” he says.

The result isn’t a slavish physical depiction of the music, in which every note has a corresponding move (a technique that choreographers often describe as “Mickey Mousing”).

“Sometimes we’ve choreographed to a song and then taken the song away, and perform it in silence,” he says. “In a way the composer, and particularly Agnes’s interpretation of the song, becomes the choreographer.”

For most Dubliners in the 1980s, “cabaret” meant jigs’n’reels at Jurys Hotel rather than the artistic underworld of Weimar Germany. Bernelle was always meticulously authentic in her performances, nevertheless. Like the best interpreters of German cabaret songs, her renditions were based on the honesty of her voice rather than on its beauty. “The drama is always there. A snatched breath or going slightly off key is always done for dramatic effect.”

Tom Waits
As well as three solo albums, Bernelle recorded with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Marc Almond, among others, and she influenced many alternative artists around the then ungentrified Temple Bar area. Even if they hadn’t seen her perform, lots of people still knew who she was.

“Since I’ve started making this piece, so many people have come forward to tell me about how they knew her. They all have their own private Agnes story, and ownership of those memories is really important to them.”

Agnes opens at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, today and runs until next Saturday ; a series of talks, screenings and photographic exhibitions will run parallel to the performances

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