Friday, 28 May 2010

Dialogue in Shanghai: Downstream Garage

Downstream Garage is an important venue for what we would call fringe performance in Shanghai. It is a place where young artists can meet, rehearse and perform, all free of charge since no tickets can be sold as the venue has no performance licence.

I visited it on my first trip to China and helped then to buy a dance floor for the venue. It was good to be able to dance on that floor last week (the first time in four weeks to take Dialogue off concrete and my joints were grateful) when we performed Dialogue there. Of course it wasn’t a performance, since that would be illegal. It was an ‘event/workshop’. In fact we hadn’t intended to do a proper performance of Dialogue at Downstream since we knew the venue’s technical facilities were limited and we expected we would have already performed three times in Shanghai. However when we sae the effort that Mr Wang, Downstream’s presiding spirit, had put in to tidying the space for us (he’s in the middle of messy renovations) we felt it would be rude not to do the piece as best we could.

It was a great performance as far as the audience were concerned. The venue was full and many who were there were coming to see the piece for a second time. They even preferred the Downstream Garage performance because of the intimate focus of the space.
Perhaps for Xiao Ke and I, we weren’t as happy by the performance. I was aware that it was our last performance together and anticipating the sadness of leaving had already put some distance between myself and the work. But the audience didn’t mind.
Again they stayed for a long discussion after the show and we involved them in improvisations based on elements of the piece.

I’m proud of this version of Dialogue. Until now, I knew the collaboration was important for me. It taught me something and I wanted to share the journey that I was on with audiences since I felt the process was relevant to how we deal with difference and otherness in general. However, while I know that Dialogue can continue to develop, I know we’ve arrived somewhere solid now. Something has changed in my movement and more importantly, Xiao Ke and I have a friendship that has deepened and strengthened through our creative process.

For this, I am grateful to the Shanghai Expo and to Culture Ireland for supporting us to work here.

Dialogue in Shanghai: Ke Arts Center

We were looking forward to performing in the Ke Arts Center as part of the Shanghai Repertory Theatre’s International Spring Festival.

Our producer, Zhang Yuan, got us a slot in the festival and I was very happy as it gave us a context for our performance and a potential audience.

The Ke Center is a well established space, originally for visual art but increasingly for performance and the festival was providing a black box environment so we could put on a polished performance.

It was all going well. Then the Cultural Bureau struck. On the day of our opening performance, the Bureau denied the performance licence to the festival, apparently on the grounds that the SRT used the word ‘international’ in the title and the use of this word needs approval from Beijing. Also the use of the word ‘festival’ brought adverse attention when the word for ‘season’ would not have. It was so annoying, disappointing and sadly, not surprising.

I felt worse for the Chinese artists because while I can leave next week and use the words I want and expect that my performances will not need to be licensed by the state, they are stuck with this situation.

This being China, there are ways around the problem, Instead of having a ‘performance’, we had a ‘final rehearsal’ for ‘friends’, some of whom made a donation to the Festival. No tickets could be sold but for us the priority was sharing the work with an interested audience. And most were interested enough to stay around for an hour after to discuss the piece.

Xiao Ke has been having a tough time in her personal life and our performance was inflected by that trouble. But it made for an emotional and energetic version of our Dialogue. I've been pleased to notice in myself that the softer physicality I started to explore two years ago is finally becoming natural for me. This version of Dialogue has allowed me to feel comfortable in improvising with that movement quality while allowing space also for the movement skills I've known for longer.

This Dialogue for me was less about learning something new than noticing the journey Xiao Ke and I have been on together, how that has changed us and how we could use the energy of new collaborators to refine what we wanted to share with an audience.

Dialogue in Shanghai: Irish Pavilion in the World Expo

Performing at the Irish Pavilion in the Expo wasn’t easy. I think Xiao Ke, Feng Hao and He Long felt a little weird in the Expo environment as they felt it to be a manifestation of the Chinese government and its desire to present an image of harmony and success to the world.

The Disney-style parade that passes through the Expo each day sings over and over the message ‘One World’, but my Chinese colleagues can’t really buy in to that government-enforced optimism. Most of the Chinese artists I’ve met in Beijing and Shanghai roll their eyes at the mention of Expo and are amused that they are co-opted to be part of international projects in the various pavilions. Xiao Ke will be back at Expo next month performing with Janice Claxtion at the British Pavilion.

Of course I’d like to think Dialogue is different, particularly because it is based on a friendship. I am very happy to count Xiao Ke as a friend now and through her I have met collaborators, He Long and Feng Hao, who are good artists and good people. Though we haven’t worked together long as a team, the adversity we faced in Shanghai has made us pull together and support one another.

The Irish Pavilion had prepared a 9m x 4.5m stage in its courtyard that was suitable for the traditional Irish music and dance show that was performed there, but not right for Dialogue. It took a bit of effort but we managed to get the technical support to have the performance at the top of the courtyard as I’d originally agreed after my visit in April. We didn’t have theatrical light but the shifting LED lighting in the courtyard walls was beautiful and the piece looked good there.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Mo mhórchoir féin: the film

Until I upload my own copy to Youtube or Facebook here's a link to RTÉ's Dance on the Box website where all the dance films are available to view.

It is amusing to reflect that my duet on the pitch at Croke Park provoked more public discussion than this solo dance in a church. Croke Park is clearly the holier ground these days.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Mo mhórchoir féin

Last night, RTÉ screened my second Dance on the Box commission called Mo mhórchoir féin. I made the film while we were rehearsing for the Open Niche project and that is one of the reasons that I haven’t written about it until now. Because RTÉ was going to premiere the films, I also felt I had to keep it under wraps but also something about their protective sensitivity around the film made me feel like I shouldn’t discuss it too much in advance of its being aired.

The film is set in a Catholic church and has three people in it: a boy who clears the altar after Mass, a man who dances, and an older woman who watches from her pew.

Just before Christmas last year, I saw that RTÉ and The Arts Council were having another round of Dance on the Box commissions. Match was part of the first series in 2006 and the experience and impact of making the film was so positive that I wanted to do another one. I didn’t feel it would have been right to apply again in 2008 but four years later felt like a seemly gap.

Part of the reason that Match was such a great experience for me and such a fantastic film was I was introduced to Dearbhla Walsh, the director. Since making Match she has won an Emmy for her work on Little Dorritt. She mostly films TV dramas and so she understands television and story-telling exceptionally well. And yet she is incredibly sensitive to the aspects of my choreography that I find difficult to articulate in words.

I was delighted that she was up for making another film together and even more happy when I met Iarla Ó Lionáird while we were at APAP in New York and he agreed to do the music for the film. Maggie Breathnach whom I worked for on TG4’s arts programme, Imeall, agreed to produce the film.

One of the things I’m proud about in Match is that it places dance at the centre of an Irish national narrative. There dance is on the sacred turf of Croke Park, claiming its kinship to other more regularly acknowledged forms of communal self-expression like Gaelic sports. The placing of dance in that context worked for me on a personal level too since I come from a family of GAA sports’ fans and players. In a way, my body was bred for that kind of sports but I have taken that breeding and used it to a different but not unrelated end. When the DOTB opportunity came up again, I knew I had to find a similar personal connection to an arena of national relevance where dance could demonstrate its ability to communicate in a way that language alone could not.

All photos by Jonathan Mitchell

Sunday, 16 May 2010

EXPO visit: Improvisation in the Beijing Traffic

Three weeks in Beijing have passed quickly and tomorrow I leave for Shanghai and the whole Expo experience. As always, being in China has taught me a lot about myself, my habits and preconceptions, nowhere more so than in relation to traffic and travel.
I spent the first week waiting for Platform China whose studio that I’m staying to provide the promised bicycle and in the meantime took a lot of buses in and out of town. I hated having to wait, being constrained by an unfathomable timetable and being jostled and squashed. When Platform China couldn’t provide a tall enough bicycle, I rented one myself (of course now I am wiser thanks to everyone’s post factum counsel that it would have been cheaper to buy a bike than rent one). Having a bike restored my much valued independence. It’s clear to me that I am willing to expend a considerable amount of physical energy to secure that independence as I have cycled hour long trips across the city rather than subject myself to buses or even the uncertainty that a taxi might be taking you for a ride. So that’s one lesson about independence.

The other thing I learned cycling in Beijing is about improvisation. The rules of the road are baffling to me – more baffling than the language. People cycle the wrong way, pedestrians walk in the middle of the road and with passive aggression ignore the constant hooting of cars and bikes. Buses pull in in front of you, pinning you to the kerb and then stop but pull out again when you try to overtake them. Since the choreography isn’t clear to me, I have to improvise, alongside everyone else who seems to be improvising. I imagined that this improvisation had a structure, a set of shared rules which I might not know but I assumed everyone else did. However, when I see the accidents, the battered cars and the injured cyclists, I do wonder if that’s the case. More than anything I am ground down by what appears to me to be the discourtesy of such lawlessness. Whether or not I am completely misreading the situation, it is the fact of this care for courtesy that I notice in myself. Courtesy of course doesn’t leave much room for surprises.

I think about improvisation because working with Xiao Ke on Dialogue for the past two years has been the most sustained engagement with improvisation that I have undertaken. I have grown more comfortable with the process but only after we’ve established clear parameters for the improvisation. This version of Dialogue which we will perform in Shanghai has two new artists involved: Feng Hao, an experimental musician who is making a name for himself on the improvised music scene in Beijing and He Long, a video artist who does a lot of live visuals for music events. Both have brought a youthful energy to the piece. Meanwhile Xiao Ke and I have refined the structure of the piece, simplifying the line and relaxing in to our growing familiarity with each other.

My tai chi and qi gong practice have given me access to a different movement style that I’ve used a lot in Dialogue. In previous versions I was anxious about representing the kind of muscular physicality that I had considered a hallmark of my work. Now I don’t feel the need so much to that. Maybe I’m older. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe it just isn’t necessary.

With Match and Niche to perform after Dialogue, however, I’m curious to see whether I can still tap in to that muscular engagement upon which Match in particular was constructed.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

EXPO visit: Rehearsals in Beijing

I've been in Beijing over a week now. I'm staying in Caochangdi, an artists' village beyond the famous 798 art district but not quite as far as Beigao where I stayed last year. I'm living in a studio that belongs to the Platform China gallery, one of the many galleries in the village. The whole place, however, is under threat of demolition by Government-sanctioned developers despite its concentration of successful galleries and despite being the home of Ai Wei Wei

Xiao Ke also live in Caochangdi so we've been rehearsing this latest version of Dialogue in an empty gallery space nearby.

Yin Yi who made the music for our earlier versions of Dialogue isn't with us so instead we have a musician called Feng Hao and a a video artist called He Long. They bring a new energy to the piece and at the same time, the fact that there are two of them allows me and Xiao Ke to refocus the dance more clearly on our relationship. We've taken this chance to refine the through-line of the piece and that coupled with the fact that we have even more experience under our belt makes this process feel quite relaxed.

It's been interesting to hear various Chinese artists like Xiao Ke and Yin Yi talk about the other international collaborations in which they've been involved. I'm gratified, naturally, that they've been positive about their experience with Dialogue in a way that they've not been with other projects. Listening to them, however, it seems the key ingredient to success is investing time. I've known Xiao Ke since 2006 now. We are friends. This allows us a mutual understanding that enhances the way we work. Many other projects however are shot-gun marriages of convenience that are put together to take advantage of a funding opportunity. And there's no reason why such arranged marriages shouldn't blossom in to something fantastic - but the results are rarely immediate, particularly when there is such cultural differences that impact on aesthetics and working practices.