Maiden Voyage's Manifesto
Can a new three-act performance piece inspire more young men to take up contemporary dance?
It's a fairly typical Friday morning in The MAC, Belfast's flourishing new arts venue. Somehwere upstairs, Tinderbox artistic director Mick Duke and dramaturg Hanna Slatnne, together with actors and members of the production team, are working on Rosemary Jenkinson's new play Planet Belfast, which opens on February 19.
Graeme Farrow, executive programmer of Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013, is in the foyer doing a press interview, while Stephen Beggs and Lisa May of resident company Bruiser are in and out, preparing for their next big musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, opening in April.
Current talk of the town Caroline Curran, star of the outrageously funny 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue, is sharing a smoke and a joke with composer Conor Mitchell, who has his own space in the building. It's the perfect spot for people spotting and sussing out what's what in the Northern Irish arts scene.
Up on the 6th floor is The Lab, a bright, mirror-walled studio, where five dancers, a choreographer and a rehearsal director are sweating it out on Manifesto, a brand new three-act performance piece, premiered by Maiden Voyage Dance.
The title is witty and well chosen, indicating the fact that this is indeed a feast of contemporary dance, a trio of new works by three internationally successful, high profile male choreographers – Enniskillen-born Dylan Quinn, Belgian Filip Van Huffel and Luke Murphy from Cork.
From a perspective that is closer to home, Maiden Voyage's acting artistic director Suzannah McCreight says that this exciting triple bill is a conscious effort on the part of the company to involve greater numbers of young men in dance.
'Although historically and currently men have a strong presence in the choreographic scene, the ratio of male to female dancers leaves them in a minority,' she says. 'Getting men to dance in the first place remains a challenge.
'Reaching them while they are boys is key, but through the experiences we are offering of both live performance and participation in workshops, we are hoping our professional cast will act as role models of talent, strength and physicality, and will inspire young guys to start dancing.'
Those qualities are the hallmarks of all three pieces, whose themes and subject matter, whether narrative or abstract, contain strong resonances for present day audiences and potential participants.
The controversial Pussy Riot protests in Russia prompted Quinn to make 'Echo Room', a piece of dance theatre that explores society's expectations of men and women the world over. Van Huffel’s 'Picture in a Frame' is a dazzling demonstration of slick, fast-paced dynamic precision. And Murphy goes back in time for the inspiration for 'Fragile Ghosts, Mild Acquaintances', which re-imagines the ballet Les Noces but presents it as a high school reunion.
In the latter piece, Stravinsky’s original score for Les Noces is given a radical update, complete with drum and bass soundtrack from composer Christian Fredrickson.
On this particular day, Murphy is leading rehearsals, taking the dancers through selected segments of his complex, high energy piece. Although all the dancers are London-based and have impressive international credits, several of them will be familiar to local audiences.
Carmen Fuentes Guaza from Murcia in Spain, Athenian Vasiliki Stasinaki and David Ogle from the Isle of Man danced together in Maiden Voyage’s last production, McCreight’s Plants and Hopes, an intensely moving personal interpretation of the simultaneous experiences of pregnancy and cancer.
Rehearsal director Naomi Cooke was a member of the same cast, while Stasinaki also appeared in the company’s Four Quartets and Best, based on the life story of the late footballer and belfast icon, George Best.
The two new faces belong to Gerrard Martin and Charlie Hendren, a classically trained dancer and graduate of The Royal Ballet School, who swopped ballet for jazz and contemporary dance and now works across all genres.
With his dreadlocks, powerful physique and wicked sense of humour, Martin – who was in the cast of the acclaimed The Lion King – has the looks and the street cred to persuade young men to take the plunge and follow his example.
'Dance is a really hot industry at the moment, and the male half of society are starting to change their attitudes about it. The rise in popularity of programmes such as Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing has definitely helped,' Martin comments.
'My own career has been so varied. Dance has given me opportunities I could never have dreamed of. It's very exciting that through Manifesto we will be be able to connect with and share our love of dance with young men all over Northern Ireland.'
Lean, lanky and a dancer to his fingertips, 26 year-old Murphy leads by example. His rehearsal methodology is to talk a bit, explain a bit then demonstrate. His physical translations of his own ideas are riveting to watch as he moves from one dancer to the next. Each performer has been assigned a character, whose individual story is defined by his or her distinctive dance vocabulary.
Murphy grew up in Cork but is now based between his native city, Dublin and New York, where he is an artist-in-residence at the Tribeca Performing Arts Centre. He also performs with Punchdrunk, the well-established London dance company. For him dancing and choreography go hand in hand.
'I have been making pieces for as long as I have been in professional training. I don’t consider them as separate entities, but as part of my ongoing craft. I think of what I do as making work for my friends in Cork who have nothing to do with dance.
'The crucial thing is that I am inviting them in to watch. Being invited to experience a piece of work, no matter how unfamilar it may be, is really important. It’s my responsibility to make work that can be appreciated by people who have no background in or knowledge of dance.'
Murphy's current piece is an intriguing fusion of classical music and ballet, which makes reference to Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces, first performed by the Ballets Russes in 1923 at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, Paris with a score by Stravinsky.
'I used Les Noces as a jumping-off place. I studied it as part of an academic dance course and went on to do further independent research on its history and political impact. Nijinska was an incredibly strong-minded woman, who inspired many great dancers including Martha Graham. The original ballet is about the ritual of Russian wedding ceremonies of the time, in which the male was dominant, possessive and powerful.
'My piece also deals with ritual, but in a modern way. It’s very visual. It’s set in the assembly hall of a high school and is about the ordeal of coming back to some place where you used to belong. It’s about how you define yourself, how you see yourself and how other people see you, how easy it is to conform to the person other people want you to be as opposed to how you want to be yourself.'
Murphy‘s philosophy is about breaking down barriers of gender and genres. He goes on to flag up the degree to which movement and dance are part of everyday life.
'Dance is all around us, whether it’s Michael Jackson or jumping up and down with a few drinks inside you! People tend to define dance, particularly contemporary dance, as abstract or difficult. But we all interpret body language every moment of our lives, that is how we determine if people are speaking honestly or behaving with integrity. Everyone is an individual and we all move and connect in our own way.
'I diligently fight this tendency towards categorisation. You should think of dance as just another form of theatre or entertainment. All dancers are actors. We’re all in the business of communication. Everyone listens to music, everyone watches TV, everyone watches advertisements in which there are endless amounts of movement and dance.
'Performances like Manifesto can really help change the perception that dance is not a masculine pursuit,' Murphy concludes before getting back to rehearsal, 'and the company will be pressing home that message on the young people who come along to the schools workshops.'
Manifesto opens at The MAC on February 7, before touring to Derry~Londonderry, Cookstown, Armagh, Lisburn and Downpatrick. Visit the Maiden Voyage Dance website for more information.