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Dublin Dance Festival

By Siobhan Burke

Re-Presenting Ireland:

Mixed Bills
Dublin Dance Festival
Dance House, Dublin
May 15–16, 2009
Reviewed by Siobhan Burke

 

Ríonach Ní Néill's work-in-progress, Phrases from a Lost Year. Photo by Ní Néill, courtesy DDF.

 

Among the artists at this year's Dublin Dance Festival—18 companies spanning 9 countries—a handful emerged from the festival’s home turf for “Re-Presenting Ireland.” The afternoon of completed, excerpted, and in-progress works (co-presented by Dance Ireland) highlighted some of the host country’s newest, most experimental choreographic voices. As a guest of the festival, I caught the program twice, and the intimate studio/theater at Dance House—a sleek, spacious, multi-story home for dance—was consistently packed to the brim.

 

Of the six choreographers on two short “mixed bills,” soloist Dylan Quinn had the most incisive things to say. His excerpts from Fallout and Bonus Tracks made a direct but not didactic anti-war statement, and though pieced together from longer works, they formed an eloquent whole.

 

Quinn tackled potentially trite territory with a balance of sarcasm, sincerity, and nonchalance. He showed us his pithy side first, a game-show host pitching senseless violence like a prize on The Price Is Right. (One lucky viewer won a dustpan and the chance to “pick up the pieces,” or the army of plastic foot-soldiers on the floor.) The work took a poignant turn when Quinn stopped talking and started dancing. His body seemed to wage war on itself, instant reflexes colliding with soft, weighted release. But he offered up more dark irony too: a gory cartoon-animation interlude, and the happy harmonies of a faux-forties wartime jingle, (“So long mom, I’m off to drop the bomb, so don’t wait up for me!”)

 

Others took themselves more seriously. Junk Ensemble—with its cast of two women, a little girl, and an elderly man—showed the second half of their Drinking Dust, a journey, it seemed, through someone’s grim past, though I wasn’t sure whose. Inventive images abounded: The performers doused themselves in white powder; the women, seated cross-legged, anxiously braided their hair; 7-year-old Juno Kostick pedaled through on a pink tricycle, leather briefcase in tow. But ultimately, Drinking Dust (at least this part of it) felt strained, a smattering of props and ideas without a visceral core.

 

The same was true of Night Star Dance Company’s all-male quartet, Watch…Es. Artistic director Ingrid Nachstern used an intriguing score by Frederic Rzewski, which layered orchestral music with text from the letters of a prison inmate. But her choreography, though boldly danced, couldn’t compete with the score’s emotional impact. I wish Nachstern had approached its themes—the warped passage of time, the psychology of confinement—less literally and with more attention to the arc of the dance, as opposed to its individual pieces.


Liz Roche, on the other hand, has a knack for understatement. Her well-crafted duet, Getting Lost, was refreshingly unassuming. So many male-female duets become rife with romance, but Katherine O’Malley and Ashley Chen (both lovely to watch) shared something closer to friendship. Supple and grounded, they manipulated, mimicked, and pursued each other. Fingertips touched, causing torsos to crumple; a hug arrived after repeated near-embraces. Their perpetual motion relaxed into stillness every so often before sweeping them up again.


In the past few years, former Riverdance star Jean Butler has found herself at the intersection between Irish and contemporary dance. Her delightful work-in-progress, thicker than this, didn’t ignore her roots in Irish dance but didn’t scrutinize them either. She began by bouncing in place, her back to the audience, until her arms were as loose as spaghetti. Coming around to face us, she hunched her shoulders, extended an arm, and perched foot-to-knee, flamingo-like. Just when the mood was feeling too studious, a country western twang kicked in and sent Butler’s tall, lean frame skittering across the floor as if disrupted by tiny earthquakes. As the work develops, I hope she delves deeper into this playful side and doesn’t shy away from bigger risks.


For another work-in-progress, Ciotóg’s Phrases from a Lost Year, choreographer Ríonach Ní Néill coaxed us down onto the studio floor. From right up close, we watched Robert Jackson and Jenny Ecke in their attempts to make Cindy Cummings move. They tossed one of her feet back and forth with the tops of theirs, played catch with her inverted hips, kicked the backs of her knees, but she met their childlike interest with nothing but a wry smile. When she finally agreed to locomote, the three harnessed each other’s sleepy momentum into a wonderfully tumbling, tangled dance that migrated through the audience and out the other side. The trio became a quintet when Ní Néill appeared with her newborn baby, dancing in silence. With this burst of new life—human and creative—the afternoon drew to a quiet, cheerful close.