Somewhere in the Body: shining a light on the real Lucia Joyce

Choreographer Áine Stapleton has spent eight years exploring Joyce’s artistry

Whenever the name of Lucia Joyce is mentioned, the words “daughter of James Joyce” are never far away. A talented dancer, writer and musician, Lucia’s career was cut short after she had a nervous breakdown and was – some say inaccurately – diagnosed with schizophrenia. She spent the rest of her life in institutions where she was subjected to experimental treatments.

According to dance historian Deirdre Mulrooney, many accounts of her life are Mills & Boon-style narratives, where the real protagonists are famous male writers, including her father and Samuel Beckett, with whom Lucia had a relationship. Writing in Joyce Studies Annual, Mulrooney claims: “This misunderstood artist has been reduced to a ‘mad girl’, synonymous with mental illness, considered primarily in relation to her father, and filed away under ‘miscellaneous’ in coveted James Joyce special collections around the world.”

This two-dimensional caricature would be different had she fulfilled her artistic potential. In 1928 the Paris Times stated that, “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father”.

Choreographer Áine Stapleton has spent the past eight years forefronting Lucia Joyce’s artistry and will premiere a dance film installation, Somewhere in the Body, at this year’s Dublin Dance Festival.

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“In 2014 I was working with some friends in a band who had created musical interpretations of Joyce’s major works for Bloomsday,” she says. “During the rehearsals, they told me a bit about Lucia and her dance career. That same week, I managed to source some letters that were written by Lucia during her later years in psychiatric care. I could instantly see a clear divide between the clichéd accounts of Lucia in the press and media, compared to the kind, intelligent and loving person that came through in her letters. These writings inspired me to make my first work about Lucia and I’ve been immersed in her story ever since.” Stapleton would concur with Mulrooney’s disdain for the superficial accounts of Lucia’s life.

“I try to avoid the clichés that are so often associated with her story, so it’s always important for me to research as thoroughly as possible. But it’s very difficult to find information about Lucia, due in part to the fact that Stephen Joyce, James Joyce’s grandson and long-time estate administrator, is known to have had part of Lucia’s correspondence with her father and Samuel Beckett destroyed following her death.” Poems and an unpublished novel have also been lost or destroyed.

Stapleton has created two previous dance films. Medicated Milk was based on a period of time that Lucia spent in Bray, Co Wicklow (“close to where I grew up, which Lucia described as a magnificent place, full of flowers”), and Horrible Creature, based on her life in Switzerland between 1915 and the late 1930s.

“Somewhere in the Body takes a different approach to my previous work about Lucia, which relies heavily on her biographical details,” she says. “For this film installation, I examine the psychic spaces that Lucia inhabited in her father’s mind, and how she appears in his writings, with a particular focus on Finnegans Wake.”

Lucia appears throughout the book under various names and in different eras. “Sometimes she is a mythical figure, such as Queen Maedhbh, or as the ephemeral character Nuvoletta or even as a little cloud. In other moments, she multiplies into seven or even 29 colours or dancing girls.” Somewhere in the Body also explores, to a lesser degree, how the medium of dance may have influenced the creation of the book.

“The film takes us into the dreamworld and ‘nat language’ of Finnegans Wake, in which Lucia appears under different guises.” What Joyce calls “nat language” has been postulated as meaning “not language” or “night language”, but either interpretation finds resonance in the unspoken language of dance.

Stapleton makes no claims as an expert on Finnegans Wake and worked with Joycean scholar Finn Fordham as an adviser in the later phase of her research. Another collaborator is German artist Pat Kramer, who has created neon light sculptures as part of the installation.

“The theme of light is important in Somewhere in the Body. Lucia described her name to a family friend as meaning ‘light, like the City of Light’. Lucia means ‘light giver’ and she was named after Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. We filmed the dancers along the Costa de la Luz, which offered beautiful natural light and unique locations that relate parts of the book. Also this filming took place at the magic hour and at night in order to create a dream landscape fitting for Finnegans Wake, which Joyce described ‘a book of the night’.”

Creating a dance film differs from live performance in the amount of advance planning required. In performance, a choreographer can whisper a last-minute change in a dancer’s ear seconds before they leap onstage. In film, most artistic decisions are finalised in advance of filming and laminated in the post-production booth. This process rests easy with Stapleton, who always preferred to create choreographic scores, like sets of instruction or suggestions created in advance of rehearsals to be interpreted by the dancers.

For Somewhere in the Body she worked with dancers Katie Vickers and Colin Dunne. “We worked physically with language relating to the book in a dance studio for a few weeks, before taking the various choreographic structures we had created on location for filming.”

Stapleton’s next project, which is already in the early research phase, is based on Lucia’s childhood in Trieste, Italy. It will explore her early years, from her birth in 1907 until the family left Italy for Switzerland during the first World War. All of these projects are coalescing into a full embodiment of Lucia and her dancing.

“My hope is to reveal more about the person that Lucia was, in all her complexity, and to shine further light on her suffering and the experiences which may have led to any mental strain. I also want to focus on the creativity and freedom she seemed to experience during her dancing years, as well as how dance may have been a source of healing for her. Ultimately, I want to create a link between Lucia’s story and the modern day, and give an opportunity to shine some light on what we can learn from Lucia’s complex and tragic story.”

Somewhere in the Body, Project Arts Centre, May 18th-June 6th as part of Dublin Dance Festival.