Well… I wrote that I’d try to blog daily through the festival…. I didn’t… so a bit of a catch up…
Nic Gareiss in Solo Square Dance at Teach an Cheoil (images by Simon Alleyne)
I spent the weekend in the charming and intellectually stimulating company of Nic Gareiss driving him and the portable dance floor to his performances of Solo Square Dance in houses just outside Ballycastle and just outside Buncrana. Our hosts in both places, the Sands family from Teach an Cheoil and Jess McSparron and family were incredibly generous. In both places they had, quite unexpectedly, laid on a spread for guests and audience and were so wonderfully warm and encouraging. We had 30 people in the Kitchen at the Sands’ and around fifty squeezed into the entrance hall at Jess’. Amazing feeling at both places. Nic’s show really went down well and after each show the “party” continued. Down to a traditional music session at the House of McDonnell pub in Ballycastle and on into the late night at Jess McSparron’s unique and really beautiful place. On Monday at lunchtime Nic performed the piece for a third time in the sitting room at Echo Echo Studios for those people who couldn’t make it out to the two countryside events.
So, I got a chance to see the piece three times, in slightly different settings and and in front of different audiences as well as getting a good feel for the background ideas and perspectives behind the work from the hours in the car talking and digging around in the aesthetics, politics and history of dancing.
I think this piece is a masterpiece.
Any work this good offers an endless possibility for reflection and analysis. There is so much I could say about it from different angles; about the central choice to perform it in domestic settings; the delicacy of the handling of the artifice and gentle manipulation involved in creating what is a theatrical event in the form of a house party and then allowing the house party to actually emerge; the compositional crafting of the overall rhythms of the piece; the choices of song; the pared down script and the controlled but warm delivery of it, in which even the jokes stand up well on third hearing;… and of course the extraordinarily beautiful and heart warming quality of the dancing in its musical sensitivity and its entrancing and lovingly understated virtuosity.
However, I think, there is one core thing that gives an overall, gently theatrical frame for all these elements. It is something that is rather hidden away and isn’t really played out explicitly on the surface. This is the sense of a theatrical tension, what theatre practitioners might call “conflict” (maybe paradox would be a better word as “conflict” sounds too brutal and rough).
The themes in the text focus lightly but insistently on the idea of a sort of resonance between the history of dance bans and restrictions imposed by governments, including the 1935 Dance Halls Act, in Ireland, and the restrictions imposed on people whose sexuality and/or gender expression is outside publicly acceptable norms. Among other more subtle indicators of this theme a couple of lyrics of songs are changed to make same gender couples from lyrics which would more usually refer to heterosexual partnerings. Nic explicitly draws attention to these changes. At another point the audience are invited to join in the “degeneracy” of the party… to join the ranks of the transgressive…
This invitation to join the ranks of the “other” or to recognise that in some way one might actually already be “other” is seductive in itself and there is for sure a sort of unamplified political agenda being proposed here around the themes of sexual and gender identity and “excavating” cultural histories for hidden, repressed, narratives and lives.
The intersecting thematic line in the piece is about pleasure, and how pleasure, in itself and in particular the pleasure of dancing, might be, and has been, perceived as threatening to the political and cultural status quo.
These two themes, the gender and sexuality theme and the pleasure theme are mediated through the tonus and texture of Nic’s performance presence, through the text and through the dancing.
The theatrical “conflict”, tension, paradox, that I referred to is centred here. On one side is the tension of the attraction and excitement of attaching to a transgressive identity of and for itself. On the other is the pull towards pleasures that might only be accessible through the acceptance of a transgressive identity but with no fundamental attachment to the dispositional palette associated with transgression. The tension exists dynamically between the work as a didactic instrument for addressing political themes and creating solidarity and as an invitation to simple pleasure. The question is whether the dancing (and in fact the whole performance) is serving a purpose or whether the dancing liberated (the party), is the purpose. There is a tendency to think that the answer to these things is “both” but I have to say that for me the work finally resolves to come down on the side of pleasure rather than propaganda. Being with three different audiences and watching them react I am pretty sure that almost universally the question “what about that?” would be answered in the first instance with comments about the wonderful and beautiful dancing rather than the framing themes and devices. This, for me feels like a sort of softly experienced triumph.
Watching Solo Square Dance made me remember going to a performance of the first Gay Sweatshop Theatre tour in Northern Ireland in the University of Ulster sometime in the late seventies. The piece was direct and politically driven and we audience members suffered a direct attack with full beer glasses from the University Rugby club and walked a gauntlet of free presbyterian and DUP demonstrators trying to “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. I think in 70’s Ireland there would have been no way that a performance like Solo Square Dance could have been anything other than about the “issues”. The soft triumph is that now it can, in its heart (and feet) be about dancing and the shared pleasure of watching and doing dancing and singing, without losing its politically conscious head.
I’m not at all sure that Nic would agree with me on this. Maybe, for him, and for some audiences or audience members the political themes would still be the strong point of connection… but hey, that’s the nature of masterpieces, they can work on many levels.
More later, on See Me Disappear by Ayesha Mailey…. and other things…
… and for anyone looking for a lovely holiday B&B here’s the link for Teach an Cheoil. Open throughout the summer and looked after by the lovely Michael and Catherine Sands.