Putting dance into the blender

By Arminta Wallace

ARTS/dance: Using music, text and assorted technologies, Daghdha Dance Company's latest production is far from conventional. It may not even be 'dance', says the choreographer Yoshiko Chuma
'I am not sure that The Yellow Room can be called 'dance'," says Yoshiko Chuma of her new piece for Daghdha Dance Company. But then, what do you call a work which incorporates animated slide projections, a soundtrack, a pre-recorded script and four performers? Chuma considers.

For this piece she is not choreographer but composer, her instruments the lights, the sound, the set, the images, the objects, the script, and, of course, the movement and the four dancers.

What is important is not a story in the conventional sense but the way in which these components counterpoint each other. "It's like a blender. You put in the carrots, and this, and this, and you push the button." She makes startlingly authentic whizzing sounds. "And then you drink: very good taste." She grins. "It's like that."

In the rehearsal room downstairs, winter sunshine streams through the windows of Daghdha's boat-shaped wooden building on the campus of University College, Limerick, as the performers go through their paces. The project began in late autumn when the American photographer Robert Flynt took a series of underwater publicity shots of Daghdha dancers in the university's diving pool.

The images proved inspirational to Chuma, and The Yellow Room grew and grew. A script was commissioned from Yew Tree Theatre Company's John Breen; based on recorded interviews with dancers, it offers a series of "open-ended" stories which the performers sometimes mime to, sometimes talk against.

The choreography emerged from a collaboration between Chuma, Daghdha's founder-member and former artistic director Mary Nunan, and ex-Riverdance male principal Colin Dunne.
On stage, Nunan and Dunne are joined by Daghdha's Olwen Grindley and by Páraic Delaney, an actor who is leaping two-footed on to tables and zooming around the set with the alacrity of a seasoned regular. Is he enjoying his first foray into the world of contemporary dance? "It's great craic, yeah," is his suitably open-ended reply.

In the three years since she joined Daghdha as artistic director, the Osaka-born Chuma has produced work ranging from the large-scale Reverse Psychology, a piece in three acts which opens with an outdoor mock historical tour featuring 30 performers, to The Living-Room Project, which does exactly what it says on the tin, bringing dancers and musicians into private homes around the country.

Chuma, who moved to the US in 1978, says that her initial experience of Manhattan had a profound and lasting effect on her world-view, and hence on her work. "It was almost like coming into a Woody Allen movie. Sometimes, in the night, heavy rain in a huge supermarket parking lot. Then you'd hear 'beep, beep . . .' And then headlights. The subway was very dark and in the station, there'd be many people just - sitting. A black African, a white American; very different bodies. I didn't really hear English at that time, so the language was shut off for me. It was a silent movie, a series of slide pictures. I think my pieces come out of those moments of very, very strong emotion and visual images." And, she might have added, a wicked sense of humour.

One of the strands of The Yellow Room takes an offbeat look at the components of Irish dance, as Colin Dunne - ex-Riverdancer and, since last June, graduate of the Master's in Contemporary Dance Performance course at UCL - explains. "I find it fascinating working with Yoshiko, who's from outside of Irish dance and is seeing it for the first time. She, in turn, is fascinated by the things we take for granted - such as the shoes. The look of them; the sound they make."
At one point The Yellow Room finds Dunne and Delaney playing "chess" with shoes on a table; another scene involves some playful messing around with metronomes. Dunne taps his foot, then sets off the metronome - which, miraculously, echoes his chosen speed.

How is it done? He laughs. "In the world of Irish dance, the confines of what you can and can't do are pretty strictly laid out, and metronome speeds are laid down for certain dances - in this case, a set dance, a hornpipe and a reel. So I mentally dance those dances in my head, transfer it to my feet, put on the metronome, and - hopefully - we're there." The dancer dictating to the metronome, rather than the other way round.

What Dunne has not tried to do is to create any kind of traditional/contemporary hybrid. "Fusion? Ugh. I'm really over the word 'fusion' - this slapping together of things. Sure, you could do this" - he waves an arm artistically - "or move your body" - he moves his body - "that sort of stuff. But . . . why? What I'm doing in this show is still Irish dance, but not in its normal context." The Riverdance show itself famously took Irish dance into a new context, of course, making waves which are still rippling around that once highly self-contained world.

But as Mary Nunan points out, crossing boundaries is what dance is all about in its use of music, text and, as in The Yellow Room, assorted technologies.
"As an art form, I feel dance is becoming more and more visible - and more and more readable," she says. "When we started Daghdha in 1988, contemporary dance might have been perceived as something more esoteric. But then, 20 years ago, theatre in Ireland was far more text-driven - now there are lots of plays that incorporate movement and dance to some degree. And our culture now is a much more visual one - younger people are more comfortable with movement, with reading bodies."

As one of its choreographers, how would Nunan describe The Yellow Room?

"I don't know," she confesses. "Although we're on stage acting in a way that's almost theatrical, we don't have theatrical motivation - we're working off timing and phrasing.

"So it's not a case of 'I'm coming in to do this or that', it's just 'I'm coming in'."

Gulp. Maybe it would be good to take a leaf out of the New York Times's book. "Sit back and enjoy what can't be understood," that newspaper advised audiences attending Daghdha's performance of Reverse Psychology at last year's International Dance Festival.

Back in the rehearsal room, Dunne's feet become a virtual blur as the steps of his solo get faster and faster. Grindley has exchanged her black tracksuit for a slinky off-the-shoulder black dress, which she smooths self-consciously over her hips as if she didn't have a figure most of us would die for. Nunan has been stabbed, somehow, in the foot. "Bloody Mary," someone remarks as someone else dashes to the loo for tissues. "In New York," says Chuma, "we say 'the yellow book' meaning the business book, you know? The telephone book. Yellow has the meaning of something a little wacky." She got that one right.

Daghdha Dance Company's The Yellow Room is at the Project Theatre, Dublin, from tomorrow until Saturday. It then tours to the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray (January 29th); Roscommon Arts Centre (February 1st); Áras Eanna, Inis Óirr (February 5th); Glór Music Centre, Ennis (February 8th); Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford (February 12th, two performances); and the Belltable Arts Centre, Limerick on February 14th and 15th

© 2003 The Irish Times