Mags Byrne Merges Dance and Social Commentary

Dance United NI prepare for their Belfast Festival show

'The most difficult project I've ever done in my life.' Mags Byrne, artistic director of Dance United NI, is talking about Exile, a community dance initiative she led in Palestine this summer. The project targeted underprivileged young people in the West Bank territories, drawing participants from both Muslim and Christian traditions.

A diversity of religious and social backgrounds was nothing new to Laios-born Byrne, a vastly experienced practitioner of pioneering dance work in Northern Ireland. Exile had, in fact, already been successfully delivered with local youngsters by Byrne and long-time collaborator, Royston Maldoom, in April 2010 in the Theatre at The Mill, Newtownabbey. The Palestinian context, however, proved unique. 

'I don't want to make any political comment about Palestine,' Byrne comments, 'but there is a community in the West Bank that is incredibly angry. From my situation of empathy with both sides, I have to say I did witness some terrible treatment from Israeli soldiers unto children and young people.

'There are checkpoints everywhere you go. Almost every hill has an Israeli settlement on it, so you're constantly aware of being physically beneath that. The anger and the frustration is something that the young people there are living with on a daily basis.'

The Exile project deals with being, as Byrne puts it, 'outside where you consider to be your homeplace, being displaced', and should have been an ideal fit for the Palestinian situation.

The problems that she and Muldoom encountered there were caused not by the actual subject-matter of the project, however, but by the emotions unleashed in the young Palestinian dancers by the very act of participation in a freely expressive artistic process.

'We were dealing with teenagers who were coiled,' Byrne explains. 'They are systematically put down on a daily basis by the Israeli people controlling the space around them. The humiliation is desperate. What this initiative did was open up an avenue of physical and mental release. There was fighting between groups from four different areas, and different religions. But that wasn't the biggest problem.'

So what was? 'The biggest problem happened when we got closer to performance. What happened was the young people started let go a little bit. And out of that came an almost uncontrolled euphoria. On the day of the first performance we had a near-riot in the theatre. We were close to calling the police and just saying we can't go on, we can't physically keep the younger elements of this cast safe.'

In the event the four performances, including one in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, were hugely successful, leaving local luminaries and politicians hungry for similar projects in the future. 'Extraordinary, absolutely fantastic,' is Byrne's verdict of what actually happened onstage. 'It has released huge amounts of stress from these young people.'

Back in Northern Ireland, Byrne has had little time to de-stress and reflect on what she describes as the 'trauma' of her Palestinian experience. Preparations for Merge, Dance United NI's forthcoming show at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's had to get underway.

Merge targets another disadvantaged group, the unemployed, and aims to fuse contemporary dance with elements of street culture such as skateboarding, BMX biking, hip-hop, rapping and visual art. Using the ancient Norse saga of Ragnarök as a template, Merge investigates the possibility that beyond trauma and disaster there can be rebirth and regeneration, on both a social and personal level.

For Byrne, Merge is a particularly important, high profile initiative. 'We have project partners on this programme whom we've never worked with before. We've never worked with Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, New Lodge Arts or Youth Action before. These are new relationships between organisations, and a new target group of unemployed young people.'

Why, I ask Byrne, does she want to target this group in particular? 'What's close to my heart is working with people who don't normally get access to the arts, who maybe don't understand yet what skills they've got, how to express themselves physically. I look around me on the streets, and think, "Where do you go if you're not in employment and at the beginning of your life?"'

These are questions that Byrne and her co-choreographer, Conor 'Doke' O'Kane will examine with the Merge participants against the backdrop of an urban soundscape created by Ken Masters. T13, a warehouse-based skate park in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, is the evocative space for the performance, its permanent installations and fittings providing the set's basic framework.

Merge's message is that lives can change and re-arrange, that new futures are possible from the wreckage of the past and present. It perfectly encapsulates what Mags Byrne believes dance is capable of doing for those participating in it.

'I'm passionate about this work,' Byrne says, 'because I know it changes lives. I've seen it many, many times. I've seen that in Northern Ireland. I've seen people frustrated, angry, violent because they don't know where to put that energy. But when you peel that back, when you start to give people confidence, underneath there is always a warm, willing human being that's got so much to give.'

Merge runs from October 17 – 19 in T13, Titanic Quarter. Book tickets via the Belfast Festival website.