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Review 4: Irish contemporary dance takes its place on the national stage with ‘Bastard Amber’

Wed 27 May 2015

Review 4: Irish contemporary dance takes its place on the national stage with ‘Bastard Amber’

Last night was a historic moment for Irish contempoary dance. For the first time in the illustrious history of Ireland's national theatre, the Abbey, a work by an Irish contemporary choreographer was presented on the main stage. For the dance community in the country, it felt like something significant - progress.

Choregrapher Liz Roche, who has been working in dance in Ireland since the nineties and has established a reputation abroad for her complex and detailed choreographic style, was approached to take on the task of creating a piece to fit the breadth of the national stage. The result, Bastard Amber, is a work that is at once measured and frenetic, spacious and claustrophobic, ethereal and primal. Based largely on W.B. Yeats's poem Sailing to Byzantium, with design influenced by the Gold Meditation paintings of Patrick Scott, the piece delves into the age-old theme of the connection between our very mortal bodies and the eternal soul.

When first reading the poem as a child, Roche was most struck by two images: the fragility and impermanence of our physical forms (An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick) and the joyous arrival at the ciy of Byzantium (therefore I have sailed the seas and come, To the holy city of Byzantium). Bastard Amber runs along a rich seam of imagery and motion between these two points, starting with images of birth from a golden cocoon, to a pastel and muted realm where movement is symmetrical, measured, contained and images of the aged man intrude, through a more turbulent period, to a final glorious and sumptuous realisation of the golden solace to be found in the poet's imagined realm of Byzantium. 

Live musical accompaniment, developed collaboratively with the choregorapher, marks this journey, transitioning from the minimalistic purity of Zoe Conway's voice, through sounds that are by turns unsettling, driving, discordant, regal, triumphant and, at times, surpisingly contemporary, all composed by Ray Harman with contributions from John McIntyre and Bryan O'Connell. As Roche weaves her complex tapestry of movement, so the entire piece is threaded through with references. Stage directions from Yeats' Four Plays for Dancers are projected on the back wall of the stage, or sung by Conway, emphasising the theatrical framework the performance exists in. Byzantium itself is pictured through an enormous, burnished golden disc that descends from the rafters, a direct homage to Scott in a gorgeously rich moment where the set and lighting design of Paul Wills and Lee Curran sings.

Roche has made the most of her eight performers to fully explore her interest in the manipulation of form, shape, light and pattern. The dancers hail from both at home and abroad, the Irish (or resident in Ireland) contingent made up of Roche's regular crew (Alexandre Iseli, Liv O'Donnoghue, Katherine O'Malley and Roche herself), with the others hailing from France (Héléne Cathala, Sarah Cerneaux, Marc Stevenson) and USA/UK (Henry Montes). All are mature and experienced, many making work under their own names, and these individually developed and sophisticated sensibilities bring weight and texture to the performance.

As a whole, Bastard Amber is complex and beautiful, integral and tightly controlled. Roche's yen for a striking image, a curious predilection for stasis in an artist who deals in movement, creates a sort of storybook effect, leading us through Yeats' conception of the twin states of body and soul in a series of exquisite frames. It was a lustrous and dignified entry for Irish contemporary dance onto the hallowed boards of the nation's theatre.