A YEAR-LONG Brian O’Doherty retrospective, centred around the restoration of the 90-year-old Irish émigré artist’s One, Here, Now mural in the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, has invited responses from a host of Irish visual artists.
But there have also been contributions from performers and composers. Next, it’s the turn of the Dublin dance troupe Liz Roche Company to step gracefully up to the plate with their homage to O’Doherty in dance, with a new piece choreographed by founder Liz Roche, in collaboration with Cork-born composer Linda Buckley.
I/THOU, designed for the expansive stage of Cork Opera House, has been a long time coming, Roche says. She began an email conversation with O’Doherty, the prominent artist, author and critic who left Ireland for New York in the ‘50s, more than two years ago, and discovered a host of connections.
I/THOU uses contemporary dance to explore themes of shifting identities, a theme also used by O’Doherty throughout his career, most notably when he adopted the alter ego of Patrick Ireland in response to the Bloody Sunday killings in the 1970s. He later staged a symbolic burial of the character following the Northern Ireland peace process.
“I’ve always looked at those subjects of memory and shared collective memory and migration,” Roche says. “As a dancer, you had to train abroad. You were always moving; there’s a sense of always having been the foreigner in your place of work.”
“To find an artist as amazing as Brian and then to find that these are the things that matter to him too, there’s a sense of connection there which is really fantastic.”
“Brian was very influential in New York for most of his artistic life and he was connected to figures like Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Morton Feldman, these really iconic composers and choreographers and he would have been inspired by them, so it’s an amazing link for a dance piece to be able to delve into those works as inspiration.”
Roche didn’t meet O’Doherty until his April visit to Cork for the unveiling of his murals, which had been covered for more than 20 years before their restoration. The murals themselves, highly coloured and using the ancient Irish Ogham alphabet to encode ideas of emigration and identity, were another starting point for Roche for I/THOU.
A large set by designer Joe Vanek pays subtle tribute to the colour schemes in O’Doherty’s smallest Sirius mural, also titled I/THOU, and includes a large mobile element for the dancers to interact with.
“Brian’s paintings are perfect in their own right, so really I had to ask myself what it is we can bring to this project as dancers, and what we can bring is the body, and movement,” Roche says. “We wanted to bring movement into the set, so the audience can feel it come to life.”
I/THOU has a cast of six Liz Roche Company dancers, three singers and a cellist. Having worked with live music in several of her past productions, the dancer-turned-choreographer says it’s very enriching to be able to perform to a live score.
“You just feel, ‘This is how it should be’,” she says.
It’s like the dancers are playing their part in an orchestra. It’s a lot to pull together in rehearsals, but it’s so worth it for the live element and the sense of everyone working together.
Roche was the first Irish choreographer to ever have been commissioned to bring a piece of dance to the stage of the Abbey Theatre, Bastard Amber in 2015. The experience helped her upscale her work for larger stages, she says. Having produced a site-specific response to O’Doherty’s work earlier in the year, Pilgrimage, in the Sirius centre next to the murals themselves, she is excited to be bringing the larger piece to the Opera House stage.
“When Cork Opera House commissioned the piece, it was a perfect storm artistically because there’s so much to draw on in Brian’s work,” Roche says. “I think his work can tie into so many ideas. Pilgrimage in Sirius was really special, but I felt like it only made sense in the time and the place that it was, whereas now we’re making something that can travel and move and grow and breathe.”