The Cove

Echo Echo's dizzying collaboration with climber Dan Shipsides reaches its peak in this hypnotic performance inspired by the cliffs of Donegal

Watch a free climber scaling a sheer cliff face or a towering rocky outcrop and it soon becomes apparent that his or her focus is facing upwards. The spectator’s heart may be pounding with fear of a fall but the climber’s consciousness is fixed on an upward trajectory, revelling in an ascent into the upper reaches of the world through what appears from below to be a gravity-defying feat of total insanity. A similar sense of wonder and heart-stopping daring pervades The Cove, Echo Echo’s carefully crafted piece of dance-theatre, which has been some six years in the making.

The remote cove in question is Port-a-Doris near Shroove on the coast of north Donegal. It is a magical, timeless place, where the wild Atlantic crashes into a tiny crescent-shaped bay, enclosed with craggy rocks and flower-edged cliffs, the habitat of an abundance of sea birds and wildlife. It was here that the company’s artistic director Steve Batts and Belfast-based installation artist Dan Shipsides embarked on their Vertical Nature Base project, which was supported early on by the Legacy Trust UK Connections programme as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The Cove Donegal

In retrospect, their collaboration seems like an entirely natural fit. Shipsides is a proficient rock climber, who frequently connects his research and creative output to landscape and natural environment. Batts has been interested in climbing for some years and has devoted much of his long-established artistic practice as a dance maker to a process described as 'embodying landscape’, drawing on physical and sensory experience to create what he calls ‘movement poetry’.

In the course of a two-week stay in the cove, they set out with others to capture their surroundings through walking, climbing, dancing on the beach and making a series of video and sound recordings. From these first beginnings, an extraordinary creative process began to emerge.

The bottom line is that both Batts and Shipsides have experienced the hair-raising thrill of standing on the edge of a precipice, with the world spread out below and the heavens beckoning. It is a sensation which is powerfully conveyed to the audience seated around Shipsides' jagged-edged, asymmetric collection of wood and galvanised metal-sided chunks, which the performers deliberately push and pull and drag to form walkways, fissures, rock pools and finally a perfectly smooth lunar-like rectangle, like the silvery Burren on a sunny day. The apparently random nature of this rearrangement hints that on any given day, an entirely new performance experience will ensue.

The hour-long piece begins and ends in darkness and in a silence broken only by the sound of the ebb and flow of waves onto a rocky beach. As the lights go up on this solitary scene, a woman appears dressed for a day’s walking. Lithe, confident and resolute, she sets out for an unidentified summit. Pausing for a break, she stretches out in the sunshine and falls asleep. At which point, out of hidden crannies and recesses appear five figures, whose natural habitat is this remote, beautiful place. Are they spirits of earth or air? Who knows. At first shyly, but then with increasing speed and sureness of foot, they impose themselves on the environment and on the subconscious intentions of the inert human being they find amongst them.

Framed and challenged by Christopher Norby’s original score, which blends the constant sound of the waves with electronic strings and rough-edged vibrations, the deceptively simple poetic narrative builds a hypnotic, rhythmic immersion in which the audience is invited to wallow. Meanwhile, Barry Davis and John-Paul Conaghan’s sound and lighting take us from sunrise to sunset, returning us to the safe haven of darkness.

Echo Echo’s ethos is built on ensemble work and mutual trust, qualities which are clearly evident in the way the five performers – Ayesha Mailey, Zoe Ramsey, Esther Alleyne, Kelly Quigley and Maria Svensson - support and lead and care for one another, especially during the perilous final stage of their journey to the summit. At times, it appears as though they are about to take flight and soar away, at others, they seem to be on the brink of being dragged down into the depths below.

Vertical Nature Base

When Antonina Sheina’s Woman awakes and joins them in their mysterious odyssey, the touch paper is lit under the performance. Sheina is a classically trained actor from Russia and exudes a quiet but irresistible magnetism. Inspired by the fearless instincts of her companions, she too spreads her wings, looks up into the sky and, with the sun warm on her face, becomes a part of their community, sharing the joy and determination of attaining the lofty plateau upon which they can relax and revel.

The Cove will return to Echo Echo Dance Studios in Derry~Londonderry for a performance on March 25. After this it heads to Source Arts Centre, Thurles on March 31, Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick on April 1 and Project Arts Centre, Dublin from April 6 to 8. For tickets to upcoming shows visit www.echoechodance.com/projects/the-cove.