DDF News — 18 Mar 2020

Surrounded by Dance - A Piece by Alice Maher

Surrounded by Dance - A Piece by Alice Maher

Having recently collaborated with Junk Ensemble on their latest work, visual artist Alice Maher reflects on the powerful impact of being immersed in the world of dance, on reimagining an ancient Greek myth and giving voice to an untold story.

My occupation as a visual artist often involves making two-dimensional images out of a three-dimensional imagination, that is to say, drawing. 20 years ago I described the ‘very best part of drawing’, as…"when you are right in the middle, like the centre around which a knot is tied, the reason for starting the drawing is in the past and you haven’t quite turned the corner towards its end. It is an incomparably tactile and timeless moment, in which, concept, content and activity are at seamless play, you are not lost in your own occupation, but surrounded by it."*

Having just worked with Junk Ensemble in a collaboration for Dublin Dance Festival, I realise that the centre of that knot is exactly the position that dancers occupy all the time. They are forever in a state of ‘becoming’, moving through real time in imaginative time, backwards and forwards, arriving and leaving simultaneously, surrounded by their task as well as being at the very centre of it. I have worked with many other forms of practitioner in my lifetime but none has come so close to the heart of a drawing as dance has. So, it was like a home-coming to me to experience how dancer and choreographers worked together to physically and mentally wrap around the subject in order to embody the essence of a narrative rather than to simply illustrate it. 

I realised that the evolving organism that is the human body is the perfect vehicle with which to embody our evolving human story. The roots and tendrils of the body’s wisdom are deep in the fertile soil of personal and even generational history; the body carries with it the joys and traumas of the past, the dreams and potentialities of the future. The body in movement is the moving story of the human race.

From very early on in my own output as a visual artist, I had tried to place the female human body front and centre of my work, but as a still image of course. My quest was make images of the body that could not be objectified or codified according to established order; a more fluid complex body, NOT the empty dangerous ‘other-body’ that was so much part of my own Irish upbringing and history. I wanted to present a body that could be the maker of her own meaning, not the carrier of meaning, not a symbol for something else, but a living, breathing, thinking, desiring entity, a body that expands into space, claims space and pushes back against the state’s will to control and police it.

And in Dance, far more than in drawing, I encountered that expansive metamorphic body! The body in Dance is forever generating meaning, never congealing around it. Through Dance, thought and action can co-emerge, electrifying the space which we all inhabit and causing us to become part of its transformative field. We do not remain separate from Dance as we do when we contemplate a drawing. It is in our space, our time, our reality; we contemplate and we participate simultaneously.

When Junk Ensemble came to me with the classical story of the Transformation of Myrrha, I immediately jumped at it because, first of all, it is a myth, one of the forgotten ones (and I am always attracted to what is misunderstood, submerged, or forgotten).

And because, just like with Dance, a classical myth can keep its framework while at the same time having its values evolve with the changing times. You can go into a myth and find all the angles, all the outcomes, all the peculiarities of the human condition. What was once a salutary tale of the punishment of the individual for transgressing the collective law in ancient times, can in today’s light be seen as the justifiable transgression by that same individual of an overbearing collective system.

So it is with Myth, and so it is with Dance. The coming together of these two was a dream for me, almost a natural progression, and I thank Junk Ensemble for being the drivers of that progression. I learned so much from them; who seem to continually seek out hybrid spaces in order to expand their discipline.

I also thank the Dublin Dance Festival for facilitating and encouraging the overlapping of different disciplines, different ideas, different bodies in this festival. It is in this fertile overlapping ground that we find ever new and fluid methodologies, so that our stories can expand to accommodate our ever changing, ever mobile human bodies;

moving speaking
twisting seeking
backwards forwards
outwards inwards
together alone,
our bodies our own.

*Irish Times April 12. 2001 ‘Drawing is Thinking’