To Wake Up Unfamiliar
The word love is frequently referenced in Luca Truffarelli’s opening projections, offering a selection of playful sentences that dominate the back wall of the stage. Yet his ominous sound design suggests you better watch your back. A warning well heeded. If Philip Connaughton’s "Mamafesta Memorialising" sees him returning to the well that inspired its beautiful companion piece, Assisted Solo, it’s only because Connaughton is looking to dig deeper. Down into the muck and memories that infiltrate his personal fears for his future. Inspired by his adorable mother Madeleine’s battle with dementia, Connaughton’s latest love poem sees the lens focusing more on Connaughton and his own internal struggles. But be careful, you might miss them for being hidden in plain sight. Like Pagliacci’s tears hidden behind the smile. Or the fear concealed behind the jazz hands. The pain behind the humour and the charm. The sex whose violence can often look like hate.
If everyday finds Madeleine waking up in a world made unfamiliar, exquisitely captured in a sensitive video diary, everyday Connaughton wakes up unfamiliar to a mother who has been his rock. It’s all because of the brain. A conduit for electronic impulses travelling neural pathways sending messages and signals to arms and limbs and memory, often cleverly vocalised by Gina Moxley. An experience Connaughton vividly explores with dancers Kévin Coquelard and Tatanka Gombaud in a sequence whose fractured focus sees each dancer respond like Pavlovian dogs as an electronic pulse urges them to another movement; at first the same, then similar, then separate, becoming different embodiments of Philip Connaughton. A clever ploy that sees "Mamafesta Memorialising" transcend the limits of the personal confessional. Even if its resonances feel far more immediate when being expressed by Connaughton. Yet if the sequence lacks a fixed point of focus, it releases energies that suggest scrambled signals pulling the attention in competing directions. Even if it’s a sequence that overplays its hand, lingering on long after you got the point and its foundational images have been established.
Throughout, as in a delightful The Generation Game sequence, memory is shown to be problematic at best. Even if it’s very much Connaughton’s memories we’re dealing with. And his fear of losing them, and himself. Most notably during three separate narrative sequences delivered superbly by Coquelard, Connaughton and Gombaud. In which Connaughton's experience of discovering he has HIV, coming out to his father as gay, and learning to tap dance as a child sees his mother Madeleine playing a crucial role each time. Each narrative instigating a costume change followed by a dance solo that informs each narrative in greater depth. For if Connaughton is waving jazz hands, he’s also clenching both fists as he unfurls two middle fingers at the world, God, and anyone else who should have been kinder. Squaring up like a boxer ready to take on all futures, kicking out to hit back at something that’s never quite there.
If Coquelard, Connaughton, and Gombaud share the same space, they’re forever dancing alone together; physical contact being almost non-existent. Embracing Connaughton’s restricted yet exacting choreography dominated by physical exercises, fragments of dance sequences, and an array of everyday gestures that weave into a scattered, yet deceptive tapestry. In which patterns emerge, or parts of patterns, being informed by a profound sense of searching through now and then and what next? Ensuring there are meanings in Connaughton’s choreographic mayhem, revealed in physical motifs and repeated images that add up to a lexicon. One underscoring specific tales of love, fear, and emotional violence. Emily Ní Bhroin’s superb costumes providing precious clues. Playful curtain and tassel suits suggesting charm, home and humour; striped pyjamas suggesting childhood or illness; the erotic beauty of the male body and it’s equally erotic feminisation cleverly captured by Ní Bhroin’s silver dress. The body, like the mind, proving both mutable and vulnerable.
Even as it descends into a wild cacophony, there’s a smart cohesion to it all. For it doesn’t end there. Just as the Mona Lisa can be reduced a series of coloured pigments, the human being can be reduced to a series of brain impulses. In both cases, the explanation is accurate, but incomplete. For there is something essential that isn’t being accounted for, something vital that’s being omitted. Take Madeleine for example. If her signals are scrambled and she doesn’t always know who Philip is, Philip always knows who she is. And knows she is more than pigments, more than scrambled signals. The video diary bringing it all to a close by disclosing the real beyond the things that come to pass; that which forever will remain.
With a title inspired by Finnegan's Wake, "Mamafesta Memorialising" finds Connaughton digging deeper, even if he isn’t always at ease lowering the mask. Yet if Connaughton appears to be more of a lover than a fighter, "Mamafesta Memorialising" is a timely reminder that love is the hardest fight of all, and lovers the hardest fighters. For love demands a constant willing of the good for another not matter what the personal cost. Whatever else it speaks to or speculates on, "Mamafesta Memorialising" speaks to karma. To the love you send out returning to you. An act of love in which Connaughton honours his debt to countless acts of love from an adoring, and adorable, fighter who loved him into the man he is today. Who is still present even in her partial absence. A debt that Connaughton is repaying sevenfold, even if he might be reluctant to accept the compliment. His most honest work to date, "Mamafesta Memorialising" might seem confused and a little all over the place, showing only brief moments of lucidity, but it’s all right there, loving untidily in the best way it knows how. In a production where narrative might tell the tale, but dance shows you the pain, fear, and confusion. As well as that which can conquer them all. Lovingly rendered, "Mamafesta Memorialising" delivers a performance you're not going to forget.
"Mamafesta Memorialising" by Philip Connaughton, co-produced by Company Philip Connaughton, KLAP Maison pour la danse à Marseille and Cork Opera House, in association with Project Arts Centre, runs at project Arts Centre until February 22.