In Conversation with Liz Roche
Photo credit: Barry McCall
Many would agree that performatively, politically and theatrically, some of the most interesting things taking place are taking place in the world of dance. Indeed, Irish dance artists appear to be enjoying some well-deserved recognition, attracting a wide audience and garnering praise both at home and abroad. Recently Junk Ensemble’s critically acclaimed It Folds was one of the highlights of the Edinburgh Fringe 2016, and 2015 saw Liadain Herriott receive a Best Performer Award for her excellent piece Liminal.
Many factors and many individuals have contributed to this growth in, and appreciation for, dance in Ireland. But one woman has consistently played a seminal and significant role, without whom the story of Irish dance simply could not be told. With her latest piece Wrongheaded, set to hit Dublin as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival 2016, and with her historic Bastard Amber set to tour nationally, TheArtsReview caught up with one of Ireland’s foremost choreographers and dancers, the first Irish choreographer ever commissioned to create a full length work for The Abbey stage, Liz Roche.
Photo Credit:Luca Truffarelli
TAR So it was back in 1999 when you first started the Liz Roche Company?
LR It was called Rex Levitates Dance Company then, back in ’99. It only became Liz Roche Company in 2012. At that time many dancers that had been training, living and working abroad had come home to Dublin. I had been making smaller pieces up until that point. I was very fortunate that CoisCéim and Dance Theatre of Ireland commissioned work from me when I was really young. Then in ’99 there was the feeling of let’s do it ourselves. For a couple of years, it was project to project, so we might make one piece a year. There was a very particular group of dancers came in at that point. I was working very closely with my sister Jenny, she was dancing, and Grant (McLay), Simone (Litchfield), all of whom were recently in Time Over Distance Over Time. They would have all been there from the very early stages of the company.
TAR So what was happening for you before that?
LR It was a mixture of things. There wasn’t professional, full time, contemporary dance training in Ireland. So I went to London to train and I met a group of people there. And after that I began dancing for a company in Vienna, and I was also dancing for a company in France. And I was also dancing a lot with CoisCéim and Dance Theatre of Ireland in the pieces of Dominique Bagouet that were restaged on the company by Les Carnets Bagouet. Being a freelance dancer then you would be dancing with four or five different companies.
TAR A bit like a jobbing actor going company to company, project to project?
LR Totally. And I’d always made pieces too, since I was young. When CoisCéim commissioned a piece and DTI commissioned a piece, that developed into my wanting to make my own work. At that point it was much more fluid in a way. There was a sort of understanding between everyone involved. My brother Denis, composed the music for a lot of the productions, and Jenny was dancing in the work for a long, long time. And there were a few key dancers, like Katherine O’Malley, Lisa McLoughlin, Ella Clarke, Jonathan Mitchell, Robert Jackson, Grant, Simone, Philip Connaughton. We just sort of had a vibe together I suppose.
TAR That sense of things being fluid, of things changing, that was very present in theatre in the ‘90’s. Would you see that period during the 90’s as a period of change for dance in Ireland also?
LR I think so. For me the biggest thing was that when I finished school, finished in London Contemporary, and started working with David Bolger at CoisCéim, I remember there was this amazing feeling of being able to be in Ireland and working. A lot of people came home then. For me, because I was there with David and CoisCéim almost from the beginning, we all felt we were part of a new energy. Even though we worked with the companies that were already established and continued to do so, I think there was that sense of new possibilities.
TAR Could you give me an example?
LR David was choreographing productions in the Abbey and I would sometimes dance in those productions. For me it was a kind of branching out into theatre, of crossing those two disciplines. The work I was making at the time wasn’t so much dance theatre as dance driven I guess. But later, after a good few years, I reached a point where I had to go in my own direction. It was more like that then, more organic – things just developed in certain ways and you followed it. We were maybe not so aware that we were carving out a career, just more “doing” it and the career would shape itself. I wasn’t that forceful about the work I was making at the time.
TAR Why do you think that was?
LR I wasn’t wholly convinced of myself for a long time. It wasn’t so much I was in the basement “knowing” I was right. It was more like…I really felt I “needed” to make work. Almost watching myself as I continued to do it. Sort of observing, wondering.
TAR Did that need to choreograph go hand in hand with the desire to dance? Did both develop simultaneously?
LR Yes. The thing that springs to mind is that there’s very good opportunities for young choreographers. And I had a huge amount of UK and European support when I was younger. There wouldn’t have been as much supports here, even though I was funded by here. But for choreographic training I would have applied and been accepted on to some quite prestigious choreographic courses abroad. And I was really thrown in with some really excellent people. There was quite a few courses and they would result maybe in other commissions. I was thinking recently, ‘how was I so tired in my twenties?’ But it was a really crazy time. You were just constantly shifting. There would be this very super intense three or four months in Vienna, the choreographer who I worked with there, their process was quite a long process. Then you’d be doing a project with David and you’d be touring that. Then I might be making a piece someplace else. I suppose actually it was really exciting. As well as just trying to survive.
TAR Yet somehow, in the midst of all that, you still managed to start your own company?
LR Somebody said it to me. Somebody, who’s still a close friend, rang me and said, ‘you should establish something independent of everything. You can still exist within the system and all these different scenes, but I think you should set yourself up.’ And they helped me do that. Then my Dad loaned us money to incorporate the company and things like that.
Photo credit: Luca Truffarelli
TAR So how did the balancing act between dancing for others and attending to your own projects change as a result of starting your own company?
LR It was not as intense, after a while. Around about 2004 I was also doing a lot of work in opera. Dieter Kaegi (the then artistic director of Opera Ireland) was directing many operas all over Europe and I was the choreographer on lots of them. During that time, as Rex Levitates, we also did the China/ Ireland Culture Exchange. We were in Beijing for 6 weeks and I made a piece with the company and the National Ballet of China. So there was these crazy couple of years where I was nine or ten months out of the country. China. Korea. Zurich. It was really full on. So I felt a little bit tired. And a little bit injured. I was still dancing for people and I had a very bad back by the end of it. It was around this time, 2003/2004/2005, when we started to get more serious funding from The Arts Council. And then I had a baby shortly after. So there was a whole series of things that led to making some changes.
TAR Life informing your decisions as well as the artistic choices available.
LR People have said that to me, in terms of opportunities. It’s not that I always thought that I’d get married and have a family in Ireland, but I didn’t stop it when it happened. And I didn’t stop the work I was doing. I know some people do, but I didn’t do that. I wanted to be somebody who…I worked with a lot of choreographers when I was younger and I remember watching their struggle, even though you don’t fully understand it at the time, and I remember thinking, 'I want my life to be as happy as I can make it.’
TAR One of the issues raised by #wakingthefeminists is access to childcare for women in the arts and the difficulties that can impose. People having to give up their careers. Did that ever cross your mind?
LR I remember Jenny and myself commissioned Rosemary Butcher to make a piece. She died earlier this year - she was this amazing, challenging and rigorous dance maker who was very “real” about work, and I remember ringing her when I was pregnant and saying, ‘that’s it, I’m finished.’ And Rosemary was like, “no darling, it all gets better after this. Don’t worry.’ But there was that feeling of, ‘oh my God, I’m finished.’ I think, maybe because I was the choreographer, I could have a kid, have two kids, and be the one in the rehearsal studio going, ‘I’m sorry, I know I’m the mess.’ And most of the time the dancers, and the people around me, through their patience, made it possible for me to continue.
TAR It seems you had a strong support network of people who wanted to see you do this, as well as the added advantage of being a choreographer in charge of her own company.
LR There always is that independence there. But I also have been working over the years with Catherine Nunes, she established and ran the Dublin Dance Festival and was its Artistic Director during the first three biennial festivals. She was very supportive of me when she was Artistic Director. Even when she left that position, I would go to her for advice. She’s a really clear thinker around dance and dance production and fights for what she believes in. She would always have recognised that I had to do something that feels right or else I’m really bad at it. And she would always support me to take risks and stands by the work - even if it fails. But I need that because if I try go in a direction that’s not “me” it just falls apart. And she was always very supportive of that, because people sometimes can not be.
TAR Looking at the scene in Ireland today, would it be fair to say that it’s almost the reverse of Ireland back in the 90’s in many respects? Back then there were so many people starting out here, now it seems a lot of people are travelling abroad
LR I think we have just come through a time when the younger generation of dance makers have had a number of years of good support – that might be through space subsidies, associate artist positions, residencies, some project funding etc., but I get the impression that it’s not enough, or there's not enough support there for them anymore. There comes a point where dance artists need some sort of stability – you can't be 21 forever, living out of a bag and travelling constantly – there has to be time that you can stop and think, experience and live your life, because that is ultimately what informs and inspires the work you are making. And in order to continue developing they are now finding themselves either having to choose to go abroad again or else find a different path.
Photo credit: Ewa Figaszewska
TAR How would you describe your process when creating a piece?
LR I think I’m quite critical of myself. So a lot of the time when I go into a new piece, choreographically, I’m trying to address the problems, or the failings, of the previous piece. I often feel like, ‘I’m going to get that right this time.’ And then it’s like, ‘ohh, didn’t happen there. I’m going to get it right the next time.’ So there’s that side of it in terms of the craft. Then, I suppose it depends on the subject matter. Sometimes I have sort of abstract, very unattached ideas for a piece. Then sometimes I have things I care very deeply about in a different way, so they kind of inform it. And sometimes I begin by commissioning something. Or I might ask someone if I could use their score and respond to it. Or could they make a film and I could respond to it. Like in Wrongheaded, with Elaine (Feeney), I asked, ‘could you write a poem and I could respond to it?’ At other times I start with the dance.
TAR You responded to Yeats in Bastard Amber, and Heaney in Neither Either, and once again in Wrongheaded you’re responding to a poem and a film. How does that shape the process? How organic is it, or is there something already going on for you before you enter the rehearsal studio?
LR I think I have to create a framework, the reason why we’re doing it all, before I enter rehearsal. Yet if that’s a poem, or that’s a picture I’ve seen, or an experience I’ve had, I still think whatever gets made is pretty unconscious. It’s like putting a load of information in and then you can just trust that whatever is making it out and into the work is the most relevant of that information. Like around Bastard Amber. I felt it was such a huge subject, around Yeats and what he was writing, it had so many possibilities. I was disappointed to have to actually fix on anything in the end. But once I did, I would approach the dancers and the collaborating team with an idea, such as, ‘this is what I want to explore in this piece.’ And that could be, ‘I’ve been looking at this and there’s a chaos in this work, and I want to see how we can physicalize that.’
TAR Once you begin working with dancers, how much input do they have in shaping that original idea or that original impulse? What does that collaborative process look like? Is it like they’re working for you, or working with you?
LR It’s this really weird mix of the two. I’m collaborative to a point. I often work with very, very experienced dancers so I might say, “I want A, B and C to happen and I don’t mind how you get there.’ Then our conversations would inform how they get there. But it’s their business how they do that. I have what I consider that really shallow part of myself where I can micromanage every movement and with that I can often just ask the dancer to change a movement because I just don't like the look of it. But I always want to keep the piece alive
TAR You do seem to have this ensemble of people you regularly appear to work with, I imagine there’s a lot of trust built up over the years.
LR Yeah. Also, when I’m asking them for stuff – and by “stuff” I mean in terms of their creative input and movement - I probably know what I’m going to get back.
TAR In more recent works like Wrongheaded and Time Over Distance Over Time there’s been a significant multimedia dimension to the work. What is your thinking around that?
LR Earlier pieces like Fast Portraits and Body and Forgetting would have had a film element. Also, in the very early pieces, the first three probably, there was a very strong visual element. In Time Over Distance Over Time, it was about, ‘that’s what we’re going through now, being so far away from each other.’ And also our lack of comfort around digital technology, even though it’s great we can send an email to each other. I can Skype you, I can just about manage that. I can’t do anything fancier than that. Also, in the desire to do something really hi-tech, we realised how super low-tech we really were.
Photo credit: Luca Truffarelli
TAR So how do you view those pieces? When you bring text, image, digital technology and whatever else together with dance, do you still see them as dance pieces? Or are they something else? A different kind of performance perhaps?
LR I think dance is a really good innovator in terms of other collaborations, and working with other collaborators. We were in tanzmesse, Dusseldorf last week, and I was talking to a guy I know who runs a big dance company in Europe which is doing really well at the moment. And what he said was, ‘we do everything but dance. We talk about everything but dance. But we are a dance company. We employ 20 dancers.’ Because what they found was that the collaborations, in terms of light, set, costume, fashion, technology, was of a really high level and their audiences wanted to engage more with that then the dance itself. But all of these collaborating elements, in some ways, were developed from, or inspired by, the physicality. So I think it depends on where your interests are specifically. “Dance” is such a broad art form and means so many things to so many people. For me I'm not so concerned with the classification of what I'm seeing.
TAR With regards to classification, in the past couple of years there appears to have been a dual development in dance. On the one hand there’s this integration with multi-disciplinary, multimedia approaches. Yet on the other there seems to be a reclaiming, or return to, more classic or codified dance forms. Does that multi-disciplinary approach make the classification, or codification of some new pieces more difficult to determine?
LR It makes it a difficult thing when you’re pitching the piece. I find it very hard to articulate, especially in writing, what the piece I am making is “about.” Or what is “means.” The difficulty in that is that contemporary dance choreographers mostly create a new set of movements and specific movement language in each new piece, so it’s hard to have something to hold on to, from piece to piece. Many people feel they need to see a work a few times to fully settle into it. I would hope that audiences can, though maybe not fully, understand every moment of a piece, that there would be an energy in the physicality of the overall work that they can connect with. And that is what makes them come to back to your work time and time again - even if they don't like every piece you make, because how could anyone like everything you make? And that's ok, it’s part of it too.
TAR So what was the pitch behind Wrongheaded?
LR When I first spoke about Wrongheaded, I had this idea that it would be this completely collaborative thing, which it has been but not in the way I first imagined. It’s inter-connected, but the elements actually ended up quite separate. So the only call I have when the process goes that way and they phone and say, ‘can we try this?’ is to say, ‘well if that’s the way it’s going, we have to follow that.’ So, for example, I asked Elaine to write a ten-minute poem. So we met and we talked and then Elaine wrote a twenty-three-minute poem. But I really love what she wrote. So that was my first decision. She was like, ‘I’m sorry, I just needed to say all of this.’ And she was right. Then we had the same conversations with Mary. When it came to the film we knew we had shared ideas we were going to do. But then there were a few things she just came with and said, ‘I really feel it has to be included.’
TAR It sounds like this organic process happening around the original framework for Wrongheaded
LR Totally. We’ve been talking all together as a creative team about this since last October. We’ve been at this a year.
TAR That’s interesting. Wrongheaded concerns itself with the Repeal the 8th debate which is very current right now. But it sounds like Wrongheaded seems to have arisen as a result of other, not overtly political issues.
LR The political is something of a new area for me. The poem is really about attitudes around the body, particularly women’s bodies. There’s different narratives and they’re connected, but not connected. It’s to do with different relationships. It’s to do with panic, it’s to do with mother daughter, it’s to do with State and body, it’s to do with men and women. It's to do with women’s bodies in pregnancy and what happens around their decision making at that vulnerable time.
In late 2012 when I heard on the news about the death of Savita Halappanavar, aside from my initial shock I was also aware of this strange feeling, as if I was somehow also not surprised by the news. I wanted to examine why I was not surprised – what series of events in my own life would bring me to that place of thinking that? That feeling stayed with me and in 2015 I started to imagine a possible work. I knew I wanted to work with spoken word poetry and a mutual friend put me in contact with Elaine Feeney and when met last summer it was just like this gush of feeling and frustration that we shared and we felt we should try and say something about it.
So with Wrongheaded that sense of the elements being quite separate, I now feel is the way to go. I'm trying to keep the whole structure not too fussy so then the message has a chance to emerge in as clear a way as possible. The poem is read, it’s fast, you mightn’t get it all but some things will hit. The dancers then embody the rhythm, the frustration. You can’t but embody the frustration. Then the dance will be followed by the film.
TAR So after Wrongheaded, what’s next for Liz Roche Company?
LR Well this Arts Council application for next year has to go in first! Thankfully the Arts Council have funded a tour this winter of Bastard Amber, which is brilliant of them. It’s going to tour four venues across the country. We’re also aiming to bring Wrongheaded as well as Bias by Katherine O’Malley to Tipperary Dance Festival and to Dance Limerick. And I'm working as movement director for Marina Carr’s Anna Karenina, directed by Wayne Jordan at The Abbey later this year. That's just this year...we have loads of plans for next year, though too early to talk about, but fingers crossed it will all go ahead!
TAR Finally, do you think there’s a Liz Roche style?
LR Yeah, I do. I think it’s quite intricate. I think I make pieces that are well put together, but, for me, there’s something quite understated there. Even so, it’s harder than it looks. Dancers coming into it, it takes a while and they can struggle at first. We have to do an awful lot of work to make it feel very natural and organic. I think my co-ordination pathways can be busy enough for some people to get their head around at first, but once they click into it, it’s fine.
Photo credit: Alan Gilsenan
Wrongheaded by Liz Roche Company, along with Hope Hunt by Oona Doherty, runs as a double bill during the Tiger Dublin Fringe at The Project Arts Centre from September 11th till September 16th at 7pm.
Liz Roche Company's Bastard Amber Irish Tour is at the following:
November 15th, Town Hall Theatre, Galway
November 18th, Lyric Theatre, Belfast
November 29th, An Grianan Theatre, Letterkenny
December 2nd, Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick
For further information on these and forthcoming productions, visit Liz Roche Company