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Giving Voice to Dolores: Junk Ensemble on abuse and ‘Lolita’

Mon 7 May 2018

Giving Voice to Dolores: Junk Ensemble on abuse and ‘Lolita’

We’re in a moment where large sections of Irish society are acutely tuned to any hint of abuse, any whisper of the exploitation of power. With the upcoming referendum, the recent high profile rape trial in Belfast, and the testimony of Ann Lovett’s former boyfriend Ricky McDonnell in The Irish Times this weekend, this sensitivity is tuned particularly to the abuse of women.

Abuse can take many forms and is often something that hides in plain sight, because, whether you’re the victim or a witness, it takes a lot of courage to call it out. This is partly because doing so often unsettles accepted social dynamics, and partly because, in some cases, it can be tricky to identify and quantify.

“I read something yesterday which said that… what is fundamentally abusive about abuse [is the] absolute denial of another person’s right to autonomous existence.”

I’m speaking to twin sister choreographers Megan and Jessica Kennedy, directors of dance company Junk Ensemble. This year, they bring their new work Dolores to the dance festival, a piece that’s been in the making for two years. Through Dolores, Megan, Jessica and the performers are confronting the complexities of abuse, through the filter of the famous 1955 novel Lolita by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita tells the story of the romantic relationship between an older man, the novel’s unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert, and a twelve-year-old girl Dolores, nicknamed ‘Lolita’ by her abuser.

Both Megan and Jessica read the novel in their teens and loved it. They’ve returned to it in recent years and find their perception of the story altered, by their own life experiences but also by the current heightened awareness in Irish society.

Megan: “I’ve read it twice over the past two years, and it changes each time I read it. Not just because of the layers Nabokov has laid in with metaphors and references to history and literature, but also because of looking at it from the point of where we are right now in society and in Ireland as a woman. If you re-read the novel, it’s all there. It’s meticulously written, the abuse, day in and day out, it’s just that there’s such beautiful poetry in the language that hides it.”

Jessica: “Nabokov says his books should be read eight times. He does outline the abuse, but it’s only in fleeting whispers.”

Dolores is an attempt to restore Lolita’s silenced voice, to imagine and give life to the depth of personality that both the novel and Humbert Humbert’s treatment of the young girl denied.

J: “Very rarely does Lolita have a voice in the novel, but when she does, she says the line: ‘You know what’s so dreadful about dying, is that you’re completely on your own.’ So you get this sense that she’s an incredibly deep and complex person. But Humbert Humbert only recognises this in retrospect, when he’s reflecting on all the events that have happened. He’d never listened to her or recognised that she was a human being. What we’re trying to do in Dolores is give Lolita a voice and bring back her history and her real name.”

In abuse situations, the burden of proof falls on the victim. When you’re dealing with a phenomenon that most often happens in private, this is a tall order, and often comes down to word against word. The question of ownership of narrative is something that came up in the process of making the piece. Dolores didn’t get to tell her own story, so there is a tension inherent in Junk Ensemble being the ones to tell it now, a tension they’re fully aware of.

M: “Nabokov clearly states that he’s an unreliable narrator, so these moments where we see a glimpse of the abuse that occurred, they’re only ever from one perspective. This is the issue with the novel and this is why we’re making the piece that we’re making. Even though it is our own fiction and you could say it’s just as unreliable as Nobokov’s, or Humbert Humbert’s, we’re really trying to listen to Dolores. It's another way of telling a story, similar to writing a book. And, if you're going on intuition and feeling, it should be something that can be interpreted in a few different ways.”

As part of the research for the work, the choreographers curated a two-day symposium, ‘The Book and the Body’, that brought artists and academics together to discuss the theme of how the body is represented in literature and performance. Trauma and bodily memory were big themes, with conversation around how trauma can be exorcised through a physical practice – which leads naturally to the idea that dance is an apt form through which to explore abuse.

A promenade performance that moves through the different rooms of The Chocolate Factory on Kings Inn Street, Dolores is not a recreation of the story in the novel – it’s more an act of restitution, an attempt to imagine and give space to the whole person of Dolores. The company are working with dancers Deirdre Griffin and Julie Koenig, performance artist Amanda Coogan and actor Mikel Murfi to delve into the persona of the silenced girl, working with the diverse artistic languages of the members of the team to see what can be drawn out.  

M: “We knew we wanted to work with Amanda and Mikel. They both bring their own practice to this piece.”

J: “Amanda is a creator, she’s a sculptor in fact. She sculpts these fantastic performances, and gives so much consideration to the objects she’s working with, the situation she’s in, the costume, the lighting. But we were really interested in working past those disciplines with the performers.”

The choreographers are working with the idea of there being three sides to Dolores’ character, which are channelled through the three female performers, while Humbert Humbert and his nemesis in the book, Quilty, are filtered through Mikel Murfi’s performance. But, in the spirit of allowing individual autonomy space to breathe, it’s not a clear-cut case of asking the performers to inhabit a pre-ordained character.

M: “Mikel is also just Mikel at some points – he’s himself. I’ve realised with this piece that I feel bad somehow for putting something on someone, like you would in certain play scenarios, telling the performer ‘you are that’. It leaves no room for the person themselves – because we are dealing with real people.”

Dolores by Junk Ensemble runs at The Chocolate Factory on Kings Inn Street, Dublin 1, May 8-13. Book tickets here.

Words: Rachel Donnelly

Rachel is the arts editor for Totally Dublin and editor of DRAFF.