Saturday, 31 March 2007

Longford Festival of Dance - Irish Times, 31 March 2005

Everyone's a player

Thursday, March 31, 2005

When Mona Considine, general manager of Longford's Backstage Theatre, went to the Barabbas production of Hurl in 2003, she and her colleague Janice Belton turned to one another in disbelief. For, immortalised onstage, amid the cut and thrust of a multi-ethnic hurling competition, was the memorably-named GAA club from which the Backstage had originally sprung. Longford's Backstage Theatre (aka the Slashers) grew from an alliance with the local GAA, writes Belinda McKeon.

"They were the Slashers," remembers Considine. 'We nearly fell off our seats. And we asked Raymond [Keane, artistic director of Barabbas] why he hadn't told us beforehand. And he laughed and said "Ah, I thought it'd be nice as a surprise!"' But in retrospect, the nod to the Midlands sportsmen made sense to Considine.
"You'd know where the idea came from," she smiles. "The theatre companies love the name Slashers. The ones who come regularly never say they're coming to Backstage, they always say they're coming to Slashers. So we might as well give in gracefully, I think."
Name-calling aside, the collaboration on which the Backstage is built rarely fails to raise eyebrows among visitors even today, 10 years after it opened to a mixture of local excitement and scepticism, not least from the then-chairman of the GAA, Jack Boothman, who admitted at the opening ceremony that he had thought the joint venture akin to "taking a bungee jump without the rope" when it was first mooted.
If nothing else, it makes for an unusual architectural prospect; mirror images of one another, the club and the theatre inhabit twin halves of the same long, low building, set along the road into Longford town and backing out onto the fields where Slashers' sporting dreams are lived and lost; many evenings, the wall of the Backstage auditorium separates two audiences, two sets of performers - and two separate dramas. The dressing rooms for teams and thespians are only doors apart, making for some interesting chemistry, and the bar space and grounds are shared by patrons of both organisations.
Logistically, this "commonage", as Peter Kilemade, chairman of the board of directors, puts it, proved useful to the fledgling theatre, helping out with at least some of the daunting overheads faced by every regional theatre. But there's no denying that the alliance met with some resistance in its early years, from die-hard fans of both camps who wanted their home ground to be very much their own. And the prejudice of a wider arts community, which considers the idea of a theatre linked with a GAA club as at best comical, at worst drearily parochial, can be difficult to dispel - until, that is, the members of said community visit the theatre for themselves.
"Because it's a GAA club, people - both companies and audiences - think they're going to be coming into a hall sometimes," admits Considine. "They don't expect to be coming into a professional space."
"Their faces light up," adds Belton, who likes to stand at the back of the handsome 212-seater auditorium, with an art gallery - which, in 1999, exhibited a number of Picasso drawings alongside works from local artists - at its entrance, and spy the reactions. "It's a great feeling for us," she says.
Belton, a teenager when Backstage first opened, says that it was only when she toured the local region as a performer with youth and amateur groups that she saw the Longford venue with objective eyes. "I took it for granted; I thought every theatre in the country was like this," she says. "I really had my eyes opened when I went around the others."
Her testimony is backed by professional theatre companies, from Barabbas to Druid and Red Kettle, who over the years have written to Considine, and to her predecessor (up to 1999) as general manager, Jane Hughes, to praise the quality of the venue and the warmth of the welcome. "I couldn't lay claim to that," says Considine of the latter, for which Hughes, now working in the arts in Galway, is still spoken of among theatre professionals. "It was part of Backstage since the word go. That's been part of it, and you look after your companies that come in, because it's their home for the next few days."
For the Backstage Theatre Group, the amateur company which preceded the theatre and from whose activities its genesis came, this building has been home for a long time - 22 years, to be precise. The function room of the GAA club served as the group's studio and performance space from the early 1980s on, becoming a sort of pub theatre for a time every year. The Backstage group made the most of the space - smoke, lights, theatre in the round, an intimate atmosphere brought new perspectives on drama to local audiences - but the limitations were frustrating; with a disco every Friday night, the full set would have to be struck, only to be put up again the next day, and Michael Jennings, club manager of Slashers, can still remember the holes drilled all over his maple floors.
Sitting on one of the beer kegs which then acted as a base for the stage floor, he wondered aloud one night in 1990 whether it would be possible to extend the function room to include a permanent stage area, possibly even with the extravagance of a single dressing room. Jennings shared his idea with players both in the theatre group and in the GAA complex, and, to his surprise, it took off.
Naturally, the fact that a Longford native, Albert Reynolds, held the office of Taoiseach over the next couple of years did no harm to the project either. But the scale of what emerged was unexpected. There were already some standalone theatres in the locality - the Shawbrook Dance Theatre, established in nearby Legan in 1978, and the Bog Lane theatre in Ballymahon - but the prospect of a full-size, professional venue seemed a long way off. And yet, here it was.
Anica Louw, director of the Shawbrook, remembers the excitement of the Backstage group at the possibility of what they called a "real theatre".
"I think on research it was discovered that there was that gap in the market, that there was a need for such a venue in the midlands region," adds Considine. "And the Arts Council was very interested in someone taking up that mantle. I think they realised that to do something on a smaller scale would have been a wasted opportunity, really."
For a time as the theatre went up, its staff had their offices in Portakabins, and came to work in Wellingtons, and even after the building site had become a gleaming new venue, there were teething problems to be sorted out; with three groups - Longford Slashers, the Backstage group, and the theatre administration - jostling for position at the helm, issues of hierarchy took some time to go away, hints Paul Higgins, chairman of the amateur group.
But the professional autonomy from the groups eventually manifested itself in the theatre's day-to-day business. Still, that there's a healthy tension is evinced by Considine, as she ponders the proximity of those dressing-rooms. "I'm telling you, the dancers especially would show them a thing or two about fitness if they got out on that pitch!"
The dancers she's referring to are the participants in the next fortnight's programme at the theatre, which will combine the National Dance Awards with productions from two major Irish companies - Ballet Ireland will present Alice, Dance Theatre of Ireland Between You and Me - and from the Donlon Dance Company, the German-based company of the Longford-born choreographer, Marguerite Donlon, to comprise a festival of dance of superb pedigree.
The event will be co-hosted with the Shawbrook Theatre, where Christopher K Morgan will present his solo work in Ireland for the first time; familiar to dance audiences from Fabulous Beast's 2003 piece Giselle, Morgan will perform his own piece, The Measure of Man in the Shawbrook Theatre this Saturday. It's quite a line-up - the sort of line-up that Louw feels Co Longford deserves.
"My big dream, 10 years ago, was that if you say 'Longford' to somebody in Dublin, they will say, oh, the dance place, like Wexford is the opera place."
And in truth, hers is not an unrealistic dream. Two of the finest choreographers to emerge from this country - Donlon, and the director and choreographer of Giselle, Michael Keegan-Dolan, are both Longford natives, both with a strong connection to Louw's acclaimed ballet school at the Shawbrook. Keegan-Dolan, having a close friend and collaborator who had trained there, took Giselle to the Shawbrook to rehearse and develop it; in fact, it was a singing session in a pub in the nearby townland of Maghera which gave Keegan-Dolan the song Where The Three Counties Meet, which made such a memorable - though hardly quaint - appearance.
Meanwhile, Donlon, now 38, was Louw's first pupil - in need of work, she took the young dancer on even though, at 15, she would generally have been regarded as much too old for training. The gamble worked out; having gone to England to complete her training, Donlon became the first female Irish dancer ever to be accepted into the London Festival Ballet, and became a member of the English National Ballet under Peter Schaufuss. She created her first piece of choreography in 1991 for the ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which brought her to European attention, and commissions followed for major venues in Vienna, Basel, Stuttgart and Chicago.
In 2001 she was appointed director of the Saarländische Staatstheater in Saarbrücken, Germany, where her own company has drawn dancers from all over the world to work with her. "She is the only dancer to have come out of Ireland who has been a ballerina of principal status, as well as a choreographer well known all over Europe and a director of a state company," says Louw. "It's huge."
The Donlon Dance Company will perform three pieces as part of the Longford dance festival: Chocolate, We Three Sheep and the piece originally created for the Vienna State Ballet by Donlon, Taboo or Not. As with all of her work, it will mix physical innovation with a witty take on the cultural traditions from which Donlon's passion for dance grew - Louw claims that Donlon's 1995 piece, Celtic Touch (which was one of the first productions at the Backstage Theatre) was "the original Riverdance" with an added sense of humour.
"Her choreography, for me, is always very much about dance, but her being Irish there's always something anecdotal involved,' says Louw. "Her being Irish, she always uses Irish music somewhere and always Irish dancing, and she's always taking the mickey out of it. I think that's why she's so successful in Europe, because she's working with what I call real North European, cold, contemporary, modern people and she has broken boundaries there.
"The dancers she chooses are totally classically trained, rather than contemporary, and she mixes elements of theatre and dance, and puts humour in her pieces, which none of the North Europeans do. I've seen her perform in Berlin, and there were people standing in the rain for her, and you talk about venues, this was a shed, they had to bring their own chairs, and they stood there for hours, and I asked them why. And they said, because of Marguerite Donlon. And to me it's always been sad that Ireland doesn't know about that, and about her."
And she smiles, with all the pride of a teacher who intends to put that much right.
The Festival of Dance at Backstage Theatre (in association with Shawbrook's LD Dance Trust) runs from today to Apr 8. Donlon Dance Company's Taboo or Not will play at the Backstage tonight and tomorrow at 8.30pm; early booking is advised. Christopher K Morgan's The Measure of Man is at the Shawbrook Theatre, Legan, Co Longford, Sat 4pm
© 2005 The Irish Times

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