Choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir imitates illness and the process of recovery at The MAC
With Cure, dancer and choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir confronts the sort of existential questions that shadow our waking days, bursting forth into stark prominence at times of personal crisis: the fragility of human existence, the terror invoked by the reality of sudden illness or injury, the isolation of pain and the difficult road to recovery marked by trial, adaption, rebirth or resignation.
It’s an ambitious undertaking for a solo dancer and one that requires no fewer than six choreographers to realize this visually and emotionally impacting work. Half a dozen people directing the action is a significant number, and surely designed to illustrate myriad manifestations of illness and processes of recovery.
The resultantly fractured nature of Ó Conchúir's physical narrative – sometimes abstract, sometimes painfully visceral – can be seen to reflect the very personal experience and individual reactions to physical breakdown, and the mental and emotional anguish that follows remorselessly in its wake.
As with Ó Conchúir’s striking Porous – a highlight of the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen's, which confronted our relationships to buildings and the physical environment – Cure appeals directlly to the emotions. In a little over 60 intense minutes at The MAC in Belfast, Ó Conchúir’s dance macabre of ballet-cum-theatre provokes a gamut of feelings. It is raw, bewildering, edifying and shocking in turn.
To the soundtrack of a humming drone and a tune of music box delicacy, Ó Conchúir executes sweeping balletic movements, confident and vital. This introductory action takes place in a space roughly one fifth the size of the stage, a square marked by white lines. Fundamentally, Cure is also about the physical and mental demarcation of our lives, the freedom and limitations, both chosen and imposed.
The onset of the protagonist’s physical decline is graphically enacted. Expressions of confusion and incomprehension greet the first signs of motor-function failure, as his limbs begin to flail and he staggers drunkenly. The tiny, mechanical straight-line steps he subsequently takes seem conducted by fear – a metaphorical dipping of the toes in the water.
In an unpredictable twist, Ó Conchúir then sits centre stage and delivers a monologue on breathing as an indicator of health. This is a choreographer’s voice, and brief enough not to be overly intrusive of the tale. Nevertheless, the dramatic effect is negligible and comes across as the text that was omitted from the deliberately minimal program notes. At best it affords an opportunity to assimilate the symbolism so far.
Calmly, Ó Conchúir strips naked, an empathetic gesture towards his vulnerability. Much of the dramaturgy that follows has a vaguely hallucinatory quality, as when he prances horse-like around the stage in a flimsy gown or moves with great animation to the soundtrack of a pop song, and, dressed once more, lays beside an upended chair. Recurring scenes of sheet folding and the placement of towels are curiously ambiguous.
A black and white projection of commuters crossing a bridge in slow motion plays to a soundtrack of hurried breathing. The chatter and hum of a café intercedes as Ó Conchúir takes up his dance again, stumbling and collapsing. The body language is searching as he flirts with the white lines of the box, unable to penetrate the space.
To the ghostly strains of 'Ten Green Bottles', the commuters of the film now walk in the opposite direction, away from the stricken character. Supporting one hand with the other, Ó Conchúir waves limply at them as they fade. The contrasts between normalcy and his state of affliction are striking, as is the indifference of the world which marches on without skipping a beat.
Six chairs are placed inside the box. From the middle, the character rages in slow motion at this invisible therapy group. Rock music blasts, and to its rhythms Ó Conchúir gyrates energetically, seemingly finding a degree of catharsis in the idiom of frenetic new movements. The victory, however, is fleeting; drawn to the box again he lies on the floor, convulsing in agony before rising shakily to his feet in a searing image of his plight.
Drawing a circle of salt – an island of retreat or isolation? – he moves frantically within. Energy spent, he places a rock just outside the circle and begins to retch over it. The imagery is as abstract as it is unsettling. Naked again, he rubs vigorously all over his body, appearing then to systematically peel off his skin. The old skin.
A translucent cloth forms a full-body shroud. As he breathes in and out deeply, slowly, it molds itself to his face in dramatic, skeletal relief. Is the character cured? Is he reborn inside a new skin? Has he come to terms with his condition? There are no obvious answers, and a sense of lack of resolution prevails.
The journey, however, is the thing, and for the guts of an hour Ó Conchúir beguiles with an imaginatively crafted tale that is part nightmare, part fable. And, if we’re all just 'the temporarily able bodied', to borrow Ian Dury’s memorable phrase, then Ó Conchúir’s Cure not only reminds us of our fragile condition, but serves too as a form of appeal, whether intentionally or not, for compassion and patience towards the afflicted.
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