Susannah McCreight's Plants & Hopes

Being diagnosed with cancer whilst pregnant could not disrupt the choreographer's creative process

‘Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.’ American writer Allen Saunders said that in 1957, and many others (including John Lennon in his song ‘Beautiful Boy’) have rung variations on it since.

Few of us, however, have as much cause to reflect on the hard kernel of truth contained in that oft-repeated mantra than Belfast-based choreographer, Suzannah McCreight.

Two years ago, life was sweet in the McCreight family. Suzannah’s young daughter was blossoming, and she was pregnant with another baby. Professionally she was also flourishing, with a new dance piece commissioned by the Maiden Voyage dance company to work on.

And then, the thunderbolt: McCreight was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, necessitating immediate surgery and a course of radioactive iodine treatment. As treatment progressed, her new baby would be born. How could she possibly continue working on the new commission? Surely, I suggest, there must have been an enormous temptation to simply drop it altogether?

‘I decided not to do that,' McCreight replies thoughtfully. ‘It was partly fight talk, partly denial, because I didn’t realise how it would affect me emotionally. It was a massive thing to be living with both being pregnant and having a cancer diagnosis, and having to face surgery as a pregnant person. It was really daunting.’

Daunting? Yes. Impossible? No. Part of what drove McCreight onward with the Maiden Voyage project was that the basic idea for it – using the image of the garden as a metaphor for examining processes of growth and decay in nature – had been gestating for a lengthy period.

‘Sometimes when you sit with an idea for so long it’s kind of bursting to get out,’ is how she puts it. ‘Yes, I was pregnant, I had a baby, and I had cancer. But it’s a choice you make as an artist. Do I let it out? Or do I not make work right now? I just decided I wasn’t going to shy away from that challenge.’

When rehearsals for what eventually became Plants & Hopes started, McCreight was in the period between surgery and the follow-up treatment, and still pregnant. Did she realise at this point that her personal situation would inevitably impact on the shape the new dance piece would take as it developed?

‘I thought I was going to touch on it a little,’ McCreight comments. ‘Because you take yourself into the room when you’re working, and you can’t just shut off something as major as that.’

McCreight did not, however, foresee the extent to which her personal fight for life, conducted as another young life grew inside her, would affect the other individuals collaborating on the Plants & Hopes project.

‘I just didn’t think people would want to go there,’ she remembers. ‘But the more I was working with ideas I realised that they were actually very interested. It became a way of dealing with cancer that people could access through dance, through metaphor, through capturing some of the emotions.’

The very immediacy and actuality of McCreight’s own daily struggle combatting cancer made rehearsals a sometimes draining and difficult process. ‘It’s kind of terrifying to make a piece about something so raw, to engage with very personal emotions,’ she explains. ‘But some of that can be very beautiful and accessible.’

To illustrate how, McCreight describes a duet in Plants & Hopes that emerged from the development process. ‘It kind of captures the feeling of the whole journey for me,’ she says. ‘It’s like being led blindfold down a road that you’ve not chosen.

‘So I looked at some movement where one person is guiding another person blindfold, and the trust that the person with their eyes closed has to have. But it’s an uneasy trust, like “I’d rather not be in this situation, but you’re all I’ve got, so I’m going to trust that.” It’s a little bit like the trust you put in medical staff.’

There is also a section in which the process of 'scanning' (for both babies and cancer) is examined choreographically, and one called 'surgery', investigating ‘the idea of cutting into the body, trying to capture the odd intimacy that there is between a surgeon and a patient'.

For all the deadly seriousness of its basic subject matter, however, Plants & Hopes, far from being consistently brow-furrowing, and has its lighter moments. Some of these come from McCreight’s integration into the piece’s soundtrack of spoken passages describing cancer, and ways of treating it, in formal text-book fashion.

‘I started off making it quite comical,’ recalls McCreight, ‘working with the sort of tone that air stewards would use to try and keep you calm if you have to make an emergency landing. It all sounds so easy, but actually the consequences of some of those instructions are massive.’

McCreight emphasises that Plants & Hopes is by no means an unremittingly gloomy piece about the inevitability of decay and serious illness. ‘It’s not just those difficult scenes,’ she comments. ‘It’s the whole picture. There’s the hope at the beginning, and there’s still hope at the end.People will stand beside you. I think that’s quite inspiring.’

The score for Plants & Hopes is by Belfast-born composer Brian Irvine. McCreight is lavish in her praise of how Irvine has responded to the new work’s uniquely challenging scenario.

‘Brian is able to take a few words describing a situation or emotion, and translate that into something musical. It really is astounding what he’s able to do, it’s not just a cerebral translation. It comes out of the heart, it feels like it’s playing in your heart sometimes. The dancers absolutely love it.’

Although Plants & Hopes is undoubtedly strongly autobiographical, McCreight is adamant that the show is not just about cancer, or the personal experiences of one particular cancer sufferer.

‘It’s about learning how to walk down a difficult road,’ she says, ‘and how to come out of something when things are in pieces, but there’s still so much left. So much beauty about, so much hope, even though there’s been so much difficulty and ugly situations.’

And McCreight has no doubt that despite her extensive experience as a choreographer and dance professional, Plants & Hopes is the most significant project she has ever been involved in.

‘It doesn’t get much bigger than this,’ she says. ‘It’s a full-length show, and this is my story. I could have done it a little bit safer. But all these people have been happy to go on this journey with me. I’m so grateful.’

Plants & Hopes begins a tour of venues across Northern Ireland at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, on March 24. Check out What's On for subsequent dates.