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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: Powerful Trouble

Powerful Trouble by Junk Ensemble. Image by Jose Miguel Jimenez


More than any other female archetype, woman as Witch has been reclaimed and reimagined during recent decades. Gone The Wizard of Oz wickedness. Gone the crone like cackle. Gone the Devils disciple. All burnt at the feminist stake. The archetype updated to embrace her power, sexuality, wisdom and independence. From Emma O’Donoghue’s Kissing The Witch to every second Netflix serial, witches are smart, sexy, powerful women in touch with nature and the deeper rhythms of life. So do we really need another show promoting the new normal? Well, it is Junk Ensemble. One of Ireland’s foremost dance companies. Never less than exciting and innovative. For that alone, their promenade work Powerful Trouble is well worth the gamble. And it’s a gamble that ultimately pays off, even if it loses much on a costly last hand.

Early signs are not great. Talk of the RHA Gallery becoming a reimagined space not quite living up to the billing. Partially because galleries are purposely intended to be constantly reimagined, but also because the large, pitch black playing area looks as if Sarah Jane Shiels has only matches to light it with. Matches held by dancers Salma Ataya, Robyn Byrne, Justine Cooper, Lucia Kickham, Julie Koenig and Yumi Lee. Moving through the large crowd like silent ushers, practising the most gentle crowd control, they lead the audience to various playing areas. Your eyes taking a moment to adjust. People little more than etched shadows against the impenetrable black. But Shiels's mastery of the medium of light soon works its magic and casts its spells. Like the dances that follow, the pervasive music is also a collaborative affair. Irene Buckley, Caitríona Frost and Planningtorock each contributing to the synth and percussive heavy score. The dark and music less Gothic horror so much as Industrial Chill, aside from one dance floor banger. The overall effect less that of being lost to an inner or ghostly darkness so much as a blackout at a warehouse rave.

Powerful Trouble by Junk Ensemble. Image by Jose Miguel Jimenez

Katie Davenport’s gymnast costumes might suggest efficient practicality, but they’re steeped in the primary colours of witchcraft: black as sin, scarlet as desire. The gnome-like hooded figures parodies of witches, or Inquisition monks, or the haunting creature in Little Nightmares. A witches brew of images bouncing from one cultural reference point to another. Apples, spinning wheels, and oversized spools evoking Disney villainesses, Arachne, the weavers of the webs of Fate, the triple goddess of maiden, mother and crone. The opening sequence echoing the ballroom scene in Ridley Scott's Legend where the dancer dances with the darkness, each a mirror of the other. Solos at once soft, sensual and stirring are subsumed beneath duets, trios and more as the personal tale of individual women is embraced in the communal shared experience. A four step dance sequence echoed elsewhere sees the same shape created by all. Hair also another recurring component. The final image a monstrance swinging as dancers circle. Shared, repeated patterns creating a silent incantation of power, defiance, resistance and celebration. Images not channelling histories so much as primal energies driven by Frost's percussive beats, shaping the darkness as much as being shaped by it, culminating in a holy, unholy exhilaration.

Powerful Trouble by Junk Ensemble. Image by Jose Miguel Jimenez

If only it had ended there. Lured into another room, bribed by a mysterious beverage and the promise of a seat, you almost fail to notice the three piece band in the centre of the room dressed like extras from a ghost train. Trying to puzzle the script on the can, it slowly dawns that there can’t be room here for the dancers, lined up against the wall like wallflowers at a school disco. The door closes. Some primitive instinct warns you this is less a pub lock-in so much as a prison lockdown. No escape without the guards and everyone seeing you. In the twenty minute, three song synth set that follows the come down from the final dance proves too severe. Their funereal pacing enough to depress Wednesday Addams. No doubt Katie Kim have their admirers, and rightly so, but this was not the place for them. Powerful Trouble selling its ending with a bang for something that makes a whimper sound ecstatic. This final, take-home image draining away the energy from what went before, doing something of an injustice to its superb dancers.

Powerful Trouble might not be all that troublesome, but its interdisciplinary collaborations fused around sublime choreography by Megan and Jessica Kennedy and cast, is powerful indeed. Junk Ensemble confirming their status as one of dances true innovators and originators. Prepare to be spellbound.

Powerful Trouble by Junk Ensemble, run at The RHA Gallery as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023 until October 15

For more information visit Dublin Theatre Festival 2023


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