Dance that floats down the river as the world goes by

Dancer Luke Murphy talks about the inspiration for and success of Volcano, and how his new show on a floating stage aims to change the way we interact with dance

On a Saturday morning in his London flat, dance artist Luke Murphy is getting ready for the first of two daily performances across the city. The Cork native, who calls Cobh his home, is living in London for the year, performing in The Burnt City, the latest venture from Punchdrunk, the radical English site-specific theatre company. The Burnt City is an intense retelling of the fall of Troy, and Murphy has an intense performance schedule. The show is three hours long and runs to a busy West End timetable. When accepting his four Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards last month for Volcano, which premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival last year, Murphy thanked the understudy who was replacing him for the Sunday evening show so that he could attend the awards ceremony in person.

Punchdrunk have been an important inspiration for Murphy since he first worked with them more than 10 years ago in America. Murphy had recently graduated from the prestigious conservatory programme at Point Park University. He was living in New York, house-sitting for a fellow artist in an apartment on 1st and 1st: “Very Tick Tick Boom,” he admits, referring to the recent film about the late Jonathan Larson’s attempts to break into the musical theatre industry in New York. Murphy was doing an apprenticeship with Bill T Jones when another dancer told him about auditions for a three-month engagement for a new show opening in Boston. “At the time Punchdrunk didn’t really have a profile in America,” Murphy remembers. “They had no international profile. No website. But the fact that no one knew who they were was part of the appeal.”

The show was Sleep No More, a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is still running in New York 10 years after its American premiere. Murphy was 22, just 3 months out of college, and the job would be the making of him as a professional dancer. “I grew up with them, really,” he explains. “When [I was studying at the] conservatory, the training was very specific: to deliver you a set of skills that they thought you would need as a professional dancer. It wasn’t about fostering a student’s individuality or their special strengths. [The teachers] were actively ignoring our strengths so we would not learn to rely on them.”

By the time he graduated, Murphy “did not know what I was interested in or suited to or what it was that made me worth watching as a performer.” Punchdrunk were “the people to identify that there was something special about me, who said, ‘There is something here, [this is not] just another person out of the factory,’ and that is always such a meaningful relationship.”

Although his formal training was in contemporary dance, Murphy had always been interested in theatre. “In my first year in college, we were told to write out the thing that we hoped that we do in our careers, and I wrote down that I wanted to find a way to adapt the Stanislavski system of acting to dancers.” The Stanislavski method is deeply attuned to the idea of character, and Murphy was more interested in dance as a storytelling tool than as pure embodied movement. The immersive, multi-disciplinary environment of Punchdrunk suited and inspired him, and allowed him to see the “hybrid space where I could be a performer and someone who makes my own work”.

With Attic Projects, Murphy has been authoring his own work since 2012, his repertoire distinguished by sophisticated digital projections, immersive soundscapes and a visceral choreography. The work has premiered at Cork Midsummer Festival, Dublin Fringe Festival and Kilkenny Arts Festival, with last year’s Volcano premiering at the Galway International Arts Festival. Murphy describes the timing for the making of Volcano as “a gift. It literally wouldn’t have been made any other time.”

Liberated

While the pandemic was frustrating for the live performance industry, Murphy felt liberated by “the opportunity to work differently. Normally when you are applying for your funding, you have to provide a really clear idea of what you are going to do. You have your partners lined up and then you deliver it. But for two years, all of those plans [people had] were thrown into a blender, so artists had a degree of flexibility that wasn’t there before.” From a series of “scratchings in my notebook: little drawings, stick figures, different images [showing] compositionally how bodies can move in a certain space”, the idea for Volcano grew in the way that all his shows have.

“I know what the world of the work is before I start making it,” he explains, as he tries to describe the process involved in creating the remarkable Volcano, which featured Murphy and fellow dancer Will Thompson performing four episodes in an end-of-world serialised presentation. “I have pictures, sketches, a playlist, pieces of writing, monologues [in my notebook]. Sometimes I don’t know what they are.” For Volcano, however, these “scratchings” amounted to a fully realised, unique environment that offered audiences a deep immersion in a strange surreal world. Performed for an audience of eight, with each audience member in an individual booth, Murphy knew that it looked like “financial madness”, but with Covid restrictions it “actually became feasible” (because of support from the Arts Council, the festival and others). He still thinks it is amazing that Volcano “got to exist at all. Under any other circumstances we would have been charging 150 bucks a ticket to make it work. But the pandemic enabled us, and I can’t describe how much work everyone involved put in to get us there.”

With such a small audience for the show’s 10 day run, the four Irish Times Theatre Awards were a welcome critical affirmation for Murphy and his collaborators, who will hopefully revive the work in 2023. However, when Volcano ended its short run, Murphy was already hard at work on a new commission, Slow Tide, which opens at the Skibbereen Arts Festival on July 24th, before touring to Kilkenny Arts Festival. Like Volcano, Slow Tides is an intimate duet for two performers, which grew from a residency in the West Cork Arts Centre.

Skibbereen, Murphy says, “has an amazing audience base that is very receptive to contemporary dance, to more abstract and funky work”. However, when you are working in remote rural areas of the country, he says, “it really makes you think about how you are presenting your work and who has access. I wanted to make a piece that could theoretically go to every rural arts festival happening during the summer, to every single town that has a summer fete or a hay festival or a strawberry festival or an arts weekend, a show that could work like a food truck, just go from one place to another.”

He was also interested in engaging with a different kind of frame for the work with the aim of “making contemporary dance present, in the way that music is present in one form or another or food is present or crafts made out of paper. So many more people participate in dance socially than drama – at a club or a gig – but in its theatrical context dance is so isolated. The question I had was: how can dance become present in that same way?”

Instead of a theatrical frame, then, Murphy began to play with the idea for making a piece of work on “a floating stage that could just sit in a river, a lake or beside a pier”, and Slow Tide was born. “It could just float from place to place and people could sit for few minutes and watch it, the same way they might stop and watch someone busking on the street.” This would lend the work both “an intentional and an accidental audience, people who might not usually engage with the art form, people with buggies and an ice-cream just sitting for a second taking things in.”

So if you are walking around Skibbereen or Kilkenny over the next few weeks, and see some strange movement on a raft on the river, count yourself lucky. Yes, they are dancers, and they are dancing for you.

Slow Tide premieres at Skibbereen Arts Festival on July 24, and runs from August 4-14 as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. skibbereenartsfestival.com kilkennyarts.ie

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer