By Ciaran Tierney
For two dancers who had only ever worked together as part of a larger group in a studio in urban Germany, the prospect of spending a week on a remote Gaeltacht island in the West of Ireland was a completely different challenge.
Julie McGovern (Mayo) and Zina Vaessen (Switzerland) had worked together on training programmes in the Germany city of Freiburg and somehow found themselves drawn to each other’s styles and personalities as they worked in larger groups.
They were encouraged by other participants on the improvisational dance programmes to take time out to work together as a duo and see what they could come up with.
Julie had spent a couple of blissful summers attending Irish college on Inis Oirr as a teenager and always wanted to return. She came up with the idea of applying for a residency at Áras Éanna after Zina had told her that she had never been to Ireland.
“Inis Oirr was the place where I learned to set dance during a three-week stint to improve my Irish,” said Julie. “I was a little bit nervous about bringing Zina over here. I do most of my dancing in Germany and I identify myself with that person over there. Where we work in Freiburg is very much a dance studio in an urban setting.
“Zina said she’d like to come over. I wondered where I could take somebody who had never been to Ireland and to showcase a place that I love myself. A lot of people I know have never been to Inis Oirr. We just started working from the first day. It was brilliant. The whole set up here was conducive to setting aside any distractions in a good way.”
Whereas they started working on the first morning in their studio at Áras Éanna, with its spectacular views of the stone walls, Inis Meáin, and the Connemara coastline, they increasingly found themselves being drawn to outdoor sites on the island to work in their dance routines.
They could be found collaborating by the wreck of the Plassey, on the other side of the island, or on rocks alongside the coast road. Coming from Switzerland, Zina was really impacted by the nature on the island and the feeling that she was surrounded by water.
“I have never been to such a small island, where you can walk from one side to another. It’s very specific to be all the time surrounded by the ocean. I didn’t think I would notice so much,” said Zina.
“At first, we had to make sure to ground ourselves and to get down to work. We did it in the studio. Even though there was the temptation to go out and be outside. Also I was a bit overwhelmed by the nature. Through the windows of the studio, the outside is very prevalent still.
“Then we started working outside. It felt like a total shift. I’m also not very experienced in site-specific work. I am a studio-based artist. We worked mostly at the shipwreck, The Plassey. I would say the nature and the sea are really special. I really felt the stones in my bones. And all the walls. This crazy thing of the whole island being compartmentalised. It is very strong. For a dancer, it is very interesting to sense it.”
Julie joked that their emphasis changed during the week. Zina wanted to get out more and more, whereas Julie was happy to work in the studio. They enjoyed long days of practising their improvised dance moves at a time of year when it’s possible to work outdoors until late in the night.
After working with other dancers in Freiburg, they were both interested and curious to see how their residency in Inis Oirr would work out. They were delighted by what they came up with during a week of roaming the island and taking inspiration from their surroundings.
“It was brilliant,” said Julie. “Our original idea in coming out here was to explore the idea of interruptions and shifts in movement. The week has opened new possibilities for us. We have a stronger basis now for going on a journey.”
For Zina, Inis Oirr offered an escape from technology and other distractions. She found that the stone walls all around the island gave them inspiration as the week progressed.
“It is always interesting to try to imagine what a place is like and then to go there. We managed to work well, but also to be really in the moment and not think so much. I am proud of us that we were using the time without a plan and that we took time to get to know each other. We were living in the moment and not being distracted by other things,” she said.
For Julie, it was wonderful to bring the modern dance she has explored in Germany back to the island where she had such fun as a teenager attending Irish college in the summer months. Zina put structures on their days and she learned to leave her day-to-day worries and distractions behind her during her time on the island.
“Thanks to Zina also for gathering it up. It all worked out fine. We would warm up first and somehow the day flowed. We were there for long days in the studio. It turned out. The tables turned. Zina wanted to go out and I wanted to stay in the studio. All these ideas started coming to me. I think we were good influences on each other, but we kind of found a balance on Inis Oirr,” said Julie.
Julie and Zina both extended their thanks to Dara and Aisling at Áras Éanna for facilitating their residency and being so supportive during their stay on the island.