The second week of Dublin Dance Festival featured three performances with texts written by dancers. Nothing unusual there, particularly for Irish audiences. It would be difficult to pick an Irish choreographer over the past 40 years who has not engaged with text in some form. But then, as now, movement has always maintained primacy.
Oona Doherty’s remarkable Navy Blue (★★★★★) has a recognisable four-part structure, the final part including text that carries the heavy weight of artistic uncertainty. Facing the systematic cruelty of day-to-day injustices and accelerating environmental degradation, Doherty despairingly questions the value of her creations.
The opening two parts are set to the first and second movements from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, music chosen not just for its lush romanticism but also because of its backstory. A mental block almost stopped the Russian composer from completing the concerto; he succeeded only with the help of his therapist, Dr Nikolai Dahl. Doherty says the dancers in Navy Blue “were the Nikolai Dahl to my Rachmaninoff”.
Dancing to the concerto’s first movement, the 12 dancers fully bask in the music’s grandeur. Slowly outstretched arms mirror lingering musical phrases, wiggling fingers imitate the pianist’s fast musical passages, and a quirky stuttering head movement copies repeated staccato notes. The movement vocabulary is simultaneously graceful and breathless, with gestures from ballet alongside simple joyful running.
In the gap between the first and second movement, the sound of a gunshot rings out and one of the dancers falls to the ground. The others cluster in panic, frantically protecting themselves with a sense of dread in complete contrast to the slow, heartfelt music. One by one they are shot. As they lie on the ground and Jamie xx’s booming electronics replace Rachmaninoff, blue blood seems to leak from each dancer, eventually covering the stage, in a masterful effect from the video artist Nadir Bouassria.
For the final section, all 12 dancers line up at the front of the stage and begin to lip-sync Doherty’s text. But movement has the last word. The limpid final image reveals one struggling dancer, head thrown back, arms flailing and body gyrating in a sliver of orange light, suddenly hugged by another dancer rushing into the space and then surrounded by the entire cast. In lesser hands it might appear a cheap visual punchline, but Doherty creates a wordless affirmation of support and community.
Emma Martin’s text for King | Shrine (★★★★☆) has a similar sense of dread as it too confronts environmental and societal unravelling. Words are just one element, and her installation and solo dance, performed by Mufutau Yusuf, coalesce into a gateway for our collective future. The dance is an energetic and visceral celebration of the physical, after which the audience are left in the empty space to experience the installation, loaded with candles, some religious artefacts and day-to-day detritus.
Marco D’Agostin’s tribute to the dancer Nigel Charnock, Best Regards (★★★★☆) revolves around letters. A founder of the English company DV8, Charnock was instrumental in developing its brand of physical theatre; after leaving the company he created solo performances that unleashed his hyperphysicality and manic creativity. Days after Charnock died, in 2012, his friend and colleague Wendy Houstoun wrote him a letter he would never read. Grief, love and admiration resonate in her words, which reflect his larger-than-life artistic persona.
D’Agostin participated in Charnock’s workshops, an experience that changed him as a dancer, and just as Houstoun’s letter will never be read by Charnock, similarly this danced tribute will never be seen by him. D’Agostin talks to the audience directly about important unread letters throughout history, emphasising how they embraced the past, present and future: the receiver is reading something written in the past; the writer is writing in the present but in the knowledge that it will be read in the future.
Aptly, With Regards ends with D’Agostin opening and reading a letter he asked the dancer Chiara Bersani to write to that night’s audience. In the letter, which she wrote a few days before the performance, she recounts her happiness as a young dancer performing at Dublin Dance Festival in 2010. Coincidentally, Charnock performed in a previous iteration of the festival in 2006 and Houstoun in 2009.
However eloquent D’Agostin’s spoken reflections and Houstoun’s grief-stricken words, With Regards is mostly a tribute through D’Agostin’s intense physicality and endless thread of creativity on stage.
Pan Pan returned to the festival nine years after its fascinating and revealing presentation of Samuel Beckett’s Quad with Irish Modern Dance Theatre. Entering the auditorium for The Sudden (★★★★☆), audience members are given white T-shirts printed with various words and slogans. Some of the audience were then chosen to have nibbles and drinks onstage; we learn it is the closing-night party for a dance performance that didn’t go too well. Soon the tables are cleared – but the chosen audience members remain part of the action. Through cue cards they deliver instructions to the four dancers and context for the movement. Katherine O’Malley is asked to perform a movement she has never danced before and then change its qualities, while Mollyanna Ennis dances a fiercely taut and controlled jittering solo. Vitor Bassi probably steals the show with a back-bending solo to Britney Spears, and Salma Ataya spells out a story of dancing for Col Muammar Gadafy through donning T-shirts (maybe in a nod to Jérôme Bel’s Shirtologie).
In the sunny outdoors of Wood Quay Amphitheatre, Alien (★★★☆☆) by Taneli Törmä was a call-out to anyone who feels left out of a group or society. It is performed by students from the Master of Arts programme in contemporary dance performance at the University of Limerick, whose silver-clad bodies unweave folk-dance patterns where symmetrical patterns of eight exclude one individual, or group club dancing where one person freezes as if overcome with self-consciousness.
Emanuel Gat’s Lovetrain2020 (★★★★★) showed a more complex and nuanced display of individual and group dancing and provided an uplifting close to the festival. Joyously unpredictable and bathed in the contrasting emotions expressed in songs by Tears for Fears, the dancers moved with remarkable focus, every moment performed with eloquence and directness.