Two of Ireland's finest companies are inspired by the work of poet Seamus Heaney
Neither, either – two little words, one suggesting choice and uncertainty, the other confirming an absolute outcome. Place them side by side in a single context and the result is a kind of no-man’s land, a state of hovering between positive and negative poles.
Trust Seamus Heaney to express the dichotomy of living out two conflicting states of mind at the same time with such spare and acute lyricism. In his prose collection, Finders Keepers from Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland, Heaney writes of 'the strain of being in two places at once, of needing to accommodate two opposing conditions of truthfulness simultaneously'.
Liz Roche’s tantalising new piece for Maiden Voyage Dance (Belfast) and the Liz Roche Company (Dublin) plays constantly upon the theme of duality: two companies from two cities, two dancers from each company, a joust between two pianos in Neil Martin’s beautifully pitched score.
The result is a dizzying, ever-shifting jigsaw of music and movement, whose segments start simply then develop, with each art form picking up on and playing off the other while an increasingly intricate orchestration of sound and dance winds its way towards a big, resounding crescendo.
A combination of painterly mystery and cinematic sweep emanates from Ciaran Bagnall’s sheeny set design in this world premiere at The MAC, as part of the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, in which the four dancers – Philip Connaughton, Katherine O'Malley, David Ogle and Vasiliki Stasinak i–- find themselves sometimes isolated, sometimes joined by an outstretched hand or a wordless look.
The second half of Heaney's quote is spelt out in giant, unspaced Scrabble blocks across the darkness of a space dominated by two lofty, intersecting gantries, lit at ground level by five blinding floodlights. Without any preamble, the letters are deconstructed and removed by the dancers, leaving an empty slate on which to write, and listen to, a series of human responses to the words.
The overall effect is at once playful and menacing, signalling a continuing clash of emotions and intentions which, over the course of 50 minutes, will be played and replayed, formed and reformed, linked and stretched to prodce a complex web of movements and interdependent relationships.
Roche’s choreography is both plain and complex, presented in a deliberately low key fashion. There are no flashy set pieces, no tricksy use of Bagnall’s metal frames. Indeed, one senses a restraint, an avoiding of the temptation to climb or hang or navigate their gleaming bars.
In response, each individual dancer injects his or her engaging blend of warmth, humour and intensity. The costumes are equally understated: A-line skirts and coloured tops for the women, denim shirts and workaday trousers for the men. Stripped back of unnecessary clutter or visual diversions, the concentration of performers and audience alike is simply on the dance itself.
Although there may be no discernible pre-ordained narrative thread, there emerges a road map of emotional landmarks and signposts – a handshake that melts away, an easily-transferred embrace, a locking of eyes across an empty space and a constant need for physical contact and comfort.
And there are spoken words, too, in the form of clinically disembodied commentaries, which echo, sometimes hesitantly, around the space, adding yet another intriguing layer of interpretation and debate.
Roche never allows her acute choreographic eye to stray from the inspiration provided by Heaney but, in close collaborative partnership with her dancers and creative team, she encourages them to find their own meanings and truths, and to stamp their own personal identities on their performances. In turn, they become muses, supports, lovers, friends, passing strangers as each segment unfolds.
She has talked about not being the source of the piece but instead being 'perched on the periphery, looking on'. And so too are we, the audience, invited to share that singular bird’s eye view of a carefully crafted piece of contemporary dance that crosses borders artistic boundaries and generously welcomes in and binds together other genres.
Neither Either is on tour around Ireland until November 27. Visit the Maiden Voyage Dance website for more information.