Dublin Dance Festival escapes the virtual and embraces the physical

This year’s return to live performance was met with packed houses

Dance was live again at this year’s Dublin Dance Festival after being forced online for two years. Incoming artistic director Jazmin Chiodi hasn’t altered the formula that has served the festival so well since its inception: a blend of performances and events for various audiences whether young or old, professional or curious amateur. This broad church lessens the possibility (or need for) a tightly curated festival focusing on a particular theme. However, whether deliberate or coincidental, many of the dance works had themes of connection or reconnection. These included those made either pre-pandemic in the midst of lonely self-isolation or in the aftermath of the strictest of restrictions.

Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues made a lasting impression when she presented Such Stuff We Are Made Of in Dublin in 2003, and reminiscences could be overheard in pre-show conversation in the Abbey Theatre foyer. Encantado is destined for a similar legacy. Both works are created for humans rather than bodies, so that rather than a group of bodies moving on stage, she creates a community of individuals bonded through a collective spirit.

In semidarkness we see dancers rolling out a stage-wide carpet, but as the light brightens it is revealed to be a collection of individual brightly-coloured fabrics that are overlapping to cover the stage. Dancers reappeared naked and slid under the fabrics re-emerging fully covered as depictions of spirit-like creatures and later as humans draped in clothes.

Created during Covid, a pandemic metaphor is one possible reading: solitary people merge into small bubbles and finally come together as society. But the strength of Encantado is its many layers of interpretation, including environmental degradation as the neatly folded clothes in the beginning end up transformed into messy bundles due to human activity.

Siguifin by French choreographer Amala Dianor made a similar call to community, as dancers stomped and paced together in a huddled group before separating, yet somehow remaining bonded together. The title means “magic monster” in the Bambara language, which is spoken across the constructed borders between the countries and refers to the game of combining individually drawn body parts or words to construct a monster. Created with choreographers Alioune Diagne, Naomi Fall, Ladji Koné and nine dancers from Senegal, Mali and Burkino Faso, the dance was made of individually created pieces of choreography that were brought together into a coherent whole. The disparate performers forge an unbreakable collective as traditional and modern dance styles such as hip-hop sit comfortably together. Along the way, they make pertinent sideswipes at cultural expectations and attitudes to African society found in European society.

Any tension between tradition and innovation was blown out of the water by Rocío Molina in Fallen From Heaven. The Spanish dancer has spent years usurping flamenco norms and in doing so has created a unique iconoclastic hybrid of flamenco, contemporary and hip hop dance. Falling from heaven was depicted literally and metaphorically. In the opening she stands motionless in a white bata de cola, its white trail behind her as she begins almost imperceptibly to slowly sway, gradually leaning her body forward at almost impossible angles. Later, moving around the stage the white trail becomes cumbersome under her legs until she decides to shed it and replace it with Lycra and a toreador’s bolero. Kick-ass replaces ruffled angelic white.

The traditional twirling arms and vertical formality of flamenco is replaced by loose choreography, a bit of ballet, a bit of hip-hop, that take her to the ground, slowly rolling and curling as she shatters the two-dimensional depiction of the female form in flamenco. Rather than concealed by convention, she reveals a strong, sexual, intelligent, menstruating body, confident in itself but also at times vulnerable.

Foot-taps and handclaps are supplemented with body percussion or a banging staff, all hammered out at breakneck speed along with a drum kit and electric guitars. At other times she rides the emotional and melodic peaks and troughs of the solo voice singing cante flamenco.

Catherine Young’s A Call To You was also a coming together, a continuation of her ongoing work that interrogates the displaced body of the refugee. Like Siguifin it opened with dancers steadily pacing as if on a journey. Here though, they travel as individuals, unaware of others. All that is shared is a similar sense of resigned restlessness and unanchored despair. This external plight becomes embodied so at one point they stand side-by-side and together proudly pump their fists in the air. But gradually their arms weaken, curve to face their own body and they end up punching their own stomach.

As in Fallen From Heaven, the action is energised by live musicians that generate momentum until the dancers gradually unite into a loose community and begin an uplifting series of group dances, bound together in a spinning circle that morphs in a succession of ever-changing sequences.

Junk Ensemble’s Dances Like A Bomb is a celebration of the ageing body and a pushback to the cult of youth. The superb performers Finola Cronin and Mikel Murfi are wise, not just in years but in performances, their seen-it-all experience onstage ensuring that they can deliver whimsy with a few home truths. It differed from previous works by Junk Ensemble in that it focuses purely on the body and on individuals. With barely any set, Dances Like A Bomb isn’t seeking to impress, but is content in itself being simple, yet heartfelt, celebration of two people growing old together.

Running throughout the festival and continuing until June 4th, Áine Stapleton’s Somewhere in the Body is a video installation that continues her exploration into Lucia Joyce. Performed on screen by Katie Vickers and Colin Dunne, their movements often seemed haunted by memories and emotionally restricted, set to a beautifully filmed depictions of light, whether flickering candles or crepuscular landscapes.

Live dance’s comeback was greeted with packed houses throughout the festival, but a grim reality check was served when the a group of Italian dancers could not travel for a performance on the final weekend because one had contracted Covid.

Michael Seaver

Michael Seaver

Michael Seaver, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a dance critic and musician