From climbing the walls in London to staging a vertical dance show in Dublin
‘The story resonates with performers and freelancers because of need to take on so many jobs and prove to yourself that you haven’t f**ked up by going into the arts’
Rachel Ní Bhraonáin in action.
Two years ago, Rachel Ní Bhraonáin was living the life of a young London creative. A trained dancer, she was busy working an assortment of part-time jobs to make ends meet while also trying to dance and audition for different roles. It was a tricky balancing act but Ní Bhraonáin kept the plates spinning for as long as she could. One day, however, it became clear that her body had had enough.
“I had a really weird breaking point where I had what I think might have been a migraine but it was kind of like an out-of-body experience when I was just sitting at work,” she recalls.
Ní Bhraonáin, who suffers from migraines, used it as an opportunity to reassess what she was doing with her life. “I had to take a really big step back from my life and what I wanted to do with my career, and figure out why I was pushing myself so hard and for whose benefit I was doing that,” she says.
She quickly decided it was time to break up with London and return home to Waterford. “London was completely exhausting me,” she says. “I didn’t approach it quite right. I was trying to achieve everything. Every offer that came in, I would take it on and I burned myself out a little bit.”
She spent her final year there “having the craic” and reading about things like neuroscience, psychology, and why we lose connection between our mind and body. Within a year, she had bid farewell to the big city and moved home. “Literally, I feel like there’s a Reese Witherspoon film about this,” she laughs.
The event forms the basis of her new show Losing Your Body, which premieres at Dublin Fringe Festival this month. Told through theatre, dance and aerial, the show is a two-hander performed by Ní Bhraonáin and Robyn Byrne. It’s a story of burnout and pushing yourself to the brink.
“We meet the character one fateful day at her day job and we are with her for a couple of hours,” she explains. “During those couple of hours we have some flashbacks while she tries to retrace her steps and figure out how she got to this stage she’s now at.
“We are looking at the fact that people are totally afraid of failure but also looking at how we cope if we have this failure in our bodies.”
Born and raised in Waterford, Ní Bhraonáin started dancing as a child. After completing her Leaving Cert, she went to study at the College of Dance but was forced to drop out after sustaining an injury. She toyed with the idea of giving up dance altogether until she was offered a last-minute spot at London Studio Centre, where she majored in contemporary dance.
After graduating, she stayed on in London and took on any audition that came her away. She wasn’t quite finding her feet until she was accepted into a course where she learned aerial. For about 1½ years, she was trained in different forms of aerial apparatus and later worked as a performer with a London-based company called Scarabeus Aerial Theatre.
With her partner living in Ireland, she frequently made trips home and kept in contact with Fidget Feet, an Irish aerial dance theatre company. Between Scarabeus and Fidget Feet, she was trained in a technique known as vertical dance, which typically involves being suspended in the air and dancing as though the wall is the floor.
“In the four years after I graduated, I moved more and more into the circus world and outdoor arts,” she says. “I haven’t looked back since and am very much in love with it.”
Prior to leaving London, she started to get more gigs outside of the city and even overseas. “I started to get itchy feet and wanted to come home and see what the scene was like in Ireland,” she says.
When she moved home to Waterford last year, she was awarded a month-long residency with A Little Room, a theatre development centre based out of Garter Lane Arts Centre. It was there that she started developing Losing Your Body.
“I had an idea of what I wanted but it was just an image in my head and it involved aerial,” she says. “When I got into this room, I couldn’t do aerial. The guy who runs it started saying to me, ‘If you ever want me to read your writing, I will.’ I was too embarrassed to tell him I’m not a writer. For the laugh, I sat down and started writing the story behind the image I had in my head.”
The story was all about dissociation and losing contact with your body. She ended up writing a short play and performed it at the end of the month. After the performance, she was able to spend a week developing the aerial side of things and decided to keep the spoken word element.
“I say I accidentally wrote a play and people laugh but that is kind of what happened,” she says.
She has been developing the show ever since and has received support from Dance Ireland, Irish Aerial Centre, Garter Lane, and Firkin Crane.
She credits local arts institutions for enabling her to make the show. “If I had come home to Ireland and moved straight to Dublin, I don’t think I would have been able to make this show because I have been given so much kind support from local people who are just trying to help me out,” she says.
Ní Bhraonáin says the show has connected with all sorts of people, particularly those working in the creative arts.
“Since I told the story, it definitely resonates with a lot with performers and freelancers in general because of the need to take on so many jobs and prove to yourself that you haven’t f**ked up by going into the arts,” she says.
“It also seems to resonate with people in general who push themselves quite hard and people who are dealing with things like chronic pain.”
I see movement as a good way to describe stuff that words can’t describe
She was also conscious of creating a show that wouldn’t alienate a more mainstream audience.
“That’s one of the things I am really interested in and dedicated to when I make shows – not isolating an audience,” she explains.
“Really highly skilled, highly crafted dance is absolutely beautiful to look at but it can really make an audience who has never studied dance feel like they don’t get it or like they should have a third-level degree to understand it.
“I prefer telling stories, making people laugh if I can, and using dance only when it’s necessary. I see movement as a good way to describe stuff that words can’t describe.”
So far, the move back to Ireland seems to have worked for Ní Bhraonáin. Not only is she staging her first full-scale show, but she was awarded the Dance Ireland Mentored Residency Award earlier this year. More importantly, she feels happy and healthy.
“I haven’t gotten a migraine since November,” she notes. “It’s the fresh Irish air.”
Losing Your Body is at Studio 1, The Lir Academy from September 19th-21st (preview September 18th), fringefest.com