Joy is in the air

Hands up who discovered a compelling mix of pleasure and pain at the International Dance Festival Ireland

7th May 2006





Dance has often been called the stepchild of the arts, due to its historic lack of funding, but if the International Dance Festival Ireland (IDFI) is any indication, the medium on its way from being stuck in the corner to taking centre stage.

Over the past two weeks in Dublin, festival-goers have seen dance in all varieties: as theatre, on screen, circus- inspired and in its more traditional forms. Whether performers bounced like children on a trampoline or methodically canvassed the stage, movement emerged in its most joyful forms.

Sometimes emotions were worn on the sleeve, at other times they were buried deep. One slow-moving show turned out to be gripping after the interval, and another moved at breakneck speed from the moment the lights went on. Non-performance events, such as the choreographer Willi Dorner’s photography exhibition and the New York dance critic Deborah Jowitt’s public lecture, offered other ways to view and appreciate dance, and audiences soaked it all up, filling theatres and staying for post-performance discussions.

A spectrum of viewpoints from within the contemporary dance genre were presented, from Jérôme Bel’s intellectualism to Montalvo-Hervieu’s playfulness. From this year, the IDFI becomes an annual event, providing audiences with even more thought-provoking work. However, increasing the range of genres and filling some of that new programming space with contemporary ballet would be welcome.

During the two weeks, each performance comfortably segued into the next. Bel’s understated but powerful duet, Pichet Klunchun and Myself, was less controversial than his previous show, which involved nudity and urination. Bel opted for a more sedate option this time, sitting quietly opposite the classically trained Thai dancer and interviewing him about his training. It provided a fascinating introduction to a dance form.

Klunchun described the four characters in Thai dancing — female, male, demon and monkey — using carefully articulated hand gestures and stances. Females stand with their feet close together, and males stand with their feet further apart, whereas a wide stance indicates the demon and wide eyes reveal a monkey. It was like having a Thai- dancing guidebook come to life.

Klunchun then turned the tables and asked Bel questions, allowing him to discuss his own western philosophy of movement. Bel then performed several excerpts from his own dances, including a powerful interpretation of Roberta Flack’s song Killing Me Softly. He interspersed personal information with provocative cultural statements, such as “marriage is not good for you” and “the Bible is not such a good book”. Regardless of whether his politics resonate, though, he expresses them in a surprisingly gentle way.

Nigel Charnock, in contrast, presented in-your-face messages throughout his performance piece, Frank. A veteran of DV8 Physical Theatre, he adopts a no-holds-barred approach to interacting with the audience in his nearly two-hour one-man show. It began in darkness, with Charnock uttering phrases such as “I can still do that. It’s amazing”, so that when the lights went on, his wiry form already looked exhausted.

His monologue progressed from frenzied to almost maniacal as he unleashed stream-of-consciousness comedy, singing, ball-throwing and dancing as if high on speed. Launching himself into the audience during the show’s first 15 minutes, climbing over seats, lying across people’s laps — even confiscating one man’s bag and emptying its contents on stage — he obliterated expectations about what might happen.

Underneath all the insanity, however, lay compassion. Although Charnock may spew out diatribes such as “all we need is a tsunami or bird flu and we’re all gone”, he settles on hopeful messages. Dancing seems to calm him down, so that when he loosely incorporates snippets of ballet and flamenco into his skilled solos, it stops the madness, albeit momentarily, before he launches into a tirade again.

The final image was one of him holding a ball with a map of the world, and running with it around and around the stage.

“Everything I have is temporary. Only love is necessary,” he proclaimed. Dance — the most ethereal art form — offers the ideal medium for expressing this.

Montalvo-Hervieu’s On Danƒe offered a global message on the joys of dance, blending street dancing with other forms. Dancers performed energetic solos from hip-hop to African dance and ballet, with a video linking it all together in a montage of fantastical images, including tigers swimming, people emerging out of topiaries, and elephants balancing on magic carpets. They floated like a big-screen movie at the back of the stage, playing like a series of vignettes, with the videos holding the disparate dance forms together.

“Dance puts me in a good mood,” observed one performer. “Dance is like tiny bubbles moving around inside me,” said another. But some of the chatter became heavy-handed; in one overly long sequence, for example, a dancer likened her movements to that of a swimming tiger. “I like to find my feelings inside myself,” she said. “Can you feel it, too? Can you feel what I feel?” Watching the video images was often more interesting, though, and the show’s pace picked up when another dancer, dressed in orange, mounted the trampoline and began to jump, soaring halfway to the ceiling on stage.

While the rest of the festival’s offerings provided more obvious links to the joys of dance, positive messages were embedded in Raimund Hoghe’s Swan Lake, 4 Acts. Starting with a shadow box of an old Russian theatre sitting at the back of the stage, four dancers entered and slowly, one by one, sat on chairs. They stayed there until Hoghe entered and gave them permission to move. When they did, their actions consisted of the smallest motions; the ripple of an arm, slow walks towards the edge of the stage, sideways glances, tilted heads.

Hoghe is an older dancer with a severe spinal curvature, which became a significant detail in his storytelling. He performed a series of acts that seemed to add up to nothing other than some kind of brain-teaser or conjecture on what he thinks of the ballet Swan Lake.

First, he placed two-dimensional swans that looked like Christmas ornaments in lines on the stage, as if creating his own corps. Having laid tissues over the swans, as if putting them to bed, he subsequently removed the tissues, then the swans, and danced in the middle of the stage before starting his next methodical move.

For fans of the original ballet, the only obvious link is Tchaikovsky’s lush score and Hoghe’s repeated interpretation of the dying swan, where he lay on the stage, sometimes extending his arms like wings, while at other times remaining motionless.

With such powerful music suggesting images of the ballet, suffering the repetitive movements and lengthy stillness bordered on torture. (Hoghe later placed perfectly spaced ice cubes around the stage’s perimeter and covered the dancers in raincoats as they lay there, apparently lifeless.) In the dance’s second half, such discomfort became precisely the point, and the performance turned into a personal response to what was happening rather than an understanding of what Hoghe may have intended. This visceral reaction is among the most powerful ways that dance communicates.

Throughout the dance, Hoghe was forthright about exposing his body. In the beginning, he took off his white shirt and switched it for a black one his fellow performer Lorenzo de Brabandere wore, and as the dance progressed, Hoghe removed layers of clothing until, with his back to the audience, he had nothing on. Although disrobing has become common in dance, in this case his spine curvature became more significant as the show went on.

As he disrobed and became more vulnerable, the question arose as to why he might be doing it. Earlier, he was the one performing the difficult tasks: carefully placing ice cubes while his fellow performers looked on, counting the swans, mopping water as the ice melted. He showed little emotion, and neither did the other dancers, although he needed to put in great effort to execute a simple movement.

After disrobing and stuffing his clothes in a bag, he assumed the dying-swan position, his body struggling from the effort, his pain as naked as his physical form. After the more obvious pleasure of several of the festival’s dances, the agonising extremes to which Hoghe pushed himself provided the most eloquent testament to the joy of dance.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.