To Know The Dancer From The Dance

Posted May 17, 2017 in Arts & Culture Features

Showcasing the best of Irish and international dance, the curtain lifts on the Dublin Dance Festival. Here’s what’s in store from those fleet of foot.


Space – the final frontier (unless you used to watch SeaQuest DSV, in which case you’ll agree the oceans are the final frontier) – is a strong theme in this year’s Dublin Dance Festival. The annual celebration of movement that takes over the streets and theatres of the city every May returns this year to run from the 18th to the 28th, featuring artists from France, Austria, Greece, Italy, Syria and Spain, alongside the ever-present strong seam of Irish work. The blackness outside the atmosphere of our fragile globe seems to hold a particular allure for two of the Ireland-based artists in this year’s programme.

merry.go.round, by Dublin-based Swedish choreographer Maria Nilsson Waller, interrogates what the choreographer refers to as ‘the big romantic myth’, through the cyclical movement of celestial bodies. “I had this idea for a long time, with orbits, people, relationships, planets, celestial bodies – this idea of love and timing. You have to sync, click in. You try to stay together, but your paths are splitting apart.”

Like the author Alain de Botton, Maria thinks the relatively recent conception of romantic love (pedalled by the Romantics in the late eighteenth century), that we should form relationships based on attraction and not practical concerns, is responsible for what she refers to as ‘post-romantic stress disorder’: strife and pain caused by unrealistic expectations. “You need to make a shift from the romantic impulse to a practical relationship and nowadays that’s where the tension happens…before, it would have been a little bit controlled by the church or society, whereas now, we think we’re free, we’re no longer under the church, but actually we’re still following a lot of stories, we’re just not really aware of them.”

In developing merry.go.round, Maria and her cast of dancers worked with texts featuring classic romantic couples – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice – trying to get inside how these characters might have felt and thought. Fragments of dialogue from this process emerge in the show, but spliced with the performer’s own personal narrative: “The dancer’s character is really mixed with the fictional character – I think it’s really beautiful when they float together. You see a lot of the personal stories as well, their own human life.”

With merry.go.round, the choreography isn’t set hard and fast – choices about text and movement are made by the dancers in the moment. Like many theatre and dance companies who work with improvisation, Maria does it because she finds it creates a quality of liveness and urgency: “We try to work together like a jazz improv group, knowing the score, jamming and improvising together and not setting. I like it because it gives more energy and more edge and more risk.”

Beyond wondering about the ‘big romantic myth’, merry.go.round is about the unknown in a more general sense, and what stories we as humans tell ourselves to try to illuminate the darkness of not knowing. “Now that we start to know a lot more about brain chemistry and biological attraction, in a way, this romantic myth is starting crumble too, and that’s the feeling where you’re in this space where you have no idea and there are no myths to hold on to. If there’s a feeling to the show, it’s the feeling of being on earth looking into a big black space and not knowing if there’s a god out there – the borders of our knowledge are always being pushed further and further out, but in the end, we still don’t know. Where science can’t give us the answers, we fall into myth again, which I think can be a beautiful thing.”


Keeping on the theme of outer space as allegory for the unknown is Irish choreographer Philip Connaughton’s Extraterrestrial Events, also in this year’s programme, a performance that merges movement with live opera. The show emerged out of exhaustive research into hundreds of police reports on UFO sightings in France, from the 1950s to the present day. Philip was interested in the particularly human trait of denial – as he puts it, “focusing on something else rather than looking at what’s in front of you.” He came across an organisation called GEIPAN, a sub-group of the CNES (the National Centre for Space Studies) in France. GEIPAN keep a detailed record of every UFO sighting reported to the French police – including the who, the when, the where and the how. It’s an unprecedented treasure trove of stories that say a lot about human psychology, a jackpot for a choreographer interested in studying truth-telling and denial.

GEIPAN investigate and then assign a category to every case they’re presented with, depending on the outcome of the investigation. Categories range from A to D, with A being resolved cases, where the sighting was explained. D are the unexplained cases; but there are no D cases, Philip says. “’A’ cases are ‘it was your granny in the back garden with a torch’. But because I was interested in this idea of denial, I was only interested in category A.” Of the over 400 police reports Philip looked at, he ultimately chose four stories to work with when developing the show. These were selected ‘choreographically’, meaning, Philip considered them spatially, looking at how far away in space from the viewer the event occurred.

“I thought, ‘how do I choose out of over 400 cases…where do I begin?’ I began in a physical sense. I went from far to near. The first case study I chose was this lady who went into great detail about what she saw and it turned out it was just the moon. The second one I chose was disco lights – I’d say about 90% of the sightings, from 1975 onwards, in rural France were disco lights.” Philip continued this trajectory of sightings that happened far away from the viewer to sightings that happened near, concluding with a man who discovered a curious stone in his garden and reported it as being an alien foetus.

When the case was investigated, it transpired this man had been telling the alien foetus story for years to his colleagues in the factory where he worked; he had to make a formal declaration to the police retracting his statement and apologising. There’s a certain loneliness in this, perhaps feeding into the second theme that preoccupies Philip in much of his work – separation, in the sense of being separate from others. As Philip describes it, “solitude versus the world.” It’s an idea that’s present in merry.go.round also, an “image of being alone in space, maybe disconnected from people or society, whether through depression or something else…a person in a black void where you can’t survive really, where you shouldn’t be.”

Pulverising the romantic myth, floating alone in a black void of unknowable-ness, steadily denying the possibility of life beyond humans…it all seems very heavy, very fatalistic. But the reality of these shows, which can’t be said here on this page, is they find some beauty, some respite, some meaning in the chaos of those themes. That’s why the shows are; that’s why you should go see them.

Dublin Dance Festival runs from the 18th to the 28th of May in various venues across Dublin. For more information, visit:

 Words: Rachel Donnelly

Images: merry.go.round by Maria Nilsson Waller Photo: Patricio Cassinoni

Philip Connaughton – Extraterrestrial Events Photo: Luca Truffarelli


Dublin Dance Festival 2017 – Three More To See

Sunny Emanuel Gat / Awir Leon (France)

The criteria for being a performer in Sunny seem to be: being incredibly fit, incredibly good looking and incredibly good at dancing. Sunny by French choreographer Emanuel Gat isn’t heavy-concept or minimalist performance art; it’s a joyous, slick piece of choreography for a group of amazing dancers, spliced with a live concert by DJ/singer Awir Leon.


Deep DishLiquid Loft / Chris Haring (UK)

I saw this in Italy a couple of years ago and it was overwhelming – in a good way. A decadent dinner party descends into putrefaction and chaos; food rots and relationships unravel. The micro-dynamics of all that’s happening on the stage are shared with the audience through smarty-pants camera-work. It’s great.


Deep Clean Oona Doherty (Northern Ireland)

Oona Doherty, one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic choreographers and performers working in Northern Ireland and Ireland today, is an artist in more than one sense. She has a body of collage work that’s as vibrant and hard-hitting as her performances. An exhibition of this work will be installed in the Dublin Dance Festival box office (12 East Essex Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2) from 2nd May to the end of the festival.

 Words: Rachel Donnelly


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