Eye of the Beholder
It would appear to be a case of back to basics for choreographer Liz Roche in her latest, site specific work, “Totems,” performed as part of re-opening celebrations in the Shaw Room and Grand Gallery of the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland. Yet, as is often the case with appearances, they can often be deceiving. If Roche’s recent experimentations with digital media and imagery gives way to a heavier exploration of movement in response to music, it’s simply the case that Roche is taking a step sideways. For instead of digital landscapes, Roche has found a whole other world to respond to. In “Totems” the National Gallery of Ireland, along with its paintings, are challenged, confronted and collaborated with by Roche from a lived, feminist perspective. Just like the newly refurbished National Gallery, “Totems” makes some singularly strong choices that will certainly divide opinion. Yet, at its best, it’s a work of undeniable power, one that is always thought provoking and, very often, crafts moments of sublime beauty.
Beginning in the Shaw Room, four dancers clad in patchwork coloured costumes, designed by Catherine Fay, slowly descend the stairs and enter the space, their faces concealed behind coloured gauze. Fay’s abstract costumes might suggest a painter’s palette, but their efforts to conceal gender and identity doesn’t so much reform the body as depersonalise it into a conceptual abstraction. One that doesn’t sustain visual engagement and lends distance to what is an otherwise intimate performance. Whether sculptured arrangements of people viewing paintings, or sculptures themselves, dancers begin slow movement sequences, giving shape to repeated patterns and short-lived tableaux, as a slow, stuttering, stop-start rhythm sets in. A crucifixion motif recurs frequently as duets become quartets and back again, executing sequences rich in extension, with bodies negotiating the edge of the tipping point with consummate skill. Music, composed by Ray Harman, and played live by Mary Barnecutt on cello, Doug Sheridan on bass and vocals, with Harman on guitar, introduces a haunting, sombre quality, a feel often returned to. Music frequently gives way to silence, with the quartet beautifully executing slow movement sequences that continue to flow into momentary compositional arrangements, briefly glimpsed tableaux, that then softly fall out of form. If this opens an awareness of paintings as moments frozen in time, with other moments preceding and following them, it soon labours its point a little. Indeed, a partial disrobing of arms and legs releases some much needed vulnerability. After a fifth dancer enters and executes a solo routine, all dancers rise and depart for the Grand Gallery, with audience in tow.
Greeted at the top of the stairs by a sixth dancer, “Totems” staggered, stammering rhythm is re-established by a spoken word piece delivered by dancer Liv O’Donoghue. Referencing John Berger's 1972 classic, Ways of Seeing, O'Donoghue's girl interrupted delivers her speech with several key words omitted. Here “Totems” feminist credentials and agenda are writ large. As the audience take their place, it all feels like it's becoming too self-serious with its laboured points, its repeated patterns, its sombre soundtrack and interrupted, stop-start flow. Engagement with the Grand Gallery initially seems less successful, with costumes also proving less successful, suggestive of hospital orderlies who appear to have strayed into the wrong event. With Roche’s slow-moving choreography being matched by a superb, if sometimes sombre, soundtrack, “Totems” mood soon becomes steeped in a kind of subtle gravitas lacking a meditative stillness. The whole begins to feel weighty and ponderous.
Until a metronome introduces a steady rhythm to which O’Donoghue executes a simple patterned sequence and suddenly energy is unblocked as movement starts to beautifully flow, clockwise and anticlockwise, without interruption. Gravitas gives way and the whole becomes uplifting for a time as group sequences follow, comprised of signature, and mirrored solos, as well as duets and groupings. Attempts to reengage with spoken word near the end fail to properly account for the Grand Gallery’s acoustics and much of it fades on deaf ears, with something vital getting lost in the process. But a delightfully executed, mirrored final sequence brings it beautifully home, in which the sextet, split into two groups, revisit many of the earlier motifs, most notably the crucifixion, crafting mirrored pictures from a gallery before finding release in a moment of stillness.
If sometimes slow-moving and sombre, “Totems” is a performance energized by the courage of its convictions, more often confronting than collaborating with the space it finds itself in. A male space, dominated by images created by, and for, the male gaze. If paintings frame the way we see the world, and the art gallery frames how we see the frames, "Totems” sets about reframing all frames, re-presenting them from a feminist perspective that challenges male authority as eye of the beholder. There's a good chance you're not going to agree with all Roche's choreographic decisions in “Totems”, but without question she is a choreographer of strong convictions and endless talent. Who, along with her sextet of dancers, Henry Montes, Glòria Ros Abellana, Miguel Do Vale, Marc Stevenson, Liv O’Donoghue and Katherine O’Malley, bravely delivers a provocative, engaging and thought provoking performance worthy of celebrating the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland. For “Totems” recognises the National Gallery of Ireland as a space that asks big questions, that curates works of exquisite beauty, and is a living, breathing, vital space where art is not just something to be appreciated, but something to be lived, shared and experienced.
“Totems” by Liz Roche Company, runs at The National Gallery until July 9th