Bodily autonomy and inequality: women dance around the Proclamation

In Embodied, six provocative dances offer an unflinching exploration of the lot of women in Ireland past and present

Commemorative art is usually fixed and inert: solid monuments providing a frozen history lesson for future generations.

A performance has a shorter shelf-life, but An Post has chosen three evenings of dance as one of two public art commissions in its GPO Witness History programme. Embodied, six dances by six female choreographers developed with general manager of Dublin Dance Festival Carina McGrail, will commemorate through dance. The powerful symbolism of female dancing bodies occupying the space where the Republic was proclaimed – "holy ground", according to Samuel Beckett – is not lost on the choreographers.

"We are six women, six highly skilled, trained physical bodies that have been entrusted with this space and this opportunity," says Liv O'Donoghue, choreographer of The 27th Manifesto, one of the six dances. "The irony is that even we, who have such intelligence and knowledge in our bodies, don't have autonomy over our own bodies in this country."

Working with writer Gina Moxley, O'Donoghue has looked back into history for women fighting for gender equality and rights, and chosen 26 speeches dating back to the 1500s. The 27th Manifesto is her own: a collation of speeches and ideals.


Removed from the picture

The equality promised by the first three words of the Proclamation – "Irishmen and Irishwomen" – weren't reflected in action. For example, Elizabeth O'Farrell, who delivered the surrender with Patrick Pearse, was removed from photographs. Walking Pale, by choreographers Jessica and Megan Kennedy, forefronts those women.

"There are parallels to now," says Jessica Kennedy. "Many roles for women are subservient to men, and rights for women have only slightly improved."

In Walking Pale, actress Olwyn Fouéré is dressed in white chiffon weighed down by spoons: overtones of trapped domesticity. She is stained by oil, originally a reference to machine-gun oil, but more pertinently a reference to the stain society places on women who have abortions.

Although the six choreographers are responding to the text of the Proclamation, the text of the Constitution has affected how women can influence society, and not just the eighth amendment. In the Proclamation, Ireland was referred to in the feminine, but if the nation was female, the State was decidedly male. Whatever idealism existed in 1916 was soon swamped by the Catholic Church and hegemonic cultural values that ignored, censored or sneered at voices that dared to be different.

According to feminist political theorist Catharine MacKinnon, law writes society in state form but also writes the state on to society. Moreover, “the law sees and treats women the way men see and treat women”. So the role for women defined in the Constitution – in charge of family and home – could be seen as a cause of gender inequality but also as a symptom.

Those who sought equality and freedom from proscribed roles had to do so on men’s terms. “We had to learn the language of men, but we never owned that language,” says O’Donoghue.

Jessie Keenan in Her Supreme Hour highlights male physical language and how power affects the body. Looking back, she shows how women have appropriated this language in posture and dress.

“Shoulder pads and block-colour suits are examples of what female politicians have to wear within a male-dominated environment,” she says. Anything overtly “feminine” is a sign of weakness, and carriage and deportment have to match male traditions.

For Fógraím/I Proclaim, Sibéal Davitt honed in on the word "Poblacht", which was newly coined by the 1916 leaders. "I was drawn to the idea of how we communicate something new and create a language for new ideas," she says.

The 1916 leaders used shortwave to broadcast to the world in Morse code that the rebellion had taken place, and Davitt has translated Morse code into Irish step dance as part of that new language.

Feeling trapped

Jazmín Chiodi is based in Tipperary but originally from Argentina. Reflecting on the Proclamation offered her a way to reflect on her past and Irish history. “I grew up in a dictatorship where my family was persecuted,” she says. “Although words and ideas can inspire, only actions are real.”

Her dance, The Endless Story of Trying to Make New Out of a Single Self, refers to the human and artistic journey from concept to reality, and how this reality needs to become a human experience.

“If those words are to become real, then society needs to create space to allow change to occur,” she says.

In conversation, all of the choreographers lament the lack of change for women, who still feel trapped within a patriarchal society.

As part of the research for 160 Voices, Emma O'Kane sought anonymous responses from women coming and going in the GPO. Inspired by Maud Gonne's risk-taking, she posed the question: as a woman in Ireland, what are you willing to risk to improve your life and have your voice heard in 2016?

“Some of the responses were heart-breaking, particularly from older women,” says O’Kane. “One card was folded over several times as if trying to hide the contents and said that the woman was willing to risk leaving an unhappy marriage. I would like to think that the act of writing might inspire some of these women to take action.”

The different voices in Embodied show how Irish identities and ideals are not fixed, but ever-changing. The dances may be short – each is around 10 minutes long – but in highlighting past and present prejudice, they aim to inspire future change.

“It’s now up to others to take our provocation and ideas forward,” says Megan Kennedy.