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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Dance Festival 2021: Dēmos...

Dēmos... by Liz Roche Company. Image by Steve O'Connor


Festival launches can be such good fun. Artists, often tunnel visioned by rehearsals, get to pop up for air and hang out with their peers, reminding themselves why they're doing this again. Organisers with excited smiles meet and greet while milling around putting out unseen fires. The night has to go off without a hitch, and always does, even when it doesn't. There's laughs, hugs, the coin toss speech by the festival director to be got through. Often there's wine to ease things along. And, of course, that all important Programme to go with your wine. All a dress rehearsal for the main event. Whose opening night is also fun, if tinged with a little tension. This is it. No turning back now. The smiles are heartfelt, the hugs a little tighter. Break a leg. Toi toi toi. You're going to be brilliant.

All of which COVID has put paid to. And none of which an online performance, no matter what additional revenue streams it generates, can ever compensate for. A festival being not just a series of shows to be viewed, but time carved out of a year that can transform a city and enliven a community, bringing its own party atmosphere. Wherein a shifting collective come together to share their passion, experiencing great reckonings in big and little spaces, lavishing their praise, or muttering their disappointment, in the foyer before, and in the bar afterwards. All of which makes the online opening night of Dublin Dance Festival 2021 something of a bittersweet affair.

Dēmos by Liz Roche Company. Image by Steve O'Connor

But it's still an opening night. And DDF2021 isn't going to allow COVID ruin the party. The hugs may be virtual, the screen cold comfort, and you'll have to provide your own wine, but the smiles, commitment, and aspirations are as real as they ever were. As is the passion, reflected in an eclectic programme assembled by outgoing festival director, Benjamin Perchet. Who seems intent on ensuring that incoming director, Jazmin Chiodi, will have a tough act to follow in 2022.

The highly anticipated Dēmos - films of separation and togetherness by Liz Roche Company, in collaboration with composer David Coonan, Crash Ensemble, and filmmaker José Miguel Jiménez, sees DDF2021 nail its colours to the mast right from the get go. Speaking to the moments and movements of the time, Dēmos..sees COVID providing context and content for an exploration of togetherness and separation. Throughout, a theme of alternate connections to the purely physical pervades. As is often the case with Roche, the description reads like blurb written by an uptight thesis supervisor, speaking of an ancient Greek word "denoting a complex sense of connection between bodies in a shared space…in a time when togetherness feels fractured." Again, as is often the case with Roche, the experience proves far richer.

Dēmos by Liz Roche Company. Image by Steve O'Connor

Like most, Roche has had to enlist in the artistic Marine Corp in recent months, learning to adapt, improvise, and overcome during the COVID invasion. One such adaptation is in the clear delineation of Dēmos... as a series of short films. While a live performance is hoped for later in the year, what's being presented is intended for, and informed by, the camera lens, with Jiménez's collaborative contribution proving crucial in creating dance films as opposed to simply filming dances. Filmed on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, dancers Justine Cooper, Kévin Coquelard, Lucia Kickham, Yumi Lee, Luke Murphy and Emily Terndrup take us on a journey through a series of choreographed poems. Beginning with Travelling Back, in which six dancers, separate and struggling through stiffness, strive to recover suppleness and fluidity. Jerking, strained movements seek out a collective cohesion, and if closeness can't be found in proximity, it's lies in the mutually shared striving. A mediative score by Coonan goes a long way to articulating mood, as it does throughout Dēmos. Not least in Breach, in which Coonan's demented fairytale like music, played by musicians onstage, informs a series of duets, again defined by physical distance and creative closeness. Earthquake, a solo by Coquelard, heightens the tensions of separateness as the body negotiates the performance space, and is itself negotiated by that space. A filmed couple projected onto the wall juxtaposed with Coquelard dancing alone resonates powerfully, with the ending bordering on heartbreaking. Throughout, Katie Davenport's simple set sees movable walls offering doorways to and from other spaces, few of them physical. If Davenport's set frequently plays second fiddle to Sinead McKenna's weighted lighting, together they make for an effective, if somewhat brooding marriage.

Dēmos by Liz Roche Company. Image by Steve O'Connor

If the past twelve months have seen productions filmed with varying degrees of success, Jiménez is proving to be one of the more interesting and exciting filmmakers. Less cameraman and more collaborator, Jiménez frames movement with a painters eye, married to a love for the body in motion. Seen in Catching and Falling, playing out like an extended exploration of trust. Or, more significantly, in Hand in Hand, arguable Dēmos'... most powerful piece. A slow, often sultry duet charged with palpable energy, physical connection is fused in the holding of a hand. The don't go, don't let me go to-ing and fro-ing sees bodies writhing, shaking and drifting apart, only to find connection again. All gorgeously rendered as the need to physically connect is made real, raw and tangible. Opening the way for Landscapes, a startling solo by Yumi Lee, offering an improvised interplay between movement and music in which body and guitar seek and search in response to each other. Again, physical distance is replaced by other, deeper connections, but it's the loss of physical connectedness that dominates, the final tableau haunted by what was, what is, and what might be.

Dēmos by Liz Roche Company. Image by Steve O'Connor

If COVID provides context, Dēmos... often transcends it, speaking to existential togetherness and distance. Serving as a timely reminder that Roche is a poet of movement, the body her language, which she meticulously articulates into shapes and forms. In this instance hugely informed by Jiménez's camera, with Jiménez's editing being especially impressive. The prospect of a live performance and how that might differ serves up a fascinating prospect. Meanwhile Dēmos... sets the bar high for all that follows during DDF2021.

Dēmos - films of separation and togetherness by Liz Roche Company, in collaboration with composer David Coonan, Crash Ensemble, and filmmaker José Miguel Jiménez, co-commissioned by Dublin Dance Festival and The Abbey Theatre, is available online as part of Dublin Dance Festival 2021.

For tickets or more information, visit Dublin Dance Festival 2021.

Dublin Dance Festival 2021 runs May 18 to May 30


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