Twin choreographers Megan and Jessica Kennedy explore the innermost fears of Cork people for their ambitious dance opera, writes Ellie O’Byrne
ALFRED Hitchcock knew a thing or two about fear. “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand,” the Master of Suspense famously once said. “After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. It’s just a different wolf.”
Exploring the universal and evocative theme of human fear, sisters Megan and Jessica Kennedy, founders and co-artistic directors of dance theatre company Junk Ensemble, were seized by this mythic idea of “a different wolf” while artists-in-residence at Cork dance centre, the Firkin Crane.
Working with researcher and visual artist Michele O’Connor- Connolly, the Kennedys delved deep into people’s fears, holding interviews with community groups and families in Cork. From common phobias to less tangible terrors like loss of independence or the judgement of others, what they found, Jessica Kennedy says, is that our fears come from a surprisingly small and universal pool.
“People’s fears seem to be timeless, so a lot were reoccurring,” Jessica says. “There were fears of being alone, or of the world ending: they could come from 100 years ago, or 100 years before that.”
“We also looked at all those little wiggly, funny, childhood fears that you might still have, like being afraid of the dark, or spiders, or maggots, these more irrational, tangible fears that we can all relate to. At some stage, we were all afraid of the dark. Monsters under the bed came up a lot.”
Megan adds: “The one that surprised me most, purely because of the honesty, was people who admitted that the wolf was themselves. People assume the wolf is an outside force, but a few interviewees said the wolf was the voice in their own head, that drove them to feelings of inadequacy or insecurity.”
The Kennedys, twins who are based in Dublin but who are holding a contemporary dance residency in the Firkin Crane this year, have become known for Junk Ensemble’s expansive, innovative approach to productions, often exploring large themes and combining community casts with professional dancers.
Soldier Still, which explored the impacts of violence with the help of former soldiers, won Best Design at Dublin Fringe Festival in 2017 and toured to The Everyman in Cork last year. For Dublin Dance Festival 2018, they upended Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita by retelling the controversial classic from the perspective of Humbert Humbert’s 12-year-old victim Dolores Haze, in the appropriate surrounds of the Chocolate Factory Arts Centre.
But A Different Wolf is, they say, their most ambitious project to date; working with Belfast music production company Dumbworld, they have produced a dance opera, with an ensemble choir of 100 Cork singers from Cór Geal in Whitechurch and the Cork School of Music choir, as well as professional dancers and musicians.
As choreographers, the Kennedys worked with four dancers to bring their research, and the dancers’ own fears, to the stage.
“As a punter, you might not necessarily think that what you’re watching is based on fear, but it’s heavily embedded in the dancers’ fears,” Megan says.
Isn’t it a big ask of dancers to get them to navigate the highly personal terrain of their innermost fears in rehearsal? “We’ve worked with them all before and they know that anything Junk-related is going to be difficult and a challenge,” Megan says. “The first few days we did burrow very deeply into what their fears were and that is very exposing and vulnerable. But when we were working to music it got easier.”
As well as discoveries about the universal nature of fear, and personal insights — Megan says her greatest fear is of the difference between how she represents herself and how she’s perceived, while Jessica’s “is time running out, and not getting everything done before I die” — the Kennedys learned an all- important lesson about the power of facing our fears together, which they’re keen for the audience to tap in to.
“In the initial research phase with the dancers, we realised that the more people experience fear together, sitting side by side, the less fear is present,” Megan says. We talked a lot about Kubrick films and Lynch films, and the tension created by music and lighting. A definite aim with the audience is that release moment where you can laugh at your own fears.”
A Different Wolf is on at Cork Opera House on Sunday and Monday (June 16-17) as part of Cork Midsummer Festival. www.corkmidsummer.com