Quartet for 15 Chairs at Belfast Children's Festival

Maiden Voyage Dance welcome choreographer Enrique Cabrera to Belfast during Creativity Month

Its title may sound like some kind of rarefied game of musical chairs, but Quartet for 15 Chairs, Enrique Cabrera's new creation for Maiden Voyage Dance, has much more about it than mere fun and games.

That fact is borne out by the show's dramatic publicity shot, capturing a dancer, invisible except for his legs and feet, perched on a cobalt blue chair, balancing a jumble of chairs all over his body and peering out, wide-eyed through a small space in the chaos.

The Belfast-based company commissioned the distinguished Argentine choreographer to make a piece of dance for premiere at the 2014 Belfast Children's Festival, which runs from March 7 – 14. The production is also a part of Creativity Month 2014, a nationwide showcase of the creative industries.

Cabrera, who was born in Buenos Aires but who has lived in Madrid for many years, is renowned worldwide for his trademark witty, surreal productions, which bring together scenic elements and inanimate objects. He has successfully carved out a niche as a pioneer of user-friendly dance, specifically aimed at children and family audiences.

 

During his own career as a dancer, he was a member of an élite group of performers who appeared with some of Argentina's most influential contemporary dance companies. He moved to Spain in 1989 and, six years later, founded his own award-winning company, Aracaladanza, whose raison d'être is to 'create shows that contribute to the joy and happiness of society'.

Cabrera has been described as the true soul of Aracaladanza. Similarly, Nicola Curry could be said to be the true soul of Maiden Voyage, which she set up in 2001. It now leads the way as a commissioning company for contemporary dance and is recently returned from Glasgow, where it was the first from Northern Ireland to be invited to present a full production at the prestigious British Dance Edition showcase.

The company performed alongside some of the biggest names in modern dance, including Siobhan Davies, Akram Khan and Hofesh Shechter, and shared a programme with the always excellent National Dance Company Wales (formerly Diversions), popular visitors to these shores over many years.

'It was a tremendous experience,' says Curry. 'We had great feedback, from audiences and from our peers. Appearing there has given us a profile on the international stage and has enabled us to make valuable contacts from across Europe, Asia and the USA.'

It is undoubtedly something of a coup for Maiden Voyage to have secured the services of as big an international name as Cabrera. So how did they do it?

'We just asked him,' Curry admits. 'He is incredibly busy and in great demand all over the world. We just struck it lucky to find a window in his schedule when he could fit us in. We had made a decision to do a piece for young audiences, to introduce children to the world of dance and pique their interest in becoming involved in dance themselves.

'Enrique is very well known and highly regarded for his work in this area. He was delighted to be invited to come to work in Belfast. We didn't give him a brief beyond saying that we wanted something for children that would last no longer than 25 minutes.

'He arrived with an idea he wanted to try out, involving dancers and chairs. The result is a riotous game of musical movement. His pieces are not narrative based. He prefers to allow the audience to imagine their own story, something that adults tend to be a bit inhibited about, while children are far more open-minded.'

Both the creative team and the cast contain names familiar to Maiden Voyage's growing army of followers. In keeping with the spirit of the commission and, indeed, of the Belfast Children's Festival, the ensemble has a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour.

Dancers Carmen Fuentes Guaza, who comes from Madrid, and Vasiliki Stasinaki from Greece have appeared in a number of the company's productions, as has David Ogle, who has crossed the sea all the way from the Isle of Man. The newest member is Charlie Hendren, a thrilling young English dancer who made his debut with the company in the Manifesto triple bill, aimed to getting men and boys up and dancing.

Cabrera, though, is a stranger to this island. He made his first visit in November 2013 and plunged into an intensive two-week period of development and rehearsal. In his few hours of down time, he was driven to the Giant's Causeway and the North Antrim coast, soaking in not only the magnificent scenery but also the spirit of the place and its people.

His highly personalised response reflects the profound impression his brief sojourn made on him: 'Once, Seamus Heaney said: "I've always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward." When in Belfast, choreographing with all the people of Maiden Voyage Dance, I felt rewarded with the warmth of the inhabitants of a paradise-on-earth and the joy of freedom.'

'He was only here for a short time but we really packed a lot in,' recalls Curry. 'He met the rest of the creative team – Ciaran Bagnall, the lighting designer, Llinos Griffiths, who will be doing the costumes, and the composer Brian Irvine. We've worked with all of them many times, of course.

'It was especially important for him to develop a simpatico with Brian, who has the most extraordinary musical vision, and a great sense of humour. Enrique is a very warm, joyous, fun person. You would fall in love with him. It's a lovely team and he has fitted in so easily.

'Brian will be composing some new music, but Enrique wanted to use some pieces of existing music, something by Bach and a segment from John Barnett's serio-comic opera Farinelli. The title is quite intriguing, I think. It suggests a classical theme but also something mischievous and playful. The piece is all of that, but is also full of emotion, with moments of surprise and moments that move the heart.'

After a prolonged period of semi-darkness and inactivity, the Northern Ireland dance world is steadily recovering its past momentum. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a flourishing scene, thanks to the energy of the Ulster Youth Dance network, the guidance of the influential choreographer Royston Maldoom (now co-founder and artistic consultant of Belfast's DU Dance company) and regular visits by prestigious companies like Diversions, DV8, Phoenix and Transitions.

Now, under the tireless efforts of a number of doughty individuals – Curry amongst them – it is remerging with a renewed sense of purpose. Still, it is a far cry from the fertile cultural territories of Europe, the United States and South America, with which a figure of Caberera's stature is more familiar. So what was it that persuaded him to make the trip?

'He was intrigued by the notion of working in Belfast,' replies Curry. 'He was aware of how small the dance community is here, but equally impressed by how committed everybody is and by the calibre of dance being produced.

'He knew that we don't have a beautiful dance house like he is used to, but we had the use of the Helen Lewis Studio at the Crescent Arts Centre, which is a lovely rehearsal space. He was actually surprised by how many companies there are in Northern Ireland: DU Dance, Echo Echo, Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre, Pony Dance, ourselves. I think he's getting as big a buzz as we are about making this new work here.'

In applying an original perspective and mindset to this exciting commission, Maiden Voyage will be bringing what Curry describes as 'a wonderful experience of dance' to as wide a constituency as possible. The company's ultimate aim is to tour the piece internationally, but there are also plans to take it to audiences who would not otherwise have access to live performance.

'The week after we finish at The MAC, we will be embarking on a project with a number of hospitals, performing segments of the work at Musgrave Park Hospital, the Ulster Hospital, Altnagelvin and Antrim Hospital and the Children's Hospice. It's all tied up with finding a way to further engage those who would never have the opportunity to dance themselves or even experience dance.

'We constantly set out to offer education and outreach work based around our productions. We see these activities as complementary. One is not exclusive of the other. We are really looking forward to staging this, our first work for young audiences, and are so delighted to have secured the services of Enrique. Yes, I guess it is a big deal!'

Quartet for 15 Chairs runs at The MAC, Belfast from March 12 – 13 as part of Belfast Children's Festival. It is suitable for children aged 5 to 11 years.