Dark collaboration: four artists, four disciplines, one show

‘Visitant’, a work by composer Trevor Knight, visual artist Alice Maher, Butoh dancer Gyohei Zaitsu and musician Áine O’Dwyer, is more than the sum of its parts

Many artists might wish to collaborate, perhaps driven by an aesthetic itch that needs to be scratched, or a need to break their artistic solitude. According to composer Trevor Knight and visual artist Alice Maher, true collaboration isn't just agreeing to embark on a common journey: it needs mutual respect and a genuine openness to other creative forces, however unsettling they might appear.

The pair have been working together since 1999, and their latest performance, Visitant with Butoh artist Gyohei Zaitsu and musician Áine O'Dwyer, opens at Project Arts Centre tonight.

Project brought them together, when Knight approached then artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail with an idea to produce Wassily Kandinsky's experimental theatre work Der Gelbe Klang (Yellow Sound ).

“The original score by Thomas de Hartmann was lost, and I was interested in writing a new score, but I needed to work with a visual artist,” says Knight. “Fiach said, ‘I know just the person’.”

Maher was in residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art at the time, and Project provided space for the pair to work together. Kandinsky's ideas provided a springboard for their ideas, in particular the relationship between colour and sound, and synaesthesia.

"After a while we decided to forget about Kandinsky and just work together with our ideas," says Maher. So instead of Yellow Sound they produced their own work, The Sky Chair . Other works followed, such as Slat and The Devil's Spine Band , and Knight composed music for some of Maher's videos, so the pair have developed an artistic methodology.

Parallel journey
"We always work together in parallel towards something," says Maher. "It's not like Trevor gives me an idea and I go away and design it. It's a parallel journey and we completely trust each other."

“I think what frequently passes for collaboration is actually interpretation,” says Knight. “Two people agree on an idea or concept and then one paints about it and the other musicalises it.”

Working in the same physical space has helped the pair develop their aesthetic relationship, whether at Project or the Piano Room at Annaghmakerrig. “It’s like being in an urn and sharing the same physical and psychological space,” says Maher.

For Visitant that space includes Butoh dancer Gyohei Zaitsu and multi-instrumentalist and singer Áine O'Dwyer. The dark emotional heart of Visitant lies with Gabriel García Márquez's short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings , about a decrepit angel who falls to earth and is kept in a hen house by a peasant family. Eventually, they cash in on his peculiarity and begin to charge locals to see him.

In addition, Maher's visual ideas are influenced by Gustave Doré's monochrome illustrations of Dante's Inferno .

Butoh background
Zaitsu has worked with Maher and Knight before, on The Devil's Spine Band , but his Butoh has a particular resonance in Visitant . Butoh, a form that emerged in Japan after the second World War – often referred to as "dance of the dark soul" – expresses deep emotions through slow, intensely controlled movement, often twisted and distorted.

“Trevor told me about this story and we agreed to investigate it,” says Zaitsu. “I went away and worked on the visual elements and he worked on the sonic elements.”

Although there is a narrative behind Visitant , the performers don't follow it or try to illustrate it. Instead they take visual, sonic or emotional elements and improvise every day. "But with deep focus," says Maher. "It's never relaxed, but always serving the idea."

Knight likes to let go of the rudder and let ideas emerge freely, but he needs to stay alert in order to pick up on seeds of ideas that might germinate. During the piece, the two musicians aren’t physically restricted by their keyboards and concert harp, but freely move around the space, singing and playing instruments. At first, this gave rise to a gnarly conundrum: how do they change from being seated musicians into becoming physical movers in the space?

“There’s nothing worse than seeing a musician get up off their seat and try to become a character,” says Knight. “That self-consciousness is immediately apparent to the audience.”

The problem was circumvented by insisting that, if the musicians moved, they had to be making noise while they did it. So while Knight makes a swishing sound with a double-bass bow, the long arcs made by his swinging arm might propel him forward. The result is synergistic, even in a cramped rehearsal space and without Maher’s visual setting, Marcus Costello’s lighting or Zaitsu’s white body make-up (which takes about three hours to put on).

For O’Dwyer, who has a background in performance art, working out these conundrums within a group has been liberating.

“I’m used to working in intuitive composition and improvisation, but I’ve never worked within a group,” she says, so there is a constant possibility of her perception being altered by the other performers. “It’s a bit like life. If you’re open to other influences, great things can happen.”

Visitant is at Project Arts Centre until Saturday

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