Áine Ní Laoghaire: Bodies, Performance and Self-Expression

In order to speak, we must move.

We barely register these minute movements. But we inhale. Our lungs expand. Our lips and tongues round and soften, and sound takes shape. Speaking as an Irish person, we as a people rarely think about movement at all. We are all head, heads especially full of quips and wits, being carried around by lumps of mobile meat. But what would it feel like to feel the opposite? To experience the world physically as opposed to logically? To trust the body’s impulses over the brain’s?

Our writers and wits are well regarded the world over, but Ireland is now also nurturing a growing pool of physical practitioners – dancers, performance artists, actors – of the highest standard. For them, physical action, not words, are how they express themselves.

“In my work I always want to try and say most things with the body. I always come back to the idea that we had movement as a way to communicate long before we had spoken language,” Emma Martin says during a discussion of the body as a tool. Emma trained and worked in classical ballet for 20 years, but now creates her own work which “couldn’t go further away from ballet in terms of a movement aesthetic… there is so much more freedom in that there are no rules to be obeyed.” Her first contemporary piece “Listowel Syndrome” in 2010, focused on an infamous sexual assault case in Listowel, Co. Kerry, during which people of the community expressed their solidarity with a convicted man through a wordless gesture – a handshake. That action had far more of an impact on spectators then any impassioned speech could have. But why? According to Emma, actions and movement provoke a “profound sense of something deeper, a feeling that (goes) right down to the soul of something”.

That delicately un-nameable “something” comes up over and over again in conversation. For actor and clown, Raymond Keane, the closest thing to “something” is vulnerability. His interest lies in the “less able, but also the deeper, connected body… Beckett writes for the body. It’s about the ageing body, the failing body.” He talks about a kind of body our society has no investment in, despite a failing body being in all of our futures. Instead, we are only interested in “the super human body… we are bombarded with reminders of what we don’t have-beauty, health…But don’t I want to see your blemishes when I’m in love with you? I love you for your blemishes, actually you’re much more interesting that way.” Raymond, whose recent collaborations with Company SJ have presented muscular, , deeply humane versions of Beckett’s work, feels that regardless of the “ way we all abuse our bodies… all life is physical by its nature, but, to go back to Mr. Beckett, you go on because you cant do anything else but go on.”

And despite age and abuse and aches and pains, a physical performer must indeed go on. What choice do they have? Not that it’s an easy choice to make, as limitations and old injuries make themselves more obvious. “What I am noticing as I get older, are what I call my vulnerabilities, where I get self conscious, the places I feel I can’t do things as well as I could. There are days when I feel very vulnerable and I do not want to be looked at. There are days where I feel all of my tensions; I feel all of my aches. I feel old, like my body won’t be able to keep it all up, but a lot of it is neurosis. And it passes.”

Bryan Burroughs created Beowulf: The Blockbuster, the only production out of over 3,000 to receive six five-star reviews in the Edinburgh Fringe 2014.  Another of Company SJ’s collaborators, he admits that even the most physically disciplined and trained bodies slowly begin to give in to age. But the losses of the physical body are accompanied by the gains of the mind and the heart. “An amazing richness,” is how Emma Martin refers to it. She speaks from watching colleagues, collaborators and herself navigate the ageing process. “You observe the changes when the body can’t do everything it used to do, but then you’re finding all these other things within those new limitations that are much richer. There have been some magical moments of stuff that are not physically virtuosic, but that are emotionally virtuosic, and very true. As you get older you’re not afraid to express things that are much more nuanced.”

It is not only the limitations of the ageing body that offer more scope for depth in the work, but the limitations of having a human body in the first place. “The idea might call for you to think – Oh, I’d love to be able to do this entire thing upside down! But the human body can’t necessarily do everything upside down, d’ya know what I mean? This is what I physically want to do, but it’s impossible!” laughs Liv O’Donoghue.  Liv’s most recent pieces, “Hear Me Sing Your Song/With Raised Arms” brought together two dancers and two musicians, neither of whom had ever worked using movement or dancers before. “But I thought what they did was so exciting, because they were so genuine and so forthcoming and moved in ways which I would never have predicted. They were giving me their natural responses to these bizarre choreographic requests… If my work wants to address social or human issues, you’re going to do that more universally with a universal body… I think I’ve realised you’re born with a body, you work with what you’ve got and you make your choices around that… and human bodies are generally more interesting.”

That sense of acceptance of self is a common thread in the practitioners I met.  Not that it came easily for all, or any of them. Both Liv and Emma began ballet training at young ages, where the aesthetic ideal is“ these strange hybrid women with long fingers, big feet, small heads, small breasts, small bums; long limbed but small.” Students were expected to achieve this aesthetic. “You’re under the thumb of teachers who are constantly criticising your body on a daily basis,”  Emma says. Bryan also struggled with the idea of an aesthetic ideal, albeit a social one. “ I had hair, I loved my hair. And when I started losing it, it annihilated my confidence, it affected my ability to get work…there was literally no way for me to hide it. But it can serve you, if you can own the flaw.  You try to turn it into a calling card,a strength, into something definitive. You embrace your vulnerabilities, so that you know what they are and you highlight the things you are that make you different. But back then, that was another reason to make sure the rest of my body was up to par, so that I could work in another way.”

For all of them, it was the work that offered freedom and expression. “I was inarticulate in a way, so I guess it was a way to express myself,” remembers Raymond.

Whatever the form of expression, the act of expressing is vital. But there is something about watching a body engaged in space that offers a depth of feeling. Perhaps it’s a body-to-body connection between audience and performer. Emma Martin offered an explanation. “I think because you take logic out of it. When you speak to someone you have this filter, where you create a thought and then you turn it into speech. But there’s a filter in between that forms how you’re going to say it or not going to say it. Whereas with dance, I think the body is a lot more truthful. There’s more of an authenticity there when we move our bodies. I think on a subconscious level we see that and respond to it”. 

For Raymond Keane, it’s equally simple. “You are so active as an audience, so physically alive and breathing with the performer. That for me is the essence. I’ll remember ten minutes of the writing, but I’ll feel the rest of it, and that’s sacred.”

Áine Ní Laoghaire is an actor/performer based in Dublin. She tweets at@ainedunleary and writes mini fashion paragraphs at wantonboys.wordpress.com.

Raymond Keane is a founding member and Artistic Director of Barabbas www.barabbas.ie Now in its twenty second year, Barabbas continues to produce its unique form of theatre on the Irish and international stage He most recently performed in The True Story of Hansel and Gretel for Theatre Lovett.  More information can be found at www.barabbas.ie

Emma Martin is an Irish choreographer based in Carlow and is currently dance artist in residence at VISUAL/ George Bernard Shaw Theatre, Carlow.  Emma was an inaugural Dance Ireland Associate Artist from 2011-2012. She was selected as a Modul Dance Network Artist for 2013-14 and was one of four choreographers selected for DanceLines 2013 at ROH2/ Royal Opera House, London. Her most recent piece, Dancehall was recieved to great acclaim at Dublin Theatre Festival 2015.  www.emmamartindance.com

Liv O’Donoghue is an Associate Artist of Dance Ireland. She trained at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in the UK, graduating with the Outstanding Achievement award in 2007. As a choreographer, her work has been shown as part of the Dublin Dance Festival (Ireland), DancEUnion/Southbank Centre  (UK), Time to Dance (Latvia), Bealtaine Festival (Ireland), Immersia/LEAP (Germany), Autopilot (Sweden), The New Choreography Showcase (UK) and the DMJ International Video Dance Festival (Japan). Liv is also involved in DRAFF magazine. http://www.livodonoghue.com/  @movingprojects and @DRAFFmag

Bryan Burroughs is is an actor, director, movement director and more recently “writer” having penned and performed the award winning Beowulf : The Blockbuster earning Bryan a STAGE award for acting excellence at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival. Other notable performances include Barabbas’ Johnny Patterson : The Singing Irish Clown for which he received the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actor and “B” in Company SJ’s production of Beckett’s “Act Without Words II ” which toured most recently to The Barbican in London. Bryan’s show Beowulf is currently running at Project Arts Centre. More information can be found at http://projectartscentre.ie/event/beowulf-blockbuster/

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