Artsdesk: Heightened Movements – Totems

Posted June 29, 2017 in Arts & Culture Features

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Different rules apply in different spaces there are rules in the theatre and rules in the gallery. I feel it’s hard to always make dance fit in the theatrical rules.” – Liz Roche

Dance and visual art have a history of cohabitation. Contemporary dance pieces have been performed in gallery spaces since the late 60s when Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown choreographed work for the Whitney Museum in New York, continuing up to today with German artist Anne Imhof’s startling Angst (2016/2017) series, performed in the Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof. This fellowship of the two forms makes sense; the non-verbal and visually contemplative nature of dance is more closely aligned with visual art and installation than its performative partner, theatre.

Irish choreographer Liz Roche has been making contemporary dance work since 1999, but this year will mark a new departure for the choreographer with the premiere of her first piece for a gallery space, Totems, opening on July 6th in the newly refurbished Shaw Room of the National Gallery of Ireland. The creation of Totems has also marked a second departure for the choreographer: the decision to bring in a panel of outsiders during the development period to feed back on what they were seeing in the room. It was in some ways a confronting experience for Roche, throwing into question the importance of choreographic intention in the work:

One of the panel members said to me: ‘There comes a point where it doesn’t really matter what you wanted it to be, it’s now what it is.’ You normally stay in that place of how you want it to be for much longer. It’s usually only on opening night that you say ok, now, ‘it is what you [the audience] say it is’. It’s been interesting with Totems to do that at a much earlier stage and almost leave go what you felt it should have been.

The artwork in the Shaw Room did not suggest themes when making Totems; instead, Roche was responding to it in terms of its treatment of light, or thinking about how to capture in movement the ‘heightened moments’ often presented in paintings. She was also influenced by John Berger’s seminal text on visual culture Ways of Seeing, the thinking of David Hockney and the patterns on the Newgrange kerbstones. For a choreographer whose trademark is intricate and dense movement for medium-sized groups of dancers, this transition to a gallery space seems to have opened up new perspectives on perspective.

When I first started thinking about this piece I wanted to see if it were possible to see something that you knew, something familiar, an object or a part of yourself, to see that in a way you felt you hadnt seen it before… [David Hockney] talks about presenting what you see and not presenting what you think you see. I thought I’d like to just devote my life to that idea.”

As a counterintuitive way in to finding a new way of seeing, Roche had the performers improvise in the studio with eyes shut or covered. Something surprising emerged:

There are times in the piece where the dancers are really quite sculpted in their positions and it probably looks like this comes from an image theyre copying, but actually all of those sculpted images come from improvising with their eyes completely shut … I thought maybe there’s something that you hook into, that the body hooks into…

This idea of ‘hooking into’ something treads the ground of the ultra-abstract, of unidentifiable energy flows and instinct. Roche speaks about the different theories behind the patterns in the Newgrange kerbstones. There’s a suggestion that maybe the grain of the stone influenced how the design emerged, or that the engraver was simply ‘communing with pattern’ (as Roche phrases it):

I think a lot of dance for me is that. Staying in pattern and movement and flow. But I suppose theres always a pressure to somehow turn that into something that’s representative of life, representative of something specific. And I decided in this piece that I wouldn’t pressure myself to do that, I would let the patterns come and go.”


Interestingly, the title of the piece, ‘Totems’, comes from a desire to de-categorise. Roche is interested in ‘animal energies’ in the sense of humans communing with something other, or of being of unfixed identity. This is one of the reasons the dancers have their heads covered for part of the performance.

I wanted to encourage people to look at the dancers in terms of those energies where you could be looking at something that’s animal or person … I wanted to bring in a fluidity so what we are is not so fixed. I think we’re now in a time where each categorisation of something is also a separation, because in knowing what you are, there are loads of thing you’re now not … I worry about the separation that implies. I would want to believe that things are a little less fixed than that or that they’re more moveable.”

Totems takes place in the National Gallery of Ireland – Thursday July 7 to Sunday July 9 at 7pm on Thursday and Friday and 1pm from Friday to Sunday. Tickets €13-€15

Words: Rachel Donnelly

Images: Luca Truffarelli


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