Saturday, July 25, 2009

U2's Contraption and Croke Park Gig, July 24th, Croke Park

I woz there! With my iphone - but without zoom. Magnificent show - Catherine Owens, Willie Williams (show director); Mark Fisher; Bruce Ramus (lighting designer). How did they dream up that intergalactic spaceship
contraption?!! I would love to know. 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Touring Experiment: Dance Case Study

Check out the interesting Dance Case Study I conducted with Dance Theatre of Ireland on the 2007 national tour of their show "Slow Down" - you can download it from the Arts Council website here:

It's one of the reports (including theatre, music, dance, and visual art), that helped to formulate the new Arts Council Policy: "A future for arts touring in Ireland 2010-2015".

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Skellig Michael "Jaunt"

We were looking forward to a quaint Sunday jaunt out to Skellig Michael, County Kerry (after the opening of ART 250 Kerry the night before), to explore the 6th century monastic UNESCO world heritage site. Well, we were in for a bit of a surprise!

Sean Feehan’s boat pulled out from Ballinskelligs, and soon enough it felt like we were being thrown around in a washing machine while having buckets of sea water flung at us - AND being simultaneously disembowelled of anything we ever ate. That lasted for about an hour, before we finally pulled up to the mighty rock. We looked like we had been thrown overboard. But luckily, the sun came out, warmed us up (we were shaking), and dried us off. Oh yeah, this is a traditional pilgrimage site, and this experience is all part of it (we were told). THEN there were the 580 vertiginous steps to climb, up to the monastic site itself. We practically crawled up the incline, but it was all worth it once we got there. The gorgeous puffins on the way cheered us up too. The only other thing it reminded me of are the spectacular rockhewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia – also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Up there, we sat and chatted with Eamonn, the guide at the top who explained the amazing sculptural beehive structures to us; the fact that they were built without mortar; the diet of the 12 hungry monks who spent their lives praying for people on the mainland; the monk-beds; their lavatory system, and how eventually, in the 12th century they moved back onto the mainland and set up the Augustinian Monastery in Ballinskelligs. Then there were the pilgrimages and the lighthouse families. A spectacular, spiritual place. We got comfortable and could have chilled out there a lot longer (or perhaps avoided the boat-trip back forever) but – Sean Feehan the boatman was waiting for us down below, and we had to hurry. Wisely, we didn’t eat the sandwiches we had brought with us. There was only one way home... I won’t go into the details. On a positive note, it was amazing to pass Little Skellig with its bird colonies before hitting the open sea again.

As we pulled back in the harbour at Ballinskelligs, Sean Feehan informed us that the boat-journey was considered to be part of the pilgrimage, and no wonder the monks only came off the island once a year when they lived there. Now he tells us! We were pale, our hair was covered in vomit (the glamour!), we nodded in agreement. A fantastic, if somewhat visceral experience... & we get a plenary indulgence for that - which could come in handy to cash in against future misdemeanours. Good to have up your sleeve - just in case!

PS that's the amazing artist Hughie O'Donoghue ducking into a beehive hut in the last photograph, bottom right. Now how did he sneak into my photo-frame?!!!

......"But for the magic that takes you out, far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michael, ten miles off the Kerry Coast, shooting straight up 700 feet out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the graveyards at the summit of that cliff, among the beehive dwellings and their beehive oratory, does not know Ireland through and through, It is the beauty of Ireland that has made us what we are." From the "Beauty of Ireland" by George Bernard Shaw

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cill Rialaig Artist's Retreat, Ballinskelligs, County Kerry

ART 250 Kerry on Saturday night gave me the perfect excuse to finally check out Noelle Campbell-Sharp’s visionary Cill Rialaig artist’s retreat, way out on the edge of Europe, in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry. I had been planning on doing this for a long time, having gazed so often at the video of the rural idyll in her Urban Retreat Gallery on Dublin’s Grand Canal Quay, and heard of it from the artists who exhibit there. What a dream-project! But the thing about the amazing Noelle Campbell-Sharp is that she has turned the dream into a reality. Seeing the reality of the wonderful project she has created out on spectacular Bolus Head is believing. Like the mighty Atlantic itself though, it’s hard to capture the scope and scale of it in words, or within the frame of a photograph. So these are only tiny corners of it… You’ll have to imagine the rest – or go visit!

2,500 international artists so far have enjoyed residencies in these restored cottages, which were once a functioning village before they were abandoned in famine times. Resurrected since 1991, now these little homesteads are once again hives of concentrated activity. But in this incarnation, the activity is creation, as their inhabitants either drink in the landscape around them, or as Julie Strasheim from Colorado was doing when we called in to see her - work studiously on a planned project. Coincidentally for me, as I am heading off to Darjeeling very soon, Julie was studiously ignoring the stupendous County Kerry landscape to paint Rajasthani musicians. The portraits are earmarked to raise money for schools in Rajasthan. Julie also had Hindi books out on the couch in her cottage – getting ‘in the zone’ of her paintings, she was learning the language with a view to visiting India at the next opportunity.

A lot of the artists – like Italian sculptor Giancarlo Scapin on this particular day - go out wandering around the magnificent Bolus Head for inspiration. Knocking on a few more doors we found Spanish artist Mercedes Paz Esparza (from Seville) at work with her daughter, Clara, in a cottage she had made cosy with the aromas of home-cooking. Mercedes, who is also a champion parachutist, was working on series of Modigliani-style women.

In the meantime a freelance photographer pulled up to take some dramatic shots of Una Kavanagh, (who had come down with me from the big smoke, or should I say, the “Fair City” to load up on some Cill Rialaig inspiration). Here she is, with her ART 250 painting at the edge of the vertiginous cliff directly across the road from the cottages with its breathtaking, backdrop out across the bay.

Having discovered the village and its history, involving seanachai Sheain Ui Chonaill, who lived there in the 1920’s, that evening we went to the launch of ART 250 Kerry at the Cill Rialaig Project’s Ballinskelligs Art Café and Art Centre. We dined on Ivor O’Connor’s fine cuisine, and tried to guess who the anonymous paintings were by. We knew there was a Hughie O’Donoghue – he was in the room with his wife Clare and daughter Katy, who works for the project; a Martin FInnin; a Barrie Cooke; a Giancarlo Scapin; a Susan Morley (also there, and more among them. Oh and a Donovan. Local singer Clare Horgan (, regaled us in her bluesy voice – prompting me to get a copy of her CD “The Stolen Child”. The singing continued in Rosie’s Pub, where we took out Clare’s songbook and all had a go. Clare kindly helped me get a party-piece together for my cousin’s forthcoming wedding in Darjeeling, and had us all rehearsing “Will you go Lassie, go” with the song-sheet. So – from Ballinskelligs to the foothills of the Himalaya’s. But not without a visceral jaunt to the mighty Skellig Michael beforehand – which is all part of the Cill Rialaig experience if you ask me. More of that anon…

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pina Bausch and the "Out of the Blue"

Pina Bausch got under my skin from the moment I caught a glimpse of her on a television screen at Avignon Theatre Festival in July 1991. As I peered over the shoulders of young theatre practitioners from all over the world in a school-turned-summer-camp, her choreography exerted its magic power through that tiny screen. The haunting, somnambulistic, human spectres throwing themselves against the walls of a deserted cafe; into tables and chairs; against each other - needing each other, dropping each other, being dropped; a big man valiantly trying to push tables and chairs aside to make way for the kamikaze couple at its centre; another hesitant woman surveying the space surreptitiously and escaping out a revolving door, and then Pina Bausch herself - bathed in the melancholia of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I guess it activated some part of me that had never been addressed so directly before. What was this strange, dream-like language that seeped into my psyche at such a deep non-verbal level? Little did I know that getting to the bottom of that would preoccupy the next six years of my life (more or less), bring me on a great adventure, and set me on the path of writing about contemporary dance.

Later that evening I met Bruce Myers, the longtime Peter Brook actor who was to feature in the MA thesis I was there researching, on “La Tempete”, and ran this “Pina Bausch” past him. He knew her work. “Very strange, and very beautiful”, he said.

Looking back, it’s reassuring to learn that I’m not the only one to have fallen captive to Café Muller. Wim Wenders, for one, is turning it into a 3D film this Autumn (sadly Pina Bausch won’t be in it). Pedro Almodovar, for another, immortalised Café Muller as the pivotal meeting point in his masterpiece “Talk to Her”. (Even if Pina compared seeing her work to the solitary experience of being the first to see a fresh snowfall: “You feel it. It cannot be shared”).

When I returned to Dublin that summer, Pina Bausch continued bugging me. During Dublin theatre festival a misinformed Dutch opera director told me Pina Bausch was Argentinian. I liked the idea of a trip to Argentina. Then the Schiller Theater crew put paid to that notion when they confirmed that she was German. Next stop, the Goethe Institute, where I found “The Art of Training a Goldfish” – the only book in English on Tanztheater Wuppertal. I had a chat there with the wonderful Sigrid Weber, who recommended that I get in touch with Tom Mac Intyre. The hirsute playwright met me in Birchall’s pub one morning, where he enthused about Pina Bausch over an orange juice, and unequivocally encouraged me to go to Wuppertal and see for myself. Another day in Blazing Salads (upstairs in Powerscourt Townhouse), I was waxing on about this Pina Bausch to some friends, when a dancer from Berlin appeared from over my left shoulder, and introduced herself as “Antje Rose”, saying she couldn’t help overhearing the conversation. She, too, urged me to go to Wuppertal to sit in on rehearsals. A friend of hers had done just that.

Seeking out the voice of reason, I went to visit Professor Hugh Ridley of UCD’s German department, who ran an exchange programme with Wuppertal University. Sitting in lotus position (seriously!), he told me I was mad and to forget it. Well, I had no German. I left his office only to bump in to a girl at the UCD bus stop who was in the middle of trying to sublet her boyfriend’s Wuppertal apartment for 6 months so he could be with her in Dublin.

Soon enough I was being picked up at Dusseldorf airport by three kind Wuppertalers, who dropped me back to their friend’s aforementioned apartment, (I was now subletting it), and ordered us in pizza. They would become firm friends. My biggest concern before they left that night was to locate the phonebook.

First thing next morning, I found a listing for Bausch, Pina, and dialled the number. A little voice answered “Ja, hallo?” “Oh hi, I wonder is there a Pina Bausch there?” I enquired. “Yes, it’s me”. “Oh hi! I’m from Dublin, Ireland, and I saw Café Muller on video at Avignon theatre festival, I’m really interested in your work, particularly the dance-theatre pieces, and I wonder is there anything I could look at? All I could find in Dublin was ‘The Art of Training a Goldfish’ – which I photocopied.” “If you are in Dublin, there isn’t much I can do for you” replied Pina Bausch. (Pina Bausch!). “Well actually I’m in Wuppertal. I just arrived last night”. “There is class on in the Opernhaus Ballett Salle at 11am, you can come to that”. Armed with one phrase: “Wo ist die Ballett Salle, bitte?” (I had been listening to Deutsch Direkt tapes for a week or two), I jumped on my first German bus and found my way there, by hook or by crook. Class had already started, and I plonked myself down (very confidently, even though I had never been in a dance studio before), on a nice wooden chair at the wrong side of the room - right in front of the mirror that the roomful of dancers were facing. The charming elderly man who was giving the class (Hans Zulling, an original Ballets Jooss dancer), smiled at me sweetly.

Here were most of the performers I had been looking at in “The Art of Training a Goldfish” zooming past me, their toes nearly skimming my nose as they neared the mirror. At one lightbulb moment I got sense and moved my chair to the back of the room, next to the piano. (It was being played by Pina’s longtime musical collaborator, Mathias Burkert). Much safer there.

As the class wound down, Pina Bausch herself appeared, as if out of the pages of that book, all attired in black. I introduced myself, and thanked her. In the very softly spoken voice I would become accustomed to, she invited me to come to rehearsals in the “Lichtburg”, a former cinema not far from the Opernhaus. The company were training hard to bring her early Dance-Opera’s, Iphigenie auf Tauris, and Orpheus und Eurydike back into the repertoire.

That was the beginning of a sojourn in Wuppertal during which, without any pomp and ceremony, Pina Bausch granted me the immense privilege of attending all the rehearsals, seeing all their shows, and getting to know her entire international company for myself. A whole new world opened up and drew me in. From Brazil, Australia, Switzerland, America, France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Japan, and one or two from Germany - these were the first contemporary dancers I ever met. I was told that there was even one who was on her way back from Ireland (“die Finola” – you might know her).

Sitting at her desk at the top of the Lichtburg with Marion Cito, Pina Bausch was consistently quiet, low-key, thoughtful, dedicated, precise. She didn’t talk much, and she never raised her voice. All of her expression was out there on the rehearsal floor. We would meet occasionally for a chat. We spoke about Ireland, Canada (“all that water”), Wuppertal, her work, and I told her about my evolving plans for registering to do a PhD on her city-pieces at the University of Cologne with Hedwig Muller (co-author of The Art of Training a Goldfish). I was lucky enough to be in the middle of the company as they put Viktor, Palermo Palermo, and Tanzabend 2, 1991 back together in the Lichtburg. It wasn’t until I tagged along on a European tour through Italy and France with Iphigenie auf Tauris that the extent of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s acclaim hit me. It dawned on me that I was at the calm eye of the birthplace of a whole new idiom, by a unique genius who had the power to unleash emotional earthquakes in auditoria across the globe. She was creating work that was like Bikram Yoga of the emotions.

The bright lights, glamour, red carpets, and air-kissing that awaited in Paris, New York and Rome where her often shy dancers were the toast of the town was a sharp contrast to the focused simplicity, discipline, rigour, and space of vulnerability and trust I had been immersed in back in Wuppertal. I could see why they were so happy to get back to the studious quiet of the Lichtburg, the unpretentious Turkish shop next door, and the day-in, day-out glitz-free schedule of work to be done, and scenes to be worked, and re-worked.

Now, suddenly, here we all are across the planet, reeling after Pina’s unexpected death. “A power is gone, which nothing can re-store”. A power, indeed, and also an artist who, at the height of her international acclaim – Germany’s number one cultural export - was still open-spirited enough to randomly answer the phone, listen to the little Irish voice on the other end of the line, and to invite me to class, rehearsals, and into the heart of her company for as long as I needed to be there to get my work done – whatever that might have been. I hadn’t been referred by anybody, or introduced by anybody. I wasn’t attached to any important institution. I was just a genuinely random person who turned up on her doorstep and was curious – dead curious - about her work. In retrospect now I think that’s the kind of openness, love of the unknown, the unplanned je-ne-sais-quoi that the universe might throw at you, and talent for being in the present moment that was at the heart of Pina’s staggering genius. This was the genius that broke all the rules, crossed all the boundaries, accessed all areas of our emotions, gave us “new catharsis”, and changed the face of dance and theatre in our time. Pina Bausch – the world-changing artist who kept her home number in the Wuppertal phone book, answered the phone, listened, and had space in her rehearsal room for what came at her from out of the blue.

Deirdre Mulrooney is author of “Orientalism, Orientation, and the Nomadic Work of Pina Bausch”, Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002.

(This article appears in the "News" Section of

IMDT at RCDF - Upon Mature Recollection, after Obama's Cairo speech, and having mulled it over a bit...

Irish Modern Dance Theatre at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival (April 21 – May 10), 2009 (thanks to CULTURE IRELAND)

An international dance festival in the middle of a war-zone? It may seem unlikely, but with a line-up this year of top dance companies from America (for the first time), South Korea, Europe, Scandinavia, Algeria, and, thanks to Culture Ireland – our own Irish Modern Dance Theatre too – the four year old Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival has become a testament to the power of culture to break down barriers and transform negative preconceptions and stereotypes.

In the midst of a politically charged situation which President Barack Obama recently referred to as “intolerable”, the softly-spoken festival director Khaled Elayyan said “we want to welcome people from all over the world. We want cultural exchange, and artistic things”.

Upon arrival our mobile phones bleeped “Marhaba. Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. JAWWAL welcomes you to Palestine”. Ramallah itself is an open-minded place where culture is revered, women are unexpectedly empowered, and Muslims and Christians co-exist easily. “I am Muslim, my wife is Christian”, shared Elayyan. A chorus of “welcome”, and “you are welcome”, wafted towards us on the warm air from passersby on Ramallah’s busy streets. Near the rehearsal space, Irish choreographer John Scott wandered into a tea-shop where an emotional owner declared “I don’t want money. Thank-you for coming to Palestine”. Then he hugged the large choreographer and cried. The genuine delight at the sight of anyone who has defied media clichés, and risked enduring ordeals of airport security and checkpoints to get there was disarming.

This extraordinary festival is part of a broader international cultural revival in the West Bank (with its population of 2.5 million), in an effort to connect with the outside world, and inspire hope. Not unlike the Barenboim-Said Foundation for classical music, Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival grew out of a youth organisation’s initiative to give Palestinian youth – many of whom have never known life outside of occupation - another focus other than the seemingly interminable conflict.

Given that the festival can only afford to offer accommodation, publicity, and techincal assistance, it is amazing that they boast some of the biggest names in Contemporary Dance – for example Belgian Les Ballets C. de la B, who are developing an ongoing project with the festival. Festival tours across the West Bank have to be co-ordinated by email and telephone due to travel restrictions on the Palestinian organisers.

Considered the most radical show of the 2009 festival, Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s joyous and zany post-modern choreography “The White Piece” was warmly received in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Haifa. While they were giving a dance workshop to young Palestinian dancers, I sat in Ramallah’s charming 350-seater Al Kasabah theatre, full of children from nearby refugee camps squealing with delight at The Jungle Book by Washington DC-based “CityDance”.

“They remind me of how I was when I was starting my company”, said Scott, energised after giving the workshop to young Palestinian dancers. “They are very fresh, they’re hungry, they’re motivated, and they are tired of being identified as terrorists. They are trying to fight for their identity”. Scott has been hooked on the creative energy here since he first came last year to make dance-film “Eternal” with local artists. “They are at a beginning. I think they are too jaded to have any hope in the political process. They are just trying to get on with it, independence or no independence – regardless”.

But the festival inevitably gets caught in the crossfire sometimes. At the outset of this year’s festival, for example, Mohammed Nuwwara, a 16 year-old festival volunteer from Al Jalazon refugee camp was shot dead by an Israeli soldier outside Beit El Israeli settlement. As a mark of respect, the preview performance he should have been part of, “Vertical Exile: West Bank Dreamerspass” by Scandinavian “Public Eye” dance company was canceled. A week later Nuwwara’s friends were bussed to Dheishish refugee camp, where the show went on regardless.

Elayyan was slow to be drawn on the tragedy. “I don’t want to speak too much about our history and the situation... War is our daily life.” Sadly, the incident is not unusual. This festival was initiated partly to give teenagers like Nuwwara somewhere else to focus their energies other than the suffocating political stalemate they are trapped in.

Rhetoric-free, at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival, the medium is the message. What better way to celebrate the human being – untethered by political ideology - than through contemporary dance? John Scott was delighted his powerful choreography “The White Piece” was part of this uplifting initiative. “I don’t underestimate the power of culture”, he said. “You feel there are big powerful eyes watching”.

Scott describes “The White Piece” as “a ritual, an act of defiance, an act of identity, it’s like a big passport for all those strange people who make up the cast”. In Ramallah he added versatile Palestinian actress Riham Isaac to his eclectic line-up, which boasted a pair of ex-Merce Cunningham dancers; breath-taking “new Irish” survivors of torture from Uganda, Roumania, and Congo; the magnificent Joanna Banks who traces her dance lineage to Ninette de Valois; African-American dynamo Winston “Dynamite” Brown, the mighty Scott himself, and top Irish contemporary dancers James Hosty and Rebecca Reilly.

Striking a deep chord with the audience afterwards, Immaculate Akello, Ugandan-Irish survivor of torture, spoke with powerful emotional acumen from her own first-hand experience of the effects of War on mothers and children. Scott drew parallels with Northern Ireland.

Scott’s abstract idiom was drawn into this realm of the “accidentally political” when he collaborated with Dublin’s Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture in 2003. “I don’t think about the politics”, he said. “I just think about the wonderful people I’ve met... I don’t use anything didactic in my work. I think the most political thing I do is to simply have the people present in my work. That’s the statement”. Scott has also performed in Holocaust choreographies by legendary choreographers like Meredith Monk and Anna Sokolow, and is keen to praise the many Jewish achievements, including Karl Marx.

Elayann, himself a lefty choreographer, underlined that Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival is an NGO, aligned with neither Fatah nor Hamas. Yes, he has indeed been invited to participate in a dance festival in Tel Aviv. But “even if they were from the left parties”, he cannot entertain the possibility of cultural exchange with Israel until there is a Palestinian state, he says.

That could be like waiting for Godot. But in the meantime, like Lucky, in Beckett’s famous play (who uttered “Dance First. Think Later. That’s the natural order”), at Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival they are throwing their arms up in the air, and dancing. I can’t help thinking that Beckett would have been proud, could he have seen Irish Modern Dance theatre in Ramallah’s Al Kasabah theatre, dancing their strange, and beautiful dance. I was.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Pina and Cafe Muller - 1992 written in Wuppertal (on Tony Cragg's typewriter)

Just came across this 1992 article, the first article I ever wrote on Pina Bausch, from Wuppertal. Actually it was the first article I ever wrote on Contemporary Dance. It appeared in the Autumn edition of the now defunct magazine "Theatre Ireland". Hard to believe I typed this up on sculptor Tony Cragg's typewriter (winner of Venice Biennale who lives in Wuppertal). But that's another story. I'm just reminiscing about what a privileged time I had at the heart of the Tanztheater Wuppertal. So thought I would scan it in and post it up in memory of Pina Bausch. Just click on the scanned magazine page to enlarge it so it is readable.