Friday, 4 June 2010

EXPO visit: Niche at the Irish Pavilion

Because Matthew was coming to do Match with me, and since Stéphane was already in Shanghai with his Australian partner, I offered Culture Ireland and the Pavilion that we could do some of the Niche material as an additional performance. Of course it wouldn't really be Niche without Mikel and Bernadette but I hoped the material would survive its being juxtaposed with the strange Expo environment.

As an acknowledgment of Expo's superficial glamour, I decided we should recostume the piece in something more colourful than our usual sombre work-gear. Uniqlo provided the candy-coloured clothes that stood out in the cool neutrality of the Pavilion.

I thought a lot about what Niche could mean at Expo. After all, it should make sense there: I started bodies and buildings research in Shanghai in 2007.

Looking back at the material I worked on (some of which was developed for Tattered Outlaws), I can see that I felt then the juxtaposition of Shanghai's extraordinary urban development with the large scale urban destruction that attended it. The shiny facades are constructed on ruins of other lives.

Xiao Ke's discomfort at being in EXPO was born of a similar awareness of the ugliness of the controlling authority behind the exuberant One World architectural regalia.

As we prepared to perform Niche in the courtyard of the Irish Pavilion, builders gathered around a misplaced pole, dug up the pristine grass in an action that reminded me of all the labour that has gone in to creating and sustaining the Expo illusion. I was pleased to see this group of men, their nonchalant choreography, their bouts of activity and waiting, all of which reminded me of Niche. It gave me a reason to be showing the work there.

But when we performed for the audience in that space, I doubted again the value of presenting work to a group of people who are primarily collecting stamps in their Expo passports. They really don't expect to see contemporary dance - mostly because they have no idea what contemporary dance is. They clap at anything that looks like a trick. They come and go as their attention span dictates. It's pretty humbling and demands that you have your own sources of confidence and validation.

When rain dictated that we move our performance indoors to the marble-floored temporary exhibition space, what we lost in audience numbers (100-150 outside, 60 inside), we gained in focus. The enclosed space meant that people watched our dancing with attention. I know we made an impact on some people, because they came to talk about the work, to thank us and to have our photograph taken.

Our photograph made the front page of the Expo website and several newspapers.

The fact that we used no music seemed to be the most noteworthy aspect of our performance. The media coverage felt like an achievement, a recognition of our work that could so easily have been lost in the din of competing national day pageants. What did we communicate? That Ireland is willing to support the individual artist, to foster innovation and experimentation, to allow talent to be expressed in unconventional ways? I'd like to think so.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

EXPO visit: Match at the Irish Pavilion

It was sad to say goodbye to Xiao Ke, He Long and Feng Hao at the end of our series of Dialogue performances in Shanghai. The challenges we faced cemented our relationship and made the piece stronger. But I did have the consolation of familiarity: Matthew and Stéphane were around for me second week in Shanghai so that we could perform Match and some of the Niche material at the Irish Pavilion at EXPO.

Match was specially requested. It had appeared from the architect's drawings that there would be a big grass area on the roof of the Pavilion and it seemed like a good idea to present Match there with its GAA references. My April visit revealed that there was lots of grass on the sides of the Pavilion, the roof was covered in sedum. So performing Match there was not going to be so easy.

In fact the sedum wasn't the real challenge. The main problem was that the sedum was planted in plastic hexagons with sharp edges the protruded from the ground, making it uncomfortable and dangerous to work on. Why, oh why do I do that? Why didn't I say it was impossible to work on? It's important to me to bring my choreography to environments that challenge it, but this seemed foolhardy. And yet I didn't say no. A mixture of cowardice (not wanting to disappoint) and courage (thinking we could pull it off) spurred me - that and the fact that we would only show the piece once.

I bought protective gloves, let Matthew wear his track pants to protect his legs and decided not to take our tops off as we usually do. And we did a great performance which was more physically expansive than I'd hoped under the circumstances and which looked pretty good on the roof in the middle of the EXPO.

But it did cost. Matthew wore track pants but I wore football shorts and my knees got pretty cut from the plastic. And the physical risk we took didn't feel satisfying in the way that performing on the Martello Towers was satisfying. With the Towers, the environment was clearly challenging and an audience could read the encounter between body and building as a process of accommodation. But on the surface of it, the Pavilion is beautiful, modern and though pretty inhospitable to the kind of physicality of my choreography, it's not obviously so. I'm not sure an audience will have seen or felt the friction between our bodies and the environment. So while I'm pleased we did a good job, pleased our bodies can still engage with the effort and shove of Match, I'm not sure I was really satisfied with it there.