The words of James Joyce have often come to three-dimensional life in plays, operas and even operettas, but seldom have they done so in dance. It is 34 years since a major piece of Irish choreography was based on his writings. And now two come along at once: Go to Blazes, by Coiscéim Dance Theatre, and Yes and Yes, by Liz Roche Company.
Why the hiatus? Dance isn’t always wordless or immune to text: Irish choreographers have always happily woven text through movement. And Joyce is an ally. In Ulysses he intended to challenge the Cartesian mind-body dualism, just as dancers constantly rail against the perceived primacy of the mind over the supposedly unthinking body.
Liz Roche usually creates movement with a strong sense of inner logic. In Yes and Yes her choreography is more unpredictable, as if mirroring the novel’s ever-changing syntax
“My book is the epic of the human body,” Joyce said. “In my book the body lives in and moves through space and is the home of a full human personality ... If [the characters] had no body they would have no mind. It’s all one.”
Back in 1988, when Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre created Bloomsday: Impressions of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it was pretty much a straight-up dramatisation of episodes from the novel, with text offered up by actors and singers alongside the dancers. (Although a critical success, the company folded the following year, after the Arts Council cut all of its funding.)
The two works performed this week are more self-confident in their approach. Less servient to the narrative, they bask in the text’s complexity and relish Joyce’s multilayered references.
In Yes and Yes the choreographer Liz Roche uses the contemporary moving body as a conduit for the text. The body is primary, but Dublin the city is also central to her reimagining of the novel, quirkily captured though José Miguel Jiménez’s projected visuals, from the broad expanse of Sandymount Strand to the skinny upreach of the Spire of Dublin.
The dance, performed excellently by Mufutau Yusuf, Sarah Cerneaux, Grace Cuny and Diarmuid Armstrong, seems carried along by the energy of the writing. Roche usually creates movement with a strong sense of inner logic; here her choreography is more unpredictable, as if mirroring the novel’s ever-changing syntax. A sense of irreverence, whether through stuck-on Edwardian moustaches or Cerneaux’s juttering solo at the end of one section, entitled “XV”, is never far from the surface.
Parts of the novel are recognisable, such as Bloom’s assertion of the heart being a pump. Here the stage is flooded with red light as the dancers move in sullen unison to Ray Harman’s low, thumping score, as if reinforcing Bloom’s coldly scientific assertion that what unites us in our existence is a pump. Elsewhere the novel disappears into the background, a conceptual scaffold for the impressive choreography.
In front of Go to Blazes’ audience of 20, the dancer Justine Cooper wonderfully plays the part of a fastidious ‘aromachologist’ with a table and shelves of scents that she introduces and passes around
In contrast, Coiscéim’s Go to Blazes is a beautifully judged 40-minute multisensory experience, with a particular emphasis on smell. It is part of the ongoing Ulysses 2.2 project by Anu, Landmark Productions and MoLI, where artists create responses to the 18 episodes of Ulysses. Coiscéim is reflecting on the fourth episode, Calypso, in which the reader first meets Leopold and Molly Bloom.
Calypso marks a change of tone in the book, as the senses are stimulated through details of surroundings and personal taste. There is also lightness to the action after three episodes of Stephen Dedalus’s introverted musings, yet this section of the novel is just as rich with references.
In front of an audience of 20, the dancer Justine Cooper wonderfully plays the part of a fastidious “aromachologist” with a table and shelves of scents that she introduces and passes around. Based on smells mentioned in Calypso, they include the “ginger, teadust, biscuitmush” of O’Rourke’s pub, the “cooked spicy pigs’ blood” found in Dlugacz’s butcher’s shop, “the faintly scented urine” of mutton kidneys and even Bloom’s “own rising smell” as he loosens his bowels in the outhouse.
Certain scents correspond to the vibrations of musical notes, Cooper claims, poking individual notes on an old piano. Later a pattern develops, sounding out Mozart’s Là Ci Darem la Mano, and she leans backwards from the piano, arching her back as if submitting to the music, an aria of sexual seduction. Molly tells Leopold that she will sing it in an upcoming concert.
Donning VR headsets, the audience see Rosie Stebbing dancing a gentle solo dressed in flowing white like Calypso the nymph; a photograph of a bathing nymph hangs in Bloom’s bedroom and is referenced on the back wall of the performing space. Later Cooper and Jonathan Mitchell perform a tenser dance of seduction around a table as Stebbing weaves through the action. Viewed through VR, the action is dreamlike, and punctuated by the constantly changing scents sprayed over the audience. Some elusive, some familiar, they change your response to what you are seeing by triggering memories or evoking different emotions.
The VR sets also play on the word “metempsychosis”, or transmigration of the soul, introduced by Molly in Calypso, as the live dancers are transferred to another reality. As the audience take off their headsets Cooper asks them to hold the image of the dancers in their mind. Yet the smells are probably more vividly remembered. Leaving to the sounds of Là Ci Darem la Mano offers a hint of what will transpire between Molly and Blazes Boylan later in the book.
Multitudes of references abound in Go to Blazes, yet the choreographer David Bolger never lets the deep complexity of his concepts cloud the immediacy of the overall experience.