State of Exception
Céad Míle Fáilte
They stand with their backs turned towards the audience. Not because they are ignoring the audience, but to remind all present that they are the nameless ones, the faceless ones, the ones who are being ignored. Standing in the semi-dark, a steel fence with sandbags corrals them from behind while a crisscrossing of steel cables secures them from overhead.
These are refugees. The ones you’ve heard about but do not really know. People who have travelled to Ireland seeking asylum and have found themselves, for all intents and purposes, imprisoned. All this we are told by way of a recorded voice accompanied by an ominous, oppressive droning. Meanwhile, cello and vocals, courtesy of Vyvienne Long and Jade O’Connor respectively, keen in loss and longing.
And the show hasn’t even started.
In “State of Exception” by Catherine Young Dance, directed and choreographed by Catherine Young, the Ireland of one hundred thousand welcomes is interrogated through a multi-cultural interplay of dance, music, and text, and found wanting in its response to the plight of refugees. Choreographically powerful, if textually and compositionally problematic in places, “State of Exception” delivers one of the most visceral responses to the problems facing refugees living in Ireland today.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a state of exception occurs when Governments extend their power, temporarily, to make special exceptions, such as suspending adherence to the UN Human Rights Convention. Or Ireland’s legendary céad míle fáilte. In “State of Exception” how poorly we welcome refugees and asylum seekers is seen to illustrate this in practice, with refugees often being ‘temporarily’ housed, or interred, in Centres across the country for as long as eight years. If their flight often meant the loss of country, family, and friends, their arrival in Ireland has compounded that loss with the loss of their skills, hopes, ambitions, and confidence. All of which is established by way of a problematic text by Donal O’Kelly. One whose damning and didactic tone establishes a singular context that preaches to the converted.
Whatever the limitations of the text, performatively “State of Exception” is a much richer and inclusive affair altogether. Broken into a series of distinct movement passages, often separated by recorded spoken word interludes of uneven clarity, “State of Exception” opens with a quartet of dancers, two male and two female, executing a series of short, snappy, highly energized sequences. Built around tightly choreographed, but loosely synchronized movement patterns, dancers Marc Stevenson, Mufutau Yusuf, Simone O’Toole, and Vanessa Guevarra Flores, quickly establish a series of dynamic movement motifs that deftly flow, suggesting flight, fear, surrender, and escape. A relentless, percussive heartbeat, courtesy of Brian Fleming, accompanies them as they negotiate the shadows and searchlights, beautifully evoked by Tim Feehily’s lighting design. Throughout it all, and in all that follows, O’Toole, Yusuf, and Stevenson are each incredibly impressive. But Flores proves to be simply breathtaking, her personality shining through in movements richly and powerfully expressive in every instance.
As the quartet become a trio, with O’Toole quietly disappearing, pace slackens considerably while tension thickens during a prolonged sequence in which not a lot appears to happen. Yet, in many respects, this becomes the most powerful statement of the piece. Pacing the space, standing about, lying on the ground, gazing beyond the fence, or hunkered low in thought, all three dancers beautifully evoke a sense of time wasted, and lives wasting, in an interminable waiting to be free. Sequences of energized outbursts might momentarily suggest hope and release, shadowboxing invisible forces they can’t even see, but bodies always return to their depressed and languid states, standing, sitting, lying motionless.
If Young proves to be choreographically brave in utilizing slow pace and restricted movement during this prolonged section, compositionally it is not without its issues. With its three dancers arranged in a rough diagonal across the stage, focus is continuously drawn stage left towards a restless Vanessa Guevarra Flores. Engaged in more movements than her fellow dancers during this sequence, Flores also shares a closer proximity to the musicians onstage. All of which draws the eye inexorably towards her, rendering the rest of the stage, and the other dancers, as a neglected expanse of unused space and energy. Yet perhaps this is intentional, and the heaviness resulting deliberately sought. If so, the disjointed focus makes it something of a pyrrhic victory at best.
An exquisite foot stomping, step dancing sequence, evoking a multi-cultural Riverdance flavor, ends with the trio returning to a quartet as O’Toole returns in time for an ingenious twist. Possibly its crowning moment, the quartet briefly expands to eighteen, sharing in a universal call, beautifully supported by vocalist Jade O’Connor. One that makes painfully, and powerfully clear that difference is an illusion, that they are us, are already amongst us, and that there but for the grace of God go I. Travelling full circle, earlier motifs are revisited, shifting in and out of temporary tableaux, reminding all of the journey witnessed. An incomplete journey for those still defined by their status as refugees, shaking in a pit in the dark, looking upwards into the light for salvation.
Throughout “State of Exception” the only way out is through the audience. Yet while Young’s choreography is powerful and persuasive, beautifully supported by Fiona Sheil’s evocative sound design, textually “State of Exception’s” equating Ireland’s response with the practices of Apartheid will see many, on both sides of the fence, certain to take offence at the comparison. A comparison whose agenda fails to acknowledge those refugees who have built new lives, homes, and families, in their adoptive Ireland. Yet whatever your position, musically and choreographically “State of Exception” delivers a powerfully visceral experience, and one of the most compelling depictions of the refugee crisis to date.
“State of Exception” by Catherine Young Dance, runs at The Project Arts Centre until March 24th before travelling to Siamsa Tire (Kerry) on March 25th, and Firkin Crane (Cork) on April 13th