A dance that bears Seamus Heaney’s ‘strain of being in two places at once’

A North-South co-production by Liz Roche and Nicola Curry is inspired by Heaney’s ideas about displacement

Neither Either: ‘It was a question of how to bring something new and energetic to the creative table’

Neither Either: ‘It was a question of how to bring something new and energetic to the creative table’

 

A poster in the lift at Dancehouse reads: “Connect, Collaborate, Create”. A mantra, perhaps, or just an open invitation to all artists. In the rehearsal studio, choreographer Liz Roche is in the final days of preparation with her new work, Neither Either, which recently premiered at The Mac as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival.

Modern dance makes connections and collaborations across artforms naturally; for decades, the form has intuitively shared with music and art, film, text and scenography. Roche is well-acquainted with those three Cs that greet the artists in Dancehouse; this project is a co-production with Nicola Curry and her Maiden Voyage Dance Company.

The two companies, one from Belfast and one from Dublin, have developed a work that “looks at the predicament of living out two conflicting states of mind at once”, or, in the words of Seamus Heaney, “the strain of being in two places at once, of needing to accommodate two opposing conditions of truthfulness simultaneously”.

“I had been drawn to Heaney before when creating work,” says Roche, “and the idea for this piece was already formed in my mind before he died, but it’s true that it seemed like the ideal project to suggest to Nicola when we reconnected last year.”

“On a practical level,” says Curry, who has worked with Roche before, “it’s vital these days to work together to ease the financial strain, but it was a question of how to bring something new and energetic to the creative table.”

With Roche as choreographer, Curry proposed bringing on Ciarán Bagnall as set and lighting designer, and two of her company’s dancers, David Ogle and Vasiliki Stasinaki. Roche company regulars Philip Connaughton and Katherine O’Malley joined the challenge.

“For the music, I really thought composer and musician Neil Martin would be ideal as we had worked together on a piece around TS Eliot’s poems Four Quartets.”

Martin is a seasoned commuter between opposing traditions; his classical and traditional training between cello and uilleann pipes have heightened his sensitivity to how new work can be forged by combining two seemingly estranged forces.

“I really am interested in dance. One of my fantasies is to write a ballet,” says Martin. “For this project, in terms of instrumentation, I naturally thought about the cello, but once I saw the movements I realised that it needed to be completely pared down. To keep the focus on the movement I had to create a stripped-back musical palette. Then I thought of the piano, well, two pianos, where just a few notes can afford great depth, very simply, and so the pianos will work with and against one another for the score.

“I thought about this sense of strain in Heaney’s remark, and I could see the sheer physicality in the word, a muscular, ploughing kind of strain,” adds Martin.

 

Syncopated phrases

This comes to mind back in the bright and airy rehearsal studio, as piano notes are punctuated by syncopated phrases of heavy, anxious breathing. On the floor, the four dancers’ bodies emulate the irregular rhythm, creating an immediate sense of panic, unease and restriction.

“That is exactly what I drew from my reading of Heaney’s essay Place and Displacement,” says Roche. “It’s about a restriction in the self but one that can be transformed and then can itself be the creative thing.

“I was also intrigued by his references to a Jungian approach to resolving conflict: that suggestion of allowing a broadening of outlook, or what Jung refers to as ‘an outgrowing’ or ‘new level of consciousness’, where a certain detachment from emotion can prevent identifying too much with the effect. I’ve been learning as an artist and a person that situations aren’t always black or white.”

On the studio floor, a three-sided space has been defined by lines of individual letters that in large Scrabble-like tiles spell out Heaney’s lines referenced above.

Although Heaney was writing more particularly about three Northern Irish poets (Mahon, Muldoon and Longley) back in 1984, the conflicted sense of identity, that territory of displacement, of memory and recognition, of remembering and forgetting is land that Roche has walked in her own work.

Body and Forgetting (which opened the Dublin Dance Festival in 2013) excavated that very relationship between place, memory and identity. The moving bodies of dancers on stage were counterpointed by Alan Gilsenan’s film with images of those same dancers in situations, incidents and freeze-frame moments as body memories clicked or jammed.

Back at the collaborative table, the challenges and opportunities afforded by confined spaces inspired Roche to invite Louise Lowe to take the role of dramaturg on the project.

“Louise is brilliant at understanding physicality and audiences,” Roche says. “She has worked in unconventional spaces and knows how body language can communicate eloquently in a restricted space.”

Lowe’s acute awareness of the textural and visceral power of environment (Vardo, the final phase of the Monto Cycle, was at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival) makes Roche’s choice pertinent. “I am just saying what I see,” says Lowe modestly, “looking at how a changed perspective for an audience can shift meaning.”

Roche says: “There will definitely be many ways of seeing here as the dancers are moving around constantly.”

No doubt she is thinking about how her dancers will look in the angular interlocking steel frame designed by Bagnall, which will allow for multiple permutations of movement but without many restrictions.

 

Neither Either is at Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo, tomorrow; Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, on Thursday; Firkin Crane, Cork, on Saturday; then it tours nationally. lizrochecompany.com

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