Review: Fearghus Ó Conchúir's Tabernacle at The Place

Performance: 29 Nov
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Thursday 1 December 2011

Fearghus O Conchúir's 'Tabernacle' Photo: Jonathan Mitchell

Catholicism in Ireland is the big, convoluted topic underpinning this rather too amorphous, overlong and yet not negligible 80-minute quintet that premiered last May at the Dublin Dance Festival. The choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir tackles this monster of a subject almost entirely through the physical exertions of his cast: Mikel Aristegui, Elena Giannotti, Stéphane Hisler, Bernadette Iglich and Matthew Morris.

The staging is stripped-back. The set consists of three long, sturdy and handsome wooden benches upon which the performers sit, step or lay so that the objects become, at different times, a shrine, tower or cross. The sole props are various bits of ordinary clothing used in ways that might suggest burdensome vestments, relics or dirt beneath which a sweaty body (Hisler’s) is buried. The soundtrack by the composer Iarla Ó Lionáird veers from subterranean electronica with spidery echoes tucked inside to gentle guitar and plaintive vocals (in Irish Gaelic).

Following a ritualistically stretchy, loosely canonic opening, after which the heavily-tattooed and pierced Morris strips off and sashays about like a stray angel, the piece keeps up a fairly steady flow of what could be perceived as religious imagery.

When Iglich exposes her side the others kiss it hungrily while raising and lowering her body as if she were a Christ-figure. (The sequence ends, in a rare but welcome bit of silliness, with the avid worshippers blowing raspberries on her bare tummy). Morris is re-clothed and placed on the floor, with a bench resting atop his prone body as he sings a bit of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

Iglich wraps a bandage round her bared breasts, later nimbly skips about holding out the fabric like a show-off child. She falls slowly into positions in which, passive and stiff as a plaster saint, she’s held off the floor by Morris. Subsequently they share a tactile, semi-sedentary duet of mutual support marked with fleeting whispers and smiles (another rarity in this performance).

Working with the visual artist Sarah Browne, Ó Conchúir briefly references famous religious-themed art including the Pietà and the Sistine Chapel. More generally the cast at one point keeps shifting in and out of painting-like tableaux inexplicably punctuated by sounds one might make to a baby, simulated dog barks and a cringe-inducing snatch of Carole King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move’.

Morris’ early disrobing looked and felt pretty innocent, but it’s succeeded by other, more sexualised behaviour. Some of it carries a potentially disturbing tension. Giannotti, wide-eyed and wary, clings to a bench as it’s upended and then, once settled onto the floor, she and Hisler slip into an erotically entangled embrace that soon leads to several bouts of bestial wrestling; they break apart and have a breather before going at each other again. More ambiguous, to say the least, is a bit when Hisler lays on the floor, pulls his pants down and pulls up his genitals as if they were a handful of daisies; he then rolls around spreading open his buttocks. In a similar (though not sexual) vein of ‘what exactly did that mean?’ is a section when Morris seals himself up in track-suit top and bottoms into which he’s stuffed any spare clothing.

I’ve gone on at length about what the dancers do mainly because their actions, however seemingly self-indulgent, are all that we have to formulate our concept of the show’s content and purpose. (The hand-out we’re given of a ‘printed artwork’ by Browne that describes, at length and as text, the climbing of sacred mountains is of little immediate use.) My take on Tabernacle is that it takes itself pretty seriously and, as such, is an honourable attempt to conjure up impressions and manifestations of the mysteries of faith and its flipside, repression. Crucially, however, the piece lacks the kind of dramaturgical clarity that might’ve illuminated my experience of it. The dancers bound about and grapple each other as if they know what they’re doing, but too often I felt I’d been left in the dark. Structurally, too, the piece struck me as arbitrary – as if the number and/or order of sequences could’ve been shuffled about without making much difference.

There were things I liked about the show, that caught me off-guard or seemed to happen by chance rather than calculation, as when Iglich was picked up out of Morris’ arms by another man and, hand on mouth, emitted a gasp. There were also parts that might well stick in the memory: Hisler loping on all-fours like a slope-backed beast, or repeatedly bending forward and stamping his foot as if he’d discovered a new way of breast-beating penance; Giannotti continually stepping, spitting and stomping on the surface of a bench; or everyone open-armed and slightly leaning on a diagonal as if ready to hug the world.

Apart from the misjudged fragments of live song cited earlier, the only words the dancers utter is ‘Catch me!’ just before one or another of them takes a little jump or gives in to gravity. This works best at the very end when Hisler is being lifted, again, in Christ-like fashion by his fellow performers; as he’s being let down, they all say the magic words simultaneously. It’s those sort of small, subtle and resonant connections that a trimmer, tighter Tabernacle could’ve used more of.
Donald Hutera

www.fearghus.net

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