Dancers in the dark

Emma Martin, whose ‘Tundra’ opens this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, says dance is about working with ‘things that are beyond words’ – even if that means venturing into some very bleak territory

'Have you seen my notebook?" Simon Jaymes has a touch of panic in his voice when he can't find his rehearsal jottings. They could be anywhere. Rather than preparing in the white-walled orderliness of a dance studio, he and the other members of the Emma Martin Dance Company are rehearsing in the gloriously disorderly Friary in Callan, Co Kilkenny.

This is home for the company while it creates Tundra, for this year's Dublin Dance Festival. They couldn't have picked a better spot. Although it has been deconsecrated, and Droichead Family Resource Centre is well established downstairs, there is a feeling of a space quickly abandoned. Some pews and confession boxes remain, augmented now with props, costumes and a few wallpaper swatches taped to a wall.

"Tundra is about an in-between space, a metaphorical purgatory where you have to work through your difficulties to move on," says Emma Martin, sitting on a couch as the stained-glass windows constantly change from glowing in bright sunshine to being beaten by furious rainfall. The quiet-spoken choreographer, who is dance artist in residence at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in nearby Carlow, exhibits a rich reserve of background material as conversation flows from Dante's Purgatorio to shape-shifters in Irish and Slavic mythology. But underpinning her concepts and influences is a clear sense of place that she will evoke onstage.

"The environment that I want to create is a cold, eastern, almost Soviet environment. There is an icy wind constantly barraging the outside of this place we are in, so hostile that things don't grow. The title Tundra brings that permafrost landscape to mind, but I also want to create a tundra of our own mentality."


Lust and greed
The dark side of humanity is a constant in Martin's short choreographic career. While studying at Trinity College Dublin she directed Frank Wedekind's Lulu, which depicts society's lust and greed through the story of a young dancer and her relationships with wealthy men and women.

Dogs, created in 2012, was an exploration of the savagery behind civilisation and how primal instinct can strain the bonds of society. "In the past 100 years, even just in my lifetime, we've experienced such brutality within humanity," she says. "It's nothing new. It's always been there and yet we also experience great beauty. So what interests me is that daily experience of hellishness on Earth and also heavenliness on Earth."

Her debut dance, The Listowel Syndrome, was even more visceral, driven by an incident in Listowel in 2009 when dozens of people, including a local priest, queued inside a courthouse to shake hands with a man who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman. The priest also provided the man with a character reference, which was dismissed by the presiding judge.

“It seemed like something from the distant past rather than 2009. And yet, coming from a small town, I could recognise how people whisper and turn against those outside the community. It totally shocked me, and I just felt like I had to make a piece about it.” With no money and just three weeks, she created a work that generated critical acclaim and radio talkshow controversy in equal measure.

“It was difficult, trying to physicalise a dramatic story, and I didn’t know how difficult it would be at the time. Looking back, I think I would have done it differently. It never felt complete, maybe the first act of something. But it was the impetus to get me creating.”

Since then Martin's artistic stock has risen sharply: Tundra is just her third work but will open this year's Dublin Dance Festival. Dogs won best production and best design at the Dublin Fringe Festival awards in 2012, and she was an inaugural Dance Ireland associate artist, from 2011 to 2012. For the past year she has been one of the artists in the pan-European Modul-Dance programme and one of four choreographers selected for DanceLines at the Royal Opera House in London.

Beyond words
Martin says that "making dance is about engaging with the things that are beyond words, willing the spectator to be faithful to their own imaginations, to summon their own pre-existing dream lives, nightmares, fantasies, reflections and subconscious filing cabinet of experience and emotional wisdom". This comes across in her work through her almost cinematic approach.

“If I can’t see the piece, I can’t make the piece. Of course, it will evolve, but I have to have the visual picture of where the dancers are. What’s the atmosphere? Then I understand what they are doing.”

Martin trained in ballet at the renowned John Cranko Schule, in Stuttgart, and performed with various companies before deciding to take a degree in drama, theatre studies and Russian at Trinity.

In ballet she felt that dancers’ personalities were surpressed onstage. “It’s very hard to see the real person shining through on stage. And it doesn’t need to be like that. Look at Gelsey Kirkland,” she says, referring to the former New York City Ballet star. “She was a fox in real life, and she stayed a fox when she danced onstage.”

In Germany, ballet teachers would tease her and fellow students that they would end up in Tanztheater – expressionist theatre dance – if they didn't work hard. "Now I'm sorry I didn't see more contemporary dance while I was there."

Martin was also interested in discovering a more personal movement language than formal ballet offered, so at Trinity she hooked up with the Genesis Project. Based around the works of the American choreographer Deborah Hay, it enables dancers to spend time developing their kinaesthetic awareness, which is to say their awareness of how they move, with a view to breaking away from ways they have been trained to move in the past.

Like the characters in Tundra, Martin is in an in-between space. "My dance language is obviously not ballet, but I don't have a contemporary background, so it's not that either. It is just what it is." Rather than worry about the minutiae of movement, she talks about flows of energy giving her dances form, rather than arrangements of prepared dance sequences.

By the time we finish talking, Jaymes has found his notebook and has joined Raymond Keane, Justine Cooper, Oona Doherty and Neil Brown on the black dancefloor in the middle of the church. As the rehearsal starts, the sense of in-betweeness is palpable in how the characters – Martin calls them archetypes – coexist.

This is appropriate, given that it is her acceptance of her artistic in-betweeness, being driven by strength of vision rather than conformity to style, that enables Martin to reveal our humanity, and barbarity, through her work.

Tundra is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, at Trinity College Dublin, from Tuesday until Friday;