The Dublin Dance Festival 2016 in review

Alonzo King was the glitzy centrepiece of this year’s Dublin Dance Festival but it was Betroffenheit which really stole the show

Jonathan Young  in Betroffenheit

Jonathan Young in Betroffenheit


Mesmerising contemporary ballets by Alonzo King LINES Ballet in the spacious Bord Gais Energy Theatre were the glitzy centrepiece in this year’s Dublin Dance Festival. But the real hit took place two nights later in the stifling heat of the O’Reilly Theatre. The European premiere of Betroffenheit, by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite and director Jonathan Young was immediately visceral but lingeringly intellectual, thoughtfully constructed but intriguingly elusive.

Betroffenheit - a German word meaning “a state of shock and bewilderment” - was created in response to a real-life trauma experienced by Young. When words failed him, he turned to Pite to help him express this state through movement. Together they have recreated this tension onstage both in moment-to-moment events and in the overall form: the two halves are almost Giselle-like, with a focus on action in the first half and a more meditative expression of pure movement in the second.

They conceptualise the “betroffenheit” as an emotionally liminal space, which in turn is metamorphosed into a bare room on stage, with raw off-white paint, a steel girder column and simple table. We gradually learn that while this room is a refuge from the trauma that Young seeks to escape from, it is also the where the trauma resides and is constantly relived.

Words, or verbal reasoning, drag him back to the trauma as he is stuck in a holding pattern of guilt and shame for surviving when others didn’t.

Pite’s physical vocabulary is a perfect match for the subject matter. The disarming sense of disconnect and uncertainty is reflected in movements that isolate body parts so that they seem to be following their own inorganic logic, rather than be naturally connected. The overall effect is that the performers seem moved by their bodies, rather than deliberately dancing themselves, an important distinction in the context of this work.

Everyday gestures are exaggerated, a simple shoulder shrug becomes windmill arms or a pointed finger grows to the length of an extended arm.

The room disappears after the interval, replaced by a nebulous, foggy and dimly lit state where movement becomes primary. Release from the memory of its oppressive presence is gradual, however, finally achieved in a beautiful duet between Jermaine Spivey and Young, leading to a solo where movements, now soft and organic, quieten the heart-rate and synapses into calm acceptance.

Politicised undercurrent
As a calling card for new artistic director Benjamin Perchet’s first festival (with Carina McGreal’s as producer) it bodes well. Rather than second-guessing audience preference, there is a sense of if-it’s-good-they-will-come to this year’s programming. With sound choices this can’t fail, but additionally, the festival’s programming shows a more politicised undercurrent.

This already captured the Waking the Feminists zeitgeist with Embodied, six solos created for and by women at the GPO in April. But in the past fortnight two politically engaged Greek choreographers were forefronted, albeit both chose different ways to express their politics. Patricia Apergi interrogated attitudes to migration through confluence and dissonance of movement, but in Relic, Euripides Laskaridis manipulates attitudes to otherness through the high drama of a “fat suit”, wigs and a messy stage strewn with props.

Reflecting perceptions and changes to Greek society through the state’s financial collapse, Laskaridis uses comedy, vaudeville and a slapstick that manages to swipe at many issues around bodies, gender and conformity.

Perennial attractions
Some programming strands of Dublin Dance Festival have remained through successive artistic directors, such as children’s performances and outdoor performances (this year, a Windstyle Performance by Aragorn Boulanger on Sandymount Strand).

Percussive dance has also featured in the past, often pairing styles together like kathak and sean nós. In Siamsa Tíre’s Anam, four men from different backgrounds and traditions come together to reveal their past and share their steps. The contrasts were intriguing: Matthew Olwell, who specialises in Appalachian Flat Foot, was measured with a quiet acumen and easy upright stance, while Nathan Pilatzke, from Canada, danced with wildness, his legs flailing out to the side, always on the verge of instability.

Irish dancing was represented by Jonathan Kelliher (who directed the show with Sue-Ellen Chester-MacCarthy), whose gentle north Kerry “Munnix” style contrasted with John Fitzgerald’s bold virtuosity, borne of competitions and the recent boom of professional Irish dance shows. While the individual performances were impressive, the overall setting, costumes and format felt more dated, with an over-reverence to the past rather than celebration of the present.

Fulcrum, by Enniskillen-based Dylan Quinn Dance Company, has evolved since its premiere three years ago, but remains an impressively sustained exploration of the shifting balances of power between two people and society in general. Quinn and Jenny Ecke are never more than a few feet apart, limbs entwining, grappling and sometimes hitting the other performer as they seek control over the other.

DRAFF: Another Exhibition, curated by writer Rachel Donnelly, choreographer Liv O’Donoghue and theatre-maker José Miguel Jimenez, focused on participants Aoife McAtamney, Euripides Laskaridis and Fernando Belfiore with costumes, audio interviews, video and still images. Unlike last year, it suffered from the lack of a dedicated space, the everyday setting of the box office discouraging any linger, but the free print magazine DRAFF was a rich and insightful companion to the festival’s performances.

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