Dancing at the ghost estates


Architecture and dance are rarely seen together in the context of art, but a Galway festival is exploring ways in which dance can engage with urban spaces, writes MICHAEL SEAVER

THE QUOTATION “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” has been attributed to many people, including Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello. But whoever coined the simile was making one thing clear: dancing is simply the wrong medium to explain architecture.

Not so, says Ríonach Ní Néill, dancer-in-residence with Galway. And by way of proof, she has curated a festival that brings together dancers, architects and other artists to investigate the intersections between the dancing body and the built environment. There will be art installations, lectures and a symposium, but Ní Néill is delving into architectural practice through the medium she knows best – dance.

“I can’t agree with the quotation,” she says. “For a start the only way we can experience architecture is by moving through it.” Although she has received a post-doctoral fellowship in urban geography, it was the Arts Council’s Engaging with Architecture scheme that prompted her to collaborate with architect Michelle Fagan and film-maker Marek Bogacki. Their work, Frame, opens the Dancing Days Festival tonight, which in turn is part of the Mapping Spectral Traces conference.

Other participants include dance artist Fearghus Ó Conchúir, whose Bodies and Buildings project set out to discover ways to allow his dancing body to enter into dialogue with urban spaces. His investigations into the form and function of newly constructed buildings – and the social history of the spaces and buildings they replaced – have taken him to areas as diverse as Dublin’s Docklands and Beijing’s Olympic Stadium.

The buildings that probably have most social resonance in contemporary Ireland are the so-called “ghost estates” that litter the margins of towns and cities. These are prime examples of architecture without bodies, according to Ní Néill, and on Saturday one on the outskirts of Galway will be brought to life.

Audience members will be taken by coach to two houses that have been transformed into a rambling house or cuairteóireacht, the name given to dwellings in communities where locals danced and socialised.

“As a tradition, the cuairteóireacht is pretty much dead, but maybe it will return with the bastions of rural culture, like the pub, slowly dying away,” says Ní Néill. Alongside more traditional entertainments such as a house céilí, Strawboys and sean nós singing, there will be more contemporary offerings and the audience will be invited to interact and participate.

“In one bedroom, the Clifden-based choreographer Magdalena Hylak will perform her work Detached on a loop, and in another bedroom there will be an installation by the English artist Mel Shearsmith.”

In the adjoining house, dancer Cindy Cummings and artist Andrew Duggan will perform an updated version of their 9.8 meters per second, originally created and performed in an unsold house for Éigse in Carlow before the housing bubble burst in 2009.

“This version is for a space that is only alive because the artists inhabit it. The house has no past or no future, just a present when the artists are there,” she says.

As well as dancing about architecture, there will be a chance for architects to talk about dance. A wide-ranging symposium will bring dance artists and academics together to discuss how dance can investigate and communicate contemporary social issues. According to Ní Néill, it’s an area that interests many Irish choreographers.

“Most Irish choreographers are producing dance that is socially engaged,” she says. “The symposium will open that dancing mind to other disciplines and hopefully offer an insight into how dancers experience and interact with the built environment.”