Scattered voices erode the distance between artist and audience, between stage and spectator, before silhouetted soprano, Mairéad Buicke, steps onto a near bare stage. Ably accompanied on piano by Richard McGrath, Buicke sings Ebben? n’andro Iontana from Catalani’s La Wally. Invitational, inclusive, genius, the opening to John Scott’s "Divine Madness" finds us in familiar Scott territory. An opening whose simplicity and directness show the kind of madness touched by the divine we’ve come to expect from Scott. As three dancers cohere around Buicke, it’s tempting to think Scott’s suggesting differences are only skin deep in this exploration of the shared physicality between dancer and singer. Yet "Divine Madness" sees Scott looking beyond points of intersection, venturing into spaces defined as much by distance as by togetherness. Spaces which carry the burden of larger questions about who we are, and how we negotiate this journey together we call life. Questions that lend "Divine Madness" an often pained and poignant depth, offset by Scott’s characteristic warmth and humour. All shaped by some superb, often highly energised dance sequences, and some sublime singing by Buicke.
When Buicke is eventually joined by dancers Magdalena Hylak, Hannah Rogerson and a delightfully exuberant Conor Thomas Doherty, she delivers a series of Italian phrases as witch-like incantations, which dancers soon pick up on. So begins a conversation on communication and language. Or languages to be precise; verbal, visual, physical, musical. Of their points of convergence. Their attempts at shared and unique articulations. And their limits. And of communicating beyond those limits. Throughout, physical phrases defined by a wild, twitchy exuberance, juxtaposed with others of stillness or ease, find dancers and singer frequently sharing the same physical vocabulary, crafting moments defined by a wonderful immediacy and accessibility. Such as a visually smart sequence mimicking the conducting of an orchestra. Or another mimicking the wide armed, expressive gestures of a diva as Buicke sends Dvorak’s Song of the Moon soaring. Moments that verge on the emotionally overpowering as barriers momentarily dissolve. For, like singer and dancers, the audience, too, have mimicked such movements and recognise them being played out in public.
Had "Divine Madness" ended here we would find ourselves happily ensconced in familiar Scott territory, where inclusiveness, energy and positivity uplift the day. Yet "Divine Madness" sees Scott digging deeper, recognising that inclusivity doesn’t always mean togetherness. That pained spaces often remain. As singer, dancers and pianist get ready to bring it all home, a series of movement phrases sees the bond between Doherty, Rogerson and Hylak deepen as they simultaneously open a distance with Buicke, who stands alone singing outside of the dancers movements. A short duet, the only time bodies make deep and sustained physical contact, reveals the unique virtuosity of the dancers. Something to which Buicke doesn’t have the same access to, reinforcing the exclusion of the singer whose own virtuosity leaves the dancers similarly distanced. A playful, if uncharacteristically darker ending, highlights the rise of the hand held screen leading to the disappearance of the body and, eventually, of the voice. Both becoming lost in a manufactured image and larger, worrying questions.
In exploring the physicality of the opera singer in the context of dance, "Divine Madness" seems to thread familiar ground evident in much of Scott’s work. That of the stranger in a strange land whose language, movements, and expressions are different from those around them, and who are seeking fresh points of contact. Yet even as it generates a sense of shared, lived experience between dancers and singer, "Divine Madness" recognises that many experiences aren’t always shared, lived, or experienced in quite the same way by everyone. Especially when it comes to experiences such as grief and loss. There are distinctions with differences, as there are distinctions between disciplines, which can define the uniqueness of an identity. But you might have to listen closely, and look closer, to find them.
As always, Scott’s preference for performance to organically arise from the creative conversations in rehearsal is very much in evidence. Conversations defined by the performers choices as much as by Scott’s. With two choices proving decidedly intriguing. While the singing body dances, dancing bodies never sing. Throughout, Buicke never looks out of place when it comes to movement, and dancers never look compromised in phrases accommodating the hugely invested singer. Yet one or two sequences retain the hallmark of the rehearsal exercise that never quite developed beyond its origins. Something Scott’s work might be unafraid to embrace, but when set against images that have developed beautifully, such as a superb rolling sequence culminating with everyone gathering around McGrath’s piano, others can look weak in comparison. Vocally, Buicke is never less than superb. Yet a second curious choice sees Scott opting to leave her voice unchallenged, comfortable within its repertoire of traditional arias. A choice, if yielding its own delights, that hints of a classic conventionality. Even so, by engaging with the physicality of dance, Buicke is made wonderfully accessible, challenging many conservative perceptions of the opera singer.
Seen in preview, Scott’s "Divine Madness" raises thought provoking question around how we inhabit, or negotiate, those spaces between difference, between disciplines, between bodies. Something Scott, both a singer and dancer, is deeply familiar with. In "Divine Madness" opera and dance are re-presented in fresh and invigorating ways performing separately together. Raising questions and further possibilities to be explored. If "Divine Madness" has the appearance of the throwaway in places, the power it generates undermines any such notions. Indeed, "Divine Madness" might yet prove to be one Scott’s most important pieces when it comes to understanding his body of work, seeming to slip free of the thematic constraints of its origins and opening up into new, unexplored territories. Visually striking and infused with an exuberant energy, "Divine Madness" is something of a wild, bittersweet joy. One that, whatever way we negotiate our similarities and differences, we’re all living through together.
"Divine Madness" by John Scott, featuring soprano Mairéad Buicke, pianist Richard McGrath, and dancers Magdalena Hylak, Conor Thomas Doherty and Hannah Rogerson (with Lucia Kickham stepping in for Rogerson on November 16), presented by Irish Modern Dance Theatre in partnership with Project Arts Centre, runs at Project Arts Centre until November 16.