If the hallmark of a great artist is constantly digging deeper, then Liz Roche certainly fits the description. Her critically acclaimed, multi-disciplinary “Wrongheaded,” currently gracing Dublin Dance Festival, being a case in point. First performed in Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016, “Wrongheaded,” a collaboration between Roche and writer Elaine Feeney, and filmmaker Mary Wycherley, highlights the frustrations women feel in relation to the choices, or lack of, available to them around their health and bodies in Ireland today. With choreography developed in conjunction with a specially commissioned poem by Feeney, resulting in a short film by Wycherley included in the performance, “Wrongheaded” features two female dancers articulating a response to the questions Roche sets out to explore. In its latest, revised incarnation, Roche complicates “Wrongheaded” in an effort to dig even deeper, through several subtle, and not so subtle shifts. The most notable being the inclusion of two male dancers. If these complications are not always successful, they are always stimulating, thought provoking, and provocative, offering new and alternate perspectives in this profoundly impressive work.
The projection of Wycherley’s short film onto a makeshift screen on the floor marks the first noticeable difference. Upon and around this, dancers Sarah Cerneaux and Justine Cooper execute a series of painfully slow articulations, often contrasting with the more energised dance sequences in Wycherley's film, which contains its own moments of stillness, and the energised rhythms of Feeney's exceptional poem, heard through the speakers being read by the author herself. Yet the effect is something of a pyrrhic victory as dancers and images compete for attention. This juxtaposition might have been more successful except that, seen from certain angles, much of the film is partially obscured, providing little more than an alternate light source, making you work harder to try and see it.
Wycherley's film complete, Cooper and Cerneaux begin an exquisite, prolonged series of dynamic duets dominated by a mirroring and echoing of movements to Feeney’s verbal score, accompanied by elements from Ray Harman’s composition. Short, snapping movements, beautifully executed, echo Wycherley’s cinematic framing, evoking a jolting sense of endless short moments being conjured briefly, each blending in an immediate, stuttering flow into the next, like a flick book of images, adding exponentially to “Wrongheaded’s” restless, and relentless, energy and pace. Like two lovers, or combatants, a superb Cerneaux, and a consummate Cooper, reminding us why she is one of the most expressive dancers working in Ireland today, dance as if inhabiting the same body, two sides of an open wound pulling each other apart, or closer together, collapsing on and into one another, spinning off in separate directions, their faces a mask of distress. Throughout, a mirrored two may seem to become one at times, yet the individuality of each is ever present. At various stages, brief spells of slower movement, individual sequences, or of rest between the rounds, give you an opportunity to catch your breath.
This is immediately followed by the most provocative of Roche’s new developments, digging deeper into the discourse with the inclusion of two male dancers. A decision that yields much fruit, but thematically, and choreographically, is not without its problems. Taking the space from Cooper and Cerneaux, two men dance to a score by Harman, with only brief references to Feeney’s poem, in a sequence that almost identically mirrors the routine of the female dancers. Wonderfully performed by Kévin Coquelard and Jack Webb, the emotive expressiveness of these men inhabiting the choreographic language of the female dancers raises some fascinating possibilities. But as an effort to integrate the male voice into the conversation they prove choreographically, and thematically, problematic.
Choreographically, Roche’s powerful and often poignant movement sequences, which feel organically and intimately bound with both female dancers, feel imposed upon the men, suggesting a voice other than their own. At best, a false and uncomfortable androgyny is achieved, at worse the men seem to be parroting, appropriating, or being appropriated by, a female voice. Thematically, this presents several problems. When it comes to the specific issues “Wrongheaded” is attempting to address, particularly those surrounding Repeal the Eighth, even the most sympathetic male does not experience these issues in the same way as a woman. And when they do empathise and say the same thing, they do not articulate it in the same way, or express it in an identical fashion.
The lived experiences of men and women, and their responses to same, are decidedly different. One just has to get into a taxi alone, or walk alone to a car at night, to understand this. But this is not reflected in the choreographic language, which articulates wonderfully the female response but omits, through the best of intentions, the genuine articulation of a sympathetic male response. Even allowing for the subtle choreographic distinctions, as when both male dancers find their movements mirrored offstage by the female dancers standing in the shadows, contrasted with an earlier sequence when the men briefly emerge from the same shadows to enfold themselves about the female dancers during their duet, too much is left unaddressed. Indeed, the final image, ceding the power of the space to the male, even if the mutually, regularised breathing with the female dancers in the recess at the back suggests a closer affinity, reinforces this binary opposition almost as much as it negotiates it. Ultimately there is no coming together, or real understanding achieved, just a feeling of the same side of the same coin being painted a different shade of the same colour.
Many would argue that when it comes to issues that affect female bodies men should have no say. But Roche understands that there is a sympathy and empathy among many men when it comes to such issues and attempts to hear what they might have to contribute. But in “Wrongheaded," choreographically and thematically, what men say, even in agreement, seems not entirely their own or spoken in their own voice. Yet in complicating “Wrongheaded” in this way, Roche bravely ventures to where so few have gone before. Recognising the male voice, Roche recognises that gender inequality affects all, that gender equality is equality for all, that all those who genuinely seek equality should be represented, and that many men sympathise with the problems affecting women. Once again, with “Wrongheaded”, Roche proves herself to be ahead of the pack. In “Wrongheaded” we again see Roche personally wrestling with the profoundest questions on her own, and our behalf, struggling to articulate, and re-articulate a meaningful response. You may not agree with all “Wrongheaded” has to say, but you will certainly be stimulated, challenged, and provoked to deeper engagement by what is an undeniably powerful production by a truly remarkable artist.
“Wrongheaded” by Liz Roche Company, runs as part of Dublin Dance Festival 2018 at Project Arts Centre until May 17, transferring to The Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire on May 22, and Hawks Well Theatre, Sligo on May 24
For more information, visit Dublin Dance Festival, Project Arts Centre, or Liz Roche Company