Firkin Crane CLG
In this series, we ask i-Portunus Houses participants to tell us their stories and experiences. At the end of each story, we invite you to reflect with us on important themes about mobility in the arts and civil society.
Dancing More Wisely
Dancing More Wisely (DMW) is a long-term research project conceived by dance artist and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir. The aim of the project is to create spaces for dance artists to access, reflect on, deepen and share the wisdom of their practice. It asks what do we need to know and do now if we plan on dancing our whole life.
Dancing More Wisely Firkin Crane Residencies
1. Through mobility funding from i-Portunus and the hospitality of Firkin Crane, this first step of DMW brought together five experienced dance artists in conversation, in physical practice and in creative experimentation to begin to map some shared terrain of wise dancing. The participating artists were Olga Zlitluhina (Latvia), Wanjiru Kamuyu (France), Annie Hanauer (UK), Fearghus Ó Conchúir (Ireland/UK), Daniel Abreu (Spain). The initial intention was to bring the whole group together for a week of mutual exchange at Firkin Crane in Cork. However, shifting schedules meant the artists had to gather in duos and trios over a period of three weeks with Olga joining remotely from Latvia. Such flexibility and resilience from artists and the host were the first skills to bring to the exchange.
The first week of exchange took place 16 – 22 January with Annie and Fearghus traveling to Cork and Olga joining via Zoom. Fearghus and Annie had previously worked together in other research processes and Fearghus had first met Olga in 2012 when they were part of the EU-funded E.motional Bodies and Cities project. Because Olga and Annie didn’t know each other already, it was important to take some time to exchange elements of our backgrounds, how we came to dancing, how we practised it now. And we began to ask questions about what dancing wisely meant to us and what the opportunity for exchange offered.
Each day we began in the studio (or in Olga’s case from her living room) to do the physical preparation, rehabilitation and practice we each needed. In their book The Wise Body: Conversations with Experienced Dancers, Jacky Lansley and Fergus Early note that “Being older, even a bit older in dance seems to nurture more specialized and individualised approaches to training”. (p.12) Un-pressured space to attend to our own physicality, to listen to how it’s changing and how we respond was especially valuable. (“I spend so much time each day lying on the floor. It’s kind of boring. But maybe it’s my body teaching me that sometimes the best way is just to sit tight and wait for things to relax.”). And though that work was individual it was valuable to be able to do it alongside others. We are disciplined (“I am not disciplined” “More and more, I can’t force myself to do something.” “Chaos is a method.”) – we wouldn’t be dancing professionally if we weren’t. We know how to prepare our bodies ourselves (“I like to sweat”.). We have to. But there is an energy and support that comes from sharing the process with someone else. (“I can’t be alone in a studio”. “I’m always with my history so I’m never alone in the studio”) Each day we spent extended periods dancing, and integrated talking and writing into the dancing. (“Dancing writing moving are all part of the same conversation”.)
Mindful that dance artists usually have to provide a performance outcome for the resources they receive, Olga asked on day one what kind of performance did we have to do for i-Portunus – what length, style, costuming etc? She was confident that we could give that immediately “whatever you need”, whatever the business contract demands. Our experience means that we can deliver. We understand the business, the external demands. And each day, we made performances for ourselves, “if we were performing today, it would be this” sometimes dancing with Olga via Zoom, sometimes with recordings of her, sometimes with our memories and with the energy and appetite that Annie and Fearghus had in the studio. Reassuring ourselves that we could satisfy any external obligation to perform, we could also settle into a deeper investigation of what could happen if we weren’t putting anxious attention on that obligation to “the business” but instead embraced the residency exchange as an opportunity to find new ways of supporting and investing in our ongoing dancing, and in the validity of going on. This was an important opportunity to slip past the business. (“I just want to dance.” “If I don’t dance I’m like half-baked pancake. My head doesn’t generate ideas. If don’t don’t generate ideas, I’m dying.”)
Firkin Crane, emerging from Covid restrictions, provided a necessary physical resource for our work. While all of us have danced in different contexts, on streets, beaches, parks, building sites etc. the dedicated space that a dance studio provides was especially valuable after a couple of years when practising dance with others in person was difficult to achieve. For Annie and Fearghus, the chance to be in physical contact with another body gave energy and creative excitement. (“Jumping feels like real big dancing. We like it” ““When in doubt, soften, collapse, soften, collapse” “I can always save myself. It will be resolved if I let go”.)
Beyond the time in the studio, especially for Annie and Fearghus who shared accommodation, the conversations and reflection continued. Over breakfast, and dinner, in our dreams, the focused space of the residency allowed the research and its questions to be deeply embedded and embodied, recognising our dancing as part of our life projects (“As we get older we juggle to integrate the various areas of our lives – careers, relationships, homes, finances, caring for others…. Being an artist at the centre of all of this can be extremely difficult; a successful balancing act will often depend on how much personal support one gets.” The Wise Body, p.12 ). And it meant that we could draw on insights that would’t have necessarily been visible in the studio. A conversation about how traveling with a mini-pack of spices so that one can arrive in a self-catering accommodation in whichever country and still be able to make the kind of food one likes, brought up questions about the less obvious infrastructure that we all rely on to keep dancing. We considered the balance of personal relationships, professional structures, the variety of jobs we do, the physical therapies, the foam rollers, cat videos, the networks of support, the rhythms of work and rest that we’ve found to make it possible for us to keep going. We are not solitary in this dancing and thinking we are is tiring.
Also beyond the studio, there were opportunities to share with Annie the places where Fearghus grew up, an opportunity to see some of rural Ireland outside of Cork city, but also a chance for Fearghus to situate himself as part of a community of influence, to make visible the reference points, the personal anchors that sustain him. And in parallel Annie’s family connections emerged in the conversation with her father deciding to contribute via email quotations on wisdom that he had found for us to consider. (“The art of wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook” William James via Fred Hanauer. “Some things I can’t care about”). Beginning to sense our dancing as part of a bigger web of connections and in seeing it in this way, changing how we approach our dancing.
“Most of all, we [older dancers] are none of us training towards some peak, as the young dancer imagines some athletic peak between, say, 25 and 30. No, we are training for life. The way we choose to move is a vital part of our whole survival.” The Wise Body p.13
2. From 20th February to 1st March, Wanjiru and Fearghus were together at Firkin Crane, where they had first met in 2014 (thanks to a recommendation from Laurie Uprichard, former AD of the Dublin Dance Festival and now recently returned to Ireland as AD and Chief Executive of Firkin Crane).
Fearghus was Curator of the Dance Programme at Firkin Crane at the time and Wanjiru presented a solo there. Their pattern of working followed a similar rhythm established in the first period with Annie, even though they weren’t able to be in shared accommodation. The experiences of age discrimination in dance came into focus more strongly, and a gender component to that bias also with a particular pressure experienced by mature female performers (“I wear my hair like this if I know a choreographer is likely to react negatively to my age.” “I don’t put my age on my CV” “[This space] is a safe haven, free of the fear of stigma or ageism, in which we could simply be. A space where I could be proud, honest and open about my maturing female dancer body in our professional industry”). Specific questions came up about pregnancy and menopause and how women navigate those life experiences in dance and how they can share that knowledge with others. There was a sense for us that more open conversation about these realities would make it easier for artists to bring their whole selves to the dance work environment and not feel the need to pretend to be living as if they were forever a twenty-five year old. We also recognised that the respect for elders in cultures of the African continent was in contrast to the prevalent ageism of European and North American dominant cultures. So the experiences of being mature performers is specific to the contexts in which we operate. It was important to acknowledge also the range of wider elders that do exist. Wanjiru expressed her regular reliance on the advice of wise elders – tapping into knowledge and insight passed on by people like Jawole Zollar (founder of Urban Bush Women with whom Wanjiru danced), knowledge that is philosophical but also practical. When experiencing recent calf problems, Wanjiru called two mentors who gave practical advice on remedial exercises, recommendations for better shoes and bathing suggestions. (“I love to be at the feet of my elders”.)
Again we connected with Olga via Zoom and again we danced (!what part of my body wants to dance today?”) developing an idea evolved in the week with Annie of carrying or picking up material for someone else, dancing for them, perhaps to lighten the load by sharing it. From Wanjiru’s grandmother, Eugenia, as with Annie’s father, we received a quotation to the effect that “wisdom is awkward, teary, laughter”. The quotation was surprising because it contrasted with the calm, neutral state that’s often proposed as wisdom. What resonated in Eugenia Bostock’s observation was the awkwardness of the mature dancer, the one who is dancing whether because of age or unconventional physicality or other lived experience is nonetheless insisting on dancing and on dancing visibly. (“They want us to die nicely. Hollywood dying. Dying is very close. I feel it every morning. It pushes me to notice joy in life”.) Annie had shared a comment from an acquaintance who asked, without malice, “how long are you planning on doing this [dancing] for?”. And the idea of persisting, of keeping on despite some assumptions that one should be over, should be done pointed towards a subversive resistant quality in the promotion of wise dancing. It recognises an awkwardness that rescues wisdom from blandness. Similarly the idea of wisdom as teary, laughter allows it to encompass a wide range of emotions rather than reducing the experience to a narrower set of possibilities. As with emotion, so with our physicality as we experience the desire to access moments of extended limits even if we recognise how we might prepare for and recover from those limits differently now to before.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.” Maya Angelou
3. With Daniel’s arrival on 28th February, there was an opportunity to cross over in conversation with Wanjiru. Fearghus met Daniel in 2010 as a fellow artist in the EU-funded Modul Dance Project but Daniel and Wanjiru did not know each other and indeed Daniel and Fearghus had danced together much less than Fearghus had with the others. Their time together in the studio was energised by a sharing of physical practice, with testing some physical and choreographic ideas for one another, with holding space for fundamental motivations and movement instincts to emerge and be nurtured. (“We were not scared of being in a practical exercise of mobility for a long time, we were into it without pressure or feeling bored. The time was there like always in this society, but it was friendly. We danced alone, we improvised contact and we created and gave space to old and new ideas. We shared the responsibility of being there, present.”)
Again the space without pressure to produce proved restorative and ultimately productive. With shared accommodation the conversations and the settling of conversations into our bodies continued outside the studio. (“To talk was so important, to observe our thoughts, to put words to some feelings and feel trust in our mind, bodies and way of communication.
One of the phrases we used a lot was: I have a question… and most of the time we had an answer and new questions.”). “I cannot not dance. My body asks it. My body asks to share it.” “This frame was perfect to organize our dance in this crazy world.” “Maybe we don’t actually know the extent of what we know – maybe we see our wisdom only when relating to others. Talking about it helps us see.”
The initial intention of this proposal was to bring a group of artists together in person. The financial and environmental investment felt especially justifiable for the art form of dance, where travel restrictions related to the ongoing global pandemic has made the embodied connections through which dance flourishes more difficult to achieve. Ultimately it wasn’t possible to be all together in the same physical space and though there was huge benefit, as outlined above, in starting this research process, the next steps are to examine how we could bring the group together, even for a short period.
In addition to bringing the group together in person, it would be positive to begin to share with others the questions and experiences of the group, to amplify and to test this notion of Dancing More Wisely.
And finally, though the idea was initiated by Fearghus, it is co-owned by all of the artists now and the hope is that each can advance the project in their own way, visibly or invisibly, quickly or slowly and drawing in the others when opportunities arise.
“It feels like we could easily make many performances between us from the materials that emerged even in one week. But it also feels like we are working on something bigger than that. Something which is related to philosophy, living as a human, which could influence infrastructures and the systems in place. Like a step towards imagining different ways things could be done. Person-centric, human scale, respectful, open, curious.”
“Is this now a ‘network’ which will need tending, which someone (all of us) will need to take care of? Yes but no–it feels like a loose constellation where any of us could continue engaging with the others in many forms–as long as the desire to continue is shared. The exploration could be ongoing, when there is time, and space, and initiative available. “Maybe, in the next meeting the most important thing is to be a group and be contaminated by the energy of something bigger.”
“Maybe to invite other people to watch how we work, being part of this process, not like a presentation, only as an invitation to be there with us observing, and in somehow building something bigger.”
“As a mature dancer, I would love more such opportunities to gather with diverse, wise and experienced groups of fellow dance artists. To be enveloped in a space that is safe and celebratory of our maturity and wisdom.”
“’Dance can save the world. Dance is saving the world’ I want to hear more about what Olga meant by that. How much further could we go?”
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Through this residency opportunity, we bring together experienced artists in conversation, in physical practice and in creation to map the terrain of wise dancing. We aim to generate wisdom that can be documented and shared more widely with a view to affirming dance as a life-long activity with transformative potential for all. It is a project that builds on the expertise of professional artists, shared initially with fellow professionals and ultimately with a general population interested in how to dance through life more wisely.