John Scott: ‘I’m still stimulated, inspired and angry with what is happening in the world’

For 25 years John Scott has been at the forefront of Irish dance. When it comes to making work, ‘All I need from a dancer is an open mind and generous spirit’

In 1991, Irish Modern Dance Theatre received its first Arts Council grant, along with nine other dance companies. Twenty-five years later, it is the only one still producing dance. But as quarter-century celebrations come to an end, artistic director John Scott isn't happy with just survival and longevity: his choreography and collaborations are just as abrasive, thoughtful and gloriously messy as ever.

Sitting in DanceHouse, a purpose-built rehearsal and resource space for dance, he waves his arms. “Imagine this”, he says, reflecting on his early years. Then, rehearsal time was snatched hour-by-hour in different church halls and community centres. Outside rehearsals Scott could be seen walking around Dublin city centre with a roll of posters on the back carrier of his bike, his poster distribution nixer financing dancers’ fees and production costs.

Now IMDT has an established and, on its website, an admirably transparent corporate structure, and Scott is an internationally-recognised choreographer. His artistic trajectory has been marked by slight shifts in aesthetic and methodology, but his political convictions have remained steadfast.

"I'm still very stimulated, inspired and angry with what is happening in the world," he says. "I don't know if I've changed direction in what I want to say, but I've probably changed how I say it." Scott's aesthetic roots spread wide: the modernism of Kurt Jooss and Anna Sokolow, post-modern Judson Church movement and its descendents, ballets by William Forsythe, contemporary European choreographers Edward Allan Poe and John Donne.

Within Scott’s work each influence can come into less-blurry focus over time or sometimes starkly appear simultaneously in the same frame. To date, his aesthetic arc has been marked and judged by these influences, but his deep-rooted political views and sense of social justice are just as important.

The first artistic shift happened in Macalla in 1995, a rambling riotous promenade performance set in different parts of the RHA Gallery. Instead of employing highly-trained dancers, Scott had a disperse cast, from retired prima ballerina Joanna Banks to a waiter at a nearby cafe who the dancers had befriended during rehearsals.

“I also included some young actors from the drama course at Trinity who had a great raucous physical quality,” he says. This democratisation of the body was a challenge, not just for audiences expecting fluid technique and flexible virtuosity, but for the performers themselves. Professional dancers who underwent years of hard training shared the billing with near or actual novices.

“All I need from a dancer is an open mind and generous spirit,” says Scott, but ideals of equality needs to be backed up by unimpeachable artistic integrity. Dancers will always move from company to company, but to his credit, he has always elicited loyalty and retained a core of four of five dancers over several years.

In 2004 he was invited to work with clients at the Centre for Care for Survivors of Torture and, along with dancers Aisling Doyle and Philip Connaughton, created an hour-long dance called Fall and Recover. The act of dancing benefitted the torture survivors as it offered a way of expressing and processing memories, free from linguistic barriers or pitfalls.

But Fall and Recover was more than victim art. Scott unearthed an honest physical expression and some of the performers were invited to dance with Irish Modern Dance Theatre. He didn't regard them as having different technical ability, but of having "different virtuosities". Sebastiaõ Mpembele Kamalandua was an Angolan conscript who appeared in Scott's The White Piece. "Sebastiaõ is free of the European stereotypes of a dancer," said Jean Christophe Paré, a French choreographer and former dancer with Paris Opera Ballet, in an interview with The Irish Times in 2005. "When he inhabits the space and moves it is a real, true event."

Scott found himself in the High Court fighting a deportation order served to Kamalandua and became increasingly politicised in defending the rights of refugees. The battles are similar to what he experienced touring with the Living Theatre in France when he was in his twenties.

"Then we were fighting Reaganism, but the same issues of social justice remain. Now there is an increasing amount of right-wing populism and that has to influence how I choreograph." The four dancers in Precious Metal, which will premiere at Project Arts Centre on Wednesday, are Kevin Coquelard, Ryan O'Neill, Florence Welalo and Mufatau Yusuf. Coquelard has a razor-sharp Paris Conservatoire-honed technique; O'Neill is a fantastically versatile dancer; Welaho started dancing with Scott in Fall and Recover; and Yusuf has recently completed studying in Austria. Two Caucasians - from France and Belfast - and two of African origin who are now Irish citizens.

“When you see the ensemble you get a snapshot of how the world could be,” says Scott. “Not that we’re deliberately setting out to show how the world should be. But each of them has day-to-day experiences that they bring into the studio. It’s impossible to exist in an ivory tower and unmoved by what is going on outside the rehearsal.”

The death of his father, Leslie Scott, was a personal loss that directly influenced Lear, a re-imagining of Shakespeare's play that John Scott created with 82-year-old Valda Setterfield. He had been outlining the dance on paper around the time his father's death, but when he went into the studio to rehearse with Setterfield, discussions of parenthood generated more material than pre-cooked observations on paper.

Although personal experience and political views have been powerful influences, Scott has several mentors that he talks with on a regular basis, including Pablo Vela and Susan Buirge, as well as fellow choreographers, such as Thomas Lehmann and Mary Nunan. He has always travelled in search of inspiration and influence - Twitter posts can appear from anywhere - and he welcomes the increased internationalisation of Irish dance.

“Mufatau was born in Nigeria, has Irish citizenship, first performed with us in New York, subsequently studied in Austria, and took part in a premiere in Spain earlier this year,” he says. It’s a mashup that perfectly reflects both his aesthetic and political ideal.

Precious Metal and Night Wandering run from December 7 to 10 at Project Arts Centre