My Paper at a Recent Academic Conference
In this blog, I present excerpts from a paper I prepared and presented for an international academic conference – Contemporary Ethnography Across Disciplines (CEAD) – in November 2014.
My topic was From Stage to Site and Back Again. The paper concerned the questions and possibilities that arise when a particular dance is redeveloped for different sites, including on a beach. I presented a brief oral paper and then demonstrated the original, and the latest danced versions of a 2-minute section of the dance (The Lament). My presentation included PowerPoint, video and music, as well as speaking and dance.
The story takes place about 700 AD and is common to numerous places in Scotland and Ireland. In this case, my focus is on a particular story common to both Iona and Holy Island. There was a large group of local people gathered on the beach praying when a Viking ship swept in and the people were all massacred. The dance portrays birth, destruction and rebirth of a culture, followed by a lament that tells of the massacre on the beach. The dance is called Geàdh Fladhaich (Gaelic for ‘Wild Goose’). Given my Celtic and Viking roots, this is also my own story. Given my Christian faith, this is also a story from the early centuries of Christianity.
The whole dance is a 10-minute solo first choreographed and performed in 1997, and then performed many times in different contexts in my own country and around the world. The dance is choreographed to be viewed from one side, as in a stage performance. The music is by the group “Iona”.
1997 Audience Response
I received a lot of positive feedback. Many people expressed how they had been moved by the work, how it had inspired them, effected them personally. After the dance, some people reported experiencing a sense of freedom and peace, of God or of a particular spiritual connectedness. Others expressed a longing and determination to search out their own cultural roots.
Early in 2014, I was invited to perform the work on a beach in New Zealand. It was immediately obvious that there would be certain changes, a major of which being that I was now an older woman who was telling the story through dance, rather than a younger woman enacting the story in dance. Here, for the first time, I danced the work on a sand beach beside the sea. For the first time also, the audience were seated facing the sea. Instead of stationary backdrops of wall, stage or trees, audience members could now see green-blues of water, distant shores, seabirds, and the beach itself. And the sea was, of course, constantly moving, changing colour, with shifting shadows of cloud, changes in swell and tide, and waves breaking onto the beach beyond me. For the audience, the experience now included sights and sounds of sea and seabirds, smells of sea and beach, and the feel of sun and wind. The sound of the breaking surf was always present and often dominated or even drowned out the music on the portable player. Thus, in a sense, I performed my dance in partnership with this seaside environment. [The photo accompanying this blog was taken by dancer Natalie Dowd during one of the beach performances.]
Challenges of 2014
I was challenged by the need to re-orientate myself in the dance, and to embrace and incorporate the features of this new site, its atmosphere and the audience situation. In the dance, I often turned my focus away from the audience, and towards the sea, from whence came the destruction in the story. I appreciated being able to slip, skid and fall onto the ground, and to roll, crawl and become covered in sand. Because of the uneven, often sloping, ground surface, I re-choreographed sections that had previously been dependent on a regular flat floor (such as places where I had needed to balance on one leg for extended periods). During each of the five beach performances, I made adaptations to the choreography and often spontaneously adjusted or improvised movements that better fitted the particular location and time of the day or the tide level. Finally, because of the presence of sharp stones and shells, I wore shoes.
2014 Audience Response
Again, audience members reported that they had been moved by the work. But, I noted that their perceptions of the dance and its effect appeared to have changed; the story itself and the beach setting seemed to have become the focus. Some reflected aloud about how it might have been for the women during the events depicted; how terrifying, confusing and traumatic such an event must be; how this story is one example of many similar stories of invasion and domination, including for Māori in our own land. Others noted with excitement moments in the dance when seabirds had flown behind me, or when the colour of my dress had exactly matched the colour of the sea. I sensed that the story had become somehow more immediate, perhaps more authentic, for many audience members. There were more comments that indicated understanding, enlightenment, or appreciation of such tragedies. The sensory impact of the environment – the site of the dance – had added a new dimension to the experience for the audience (and for me).
Questions for the choreographer
On bringing the dance work back to the theatre, I asked the following questions:
How can the experience of the beach enhance the performance on-stage?
What insights and new understandings of the dance and the original story can I now incorporate into the work?
In practical terms, what design and choreographic changes can I bring back from the beach and re-create or represent on the stage?
How is the dance changed?
What is gained or lost?
What new insights might be gained for audience members as they experience the dance?
2015 in Scotland
In 2015, during a ministry trip to teach, perform and pray in several different countries, I am planning to perform the whole dance on both Iona and Holy Island in Scotland, the original sites of the story. I am hoping to gain photographs and video of my dancing on these beaches. I anticipate that these experiences will lead to more changes in the dance and more questions.
Application and Questions for Other Researchers
I am reminded of researchers in other areas and what could be learned from the dance experience. Questions include:
Is there learning for other areas of ethnographic research?
What insights can dance contribute to ethnographic research concerning the site of findings presentations?
How does site influence the presentation of findings?
How are perceptions of the witnesses/audience changed, depending on the site of presentation?
In terms of other areas of ethnographic research, how are audience perceptions changed or influenced if the findings of ethnographic research are presented distantly, then in the midst of the people concerned, or of people who are interested but not directly concerned, and then removed from the location of the people concerned and returned to a distant location?
How does each reiteration in each distinct location influence the form and/or presentation of the findings?
Or does nothing change?
Audience Response to Conference Presentation
Again, there was a very warm response. Audience members saw strengths in both versions. They felt that the video of waves on a beach shown behind me during the second demonstration took their imaginations further into the realities of the story. Some seemed to focus more on me and my role in the story-telling: a solitary, vulnerable person who needed to be protected and rescued. One audience member wrote a poem as a response.