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Pom poms, Balkan folklore and Dante: Emma Martin talks ‘Tundra’

Mon 12 May 2014

Pom poms, Balkan folklore and Dante: Emma Martin talks ‘Tundra’

Tundra: a vast, flat, treeless Arctic region in which the subsoil is permanently frozen.

Emma Martin seems to have a yen for creating surreal landscapes. Following the success of Dogs in the 2012 Dublin Fringe Festival, the Irish choreographer this year opens the tenth Dublin Dance Festival with new piece Tundra.

Lurid and tense, Dogs pictured the collective neuroses of civilized society. Speaking to Emma some weeks ago during a residency in Co. Kilkenny where Tundra was being developed, there were hints of a similarly dark and dramatic work to come.

Influences on the piece were many and various.

Emma: ‘One of the starting points was Dante’s Purgatorio. And that fed into the idea of heaven and hell being states of mind. In the world of Tundra, there’s something mis-aligned. The characters are all fearful and lonely. They enter this space [the landscape of Tundra]… and they don’t know each other; they come into the space and they have to confront themselves and each other. There are dark edges to it.’

Another of Emma’s sources of inspiration was East European folklore. It’s an interesting mash-up of influences: the Christian Purgatorio from the venerated Western canon of literature, and the more pagan stories from folklore, originating from a word of mouth tradition.

In her research, Emma looked for commonalities between cultures in their folkloric tales.

Emma: ‘I wanted to bring the idea of a shape-shifting character into it. We have a lot of those in Celtic myth, and it turns out they also do in Balkan folklore. There’s a similar commonality in folk dance, especially in Europe. Everywhere you go, there’s always a circular folk dance. My theory is that all dance has come from the same place – that it’s something related to ritual.’

Residencies in Poland and Slovenia turned Emma on to Balkan folk music. So much so in fact, that she has recruited Balkan band Yurodny to accompany the performance live.

Emma: ‘The music won’t be full-on Balkan, but working with Balkan rhythms, and then overall some East European references bleeding into the score.’

[Listen to Yurodny here.]

In one of the final scenes in Dogs, a troupe of majorettes file on stage and twirl their batons in an image that mimics a scene from a Patrick’s day parade. The blurb for Tundra mentions pom poms and I wonder if there’s a connection to be drawn between the two things. Both seem to reference community spirit, albeit in different cultural contexts. For Emma though, the association is less concrete and is more about creating a tension in imagery.

Emma: ‘There’s something really cinematic about majorettes and pom poms. There’s something pop trashy about them. I’m interested in bringing in those images that are a bit awkward sometimes, and maybe a bit surprising.’

Tundra opens in the Samuel Beckett Theatre on May 20th. Buy tickets here.