Dancing From Dingle to Donegal

Performance artist Dana McPherson explains the concept behind Nomadic Dance

For a moment it looked like it wouldn’t happen. Scottish dancer Dana McPherson had planned to cover the west coast of Ireland, dancing more than 600km from Dingle to Donegal. But first she had to hitchhike from Gretna Green to Yorkshire to collect the team’s support vehicle, a borrowed estate wagon.

When she arrived to collect it she discovered it had sprung a fatal leak. But with only a day to go, emergency repair work saved the car and McPherson’s Nomadic Dance began.

The vehicle might not seem that important in a marathon dance, but McPherson has a bigger idea. By travelling with a team including the dancer Tom Clare, who recently completed a 120 mile dance from Norwich to London to honour the trek made by Shakespearian actor Will Kemp in 1600, she hopes to fill the vehicle with documentary film, music and stories generated on the journey.

‘That’s the thing about Ireland,’ she says. ‘There are so many stories. Ireland’s so rich in cultural knowledge. If anyone’s got a story to tell we’ll ask them if they mind being recorded. And so the work’s not just a performance, it’s creating something that’s also going to be visited.’

The material created by the crew will then become a mobile cultural laboratory, documenting the Ireland they discover on the trip. ‘I’m not coming out and doing the Highland fling,’ says McPherson. ‘It’s more about exercises in perception, orientation and how we experience the landscape we’re travelling through.

 ‘I’ll be dancing, say, 15 to 20 miles a day,’ she explains. ‘You experience a lot, doing that, moving through space. So there might be a moment where we can use the contour of a hill to compose a score for that movement. Completely different things will come out. Put them together and you end up with a different kind of contemporary devised work.’

The project, which arrives in Derry~Londonderry on August 24, is open to chance, culminating in a residency in Dublin’s Dance Centre before moving to the German festival Zietgenossicher Oper Berlin. Nomadic Dance stems from a solo performance entitled Walking, which was documented with an 8mm film in 2008.

‘That was in Germany,’ recalls McPherson. ‘It was my first insight into really technical dance and creating conceptual work. The physical expression comes through having the concept in place.

‘I started to walk in a circle outside the Hauptbahnhof, the central train station. I wanted to walk 12 hours, and I did walk ten hours. It’s this idea of moving over a long period of time, over a long distance, in one spot. There were points where I felt that I wasn’t going anywhere and the ground was moving under me.’

Unlike traditional dance or choreography, designed to entertain an audience, McPherson’s work creates a chance for the uninitiated to approach, enquire, and contribute by telling their own stories.

‘When I did the Walking piece, people were fascinated. An old man came along and walked with me for half an hour, maybe 40 minutes. He’s walking in a circle with me, telling me his stories, and how much he appreciated what I was doing. It was surprising.’

McPherson’s artistic career began in 2003, with the theatre piece Box. In 2005 a choreographic installation entitled The Bed invited the audience to stay overnight, and three years later Licence to Fall developed the Nomadic Dance concept when McPherson set out to dance from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

As a teenager McPherson was a keen sportsperson, with the ambition to become a professional athlete. In her early 20s, though, she matched her love of movement to theatre and dance.

‘I’m not particularly competitive,’ she says when asked about her interest in athletics. ‘Well maybe I am. If I’m playing basketball obviously I’d like to win. Maybe there’s a similar experience of a mental discipline and stamina.

'In athletics you’ve got a goal, you’re trying to beat your past record. In the dance world or in the art world it’s not really a similar ambition. But there’s definitely an ambition to do the best you can, to create the work and present it the best you can.’

The Irish dance is described as a pathway project, to find ways of working and living in a structure on the road. Upon completion the idea is that the artists could kit out a vehicle with audio and film equipment, then travel as a collective to refugee camps to create a space where people can record their stories. For McPherson, however, it’s just important that it happens, and that she learns from the adventure.

‘You’re in these landscapes and you absorb them,’ she says. ‘As an artist you’re a bit like a sponge. We’re all like sponges, absorbing every experience that we have. So it’s about absorbing and transforming and translating it into your artwork. But the idea of archiving and recording all of that, and creating performance together, gives my work a larger social context. Which is very important to me.’

Nomadic Dance arrives in Derry~Londonderry from August 24-28. Follow the project’s twists and turns at the Nomadic Dance blog.