Tardigrade: Keeping the audience on their toes with a riot of colour and movement

Video screens, singers in stilettos, a team of dancers and a lot of body paint: mind your steps at ‘Tardigrade’, Philip Connaughton’s latest work

Contemporary dance performances can often call on self-consciously meagre means. Driven by a shoestring aesthetic – think street clothes, bare stage and minimal lighting – the dancing is haloed with conceptual purity that scorns artifice. Philip Connaughton's latest work, Tardigrade, isn't one of those. Driven by a more elaborate aesthetic – think outrageous costumes, body paint, singers, a string quartet and a dog – the performance glories in over-exuberance and asks: "What the hell is wrong with artificiality?"

Last May, Tardigrade was unleashed at an informal studio performance at DanceHouse during the Dublin Dance Festival. An unsuspecting audience witnessed a lone figure slowly walking around the space wearing a headpiece with four video screens, six singers in stilettos and flamboyant costumes, four straight-faced dancers, and Connaughton painting himself in pink body paint before prancing naked among the other performers.

Reconstruct and elongate
For the past two weeks, the cast has returned to DanceHouse to reconstruct and elongate the work, which opens on Wednesday as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe. Considering the scale of the task of harnessing these diverse elements, Connaughton is a calm presence in the studio. He can simultaneously rehearse the three dancers, keep an eye on the singers warming up with composer Michael Gallen in the corner of the studio, thank the guy who set up the video screen, and keep video designer Luca Truffarelli up to speed with changes, all the time retaining the tiniest detail of the ever-growing performance.

“Having already made the work, it feels like we’re losing sight of it again as it gets longer and we add other performers, like the string quartet,” he says. “But I just have to trust that I’ll be able to bring all the elements back together in time for opening night.”

It helps that Tardigrade is not bound by any tight narrative, but deliberately sprawls around the stage, bombarding the audience's senses. The inspiration for such an assault comes from an unlikely source: Star Wars.

"I was re-watching the original Star Wars movie and noticed the simplicity of the fights with light sabres," he says. "Later movies in the franchise have these incredibly complex fight sequences. You just don't know where to look. You can either try to take it in as a whole experience or focus on one small thing and miss out on everything else."

He was curious about how the breathless complexity of this fight choreography could translate onstage. “How many different elements can you put on the stage at one time? Can the audience take it all in, or be simply overwhelmed and have to focus on one thing in particular?” He is also well-practiced working with a large cast through his work in theatre. “I’ve grown to really enjoy choreographing a larger number of people. It’s not something you get to do a lot in contemporary dance in Ireland.”

His team of co-collaborators includes Gallen, Truffarelli and costume designer Emily Ní Bhroin. In the past, costume design has entailed a last-minute trip to Penneys, but Connaughton has enjoyed the creative partnership with Ní Bhroin.

“I think that audiences enjoy not just a good old costume, but also another element that has been thought out in relation to the concept of the show.”

Connaughton would be most familiar to Irish audiences as a dancer. Originally from Ballymun, his initial dance training was with Veronique Belliot at the long-gone Dance Centre in Digges Lane. He moved to London when he was 16 to study at Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, and worked with various European companies after graduation.

Working in Barcelona
He spent 14 years living and working in Barcelona, but maintained personal and professional ties with Ireland, dancing with companies such as Liz Roche Dance Company and John Scott Dance.

“As I developed as an artist, I found I liked more the work that was being created here. I had a sense of identity as an Irish contemporary dancer and related really well to the dancers who were here.”

His return to Ireland three years ago coincided with increased interest in choreographing. Why wait until then?

“I wasn’t ready until a few years ago. I am still very happy performing and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of choreographing because that is the next thing that a dancer is supposed to do.”

Although as a performer he had a good collaborative relationship with choreographers Liz Roche and John Scott, he was curious to see how autonomous he could be as a progenitor of ideas and movement.

He secured studio space at Axis Ballymun, where he was artist-in-residence in 2012. "That was a great experience, especially being from Ballymun, and the support I got was phenomenal." He first began choreographing on himself, creating the sombrely meditative Mortuus Est Philippus for Dublin Dance Festival and became an associate artist of Dance Ireland from 2013 to 2014. As well as studio space and practical support, this allowed him to reflect on his future artistic goals and direction.

Tardigrade's future direction is less certain. It has already been invited to other venues, but it is expensive to tour due to the large cast and technical specifications. But Connaughton was never tempted to scale it down.

“I believe that nothing is impossible. And that you should never limit what’s in your imagination to suit the economy.”

Tardigrade opens Sept 10 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin. More information at fringefest.com