Memory and Loss: Connaughton’s MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING

Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, Dublin.

In her 1980 book, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, Sally Banes writes: “[…] reacting against the expressionism of modern dance, which anchored movement to a literary idea or musical form, the post-modernists propose […] that the purpose of making dances might be simply to […] look at movement for its own sake.”¹ The subject of this analysis could certainly sometimes feel like a piece designed for the sake of movement alone, but functions instead as a pensive musing on the fragility of memory and the self. In this regard, it is more conventional than other postmodern works, which seek to break down the barriers of meaning and plot.

Created by Philip Connaughton as a co-production between KLAP Maison pour la Danse and Cork Opera House, MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING is the second of Connaughton’s pieces to deal with the topic of his mother’s dementia. One may question the use in creating two separate pieces on the same topic in a short space of time, but the topic, especially when it affects someone close to you, is one that is not dealt with easily or quickly. As a theatre creator, this is how Connaughton chooses to work through these complex emotions, and one can imagine that it is cathartic for him. Featuring Connaughton alongside Kévin Coquelard and Tatanka Gombaud, it is a dense piece that often feels improvised. This feeling of improvisation is central to the piece, and Connaughton touches on it in his blurb on the Project Arts Website: “…this piece is a memory exercise for three male dancers. All pushing to see how much abstract information our bodies can retain.”² It is the abstract and improvised moments that each of us makes every day that the movement in this piece is based on, overshadowed throughout by the idea of what becomes of us when these movements are no longer second nature. The use of audience participation midway through forces us to consider these concerns in an immediate and personal way.

Upon entering the performance space in the Project Arts Centre spectators were met with a distinctly unsettling atmosphere. The stage space was outlined by white tape on the floor, placed into the shape of a truncated isosceles triangle, the widest side being upstage along with a white screen. The two points along this side were truncated. Between the tape and the audience were three chairs set equidistant from each other. The space was dark and filled with low, rumbling sounds, lending the space an industrial feel as if the audience were beside a room filled with constantly working machinery. One could almost hear a broken musical melody under the rumble, but it was not clear whether this was accurate or a form of aural pareidolia on my part, which is “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern” (Merriam-Webster)³. Luca Truffarelli’s sound design worked with the stark setting and Begona Garcia Navas’ lighting to create an uneasy atmosphere that prefigured the contents of the piece.

The opening moments continued the industrial, mechanic feel by presenting the three performers to the spectators in a way that made them feel robotic. Much like Pan Pan’s production of ELIZA’s Adventures in the Uncanny Valley, there was the feeling that they were AI programmes just starting to develop personalities. Looking at it another way, they start off the piece as babies, unaware of object permanence, of their own bodies or their own selves, made to consider these things by a disembodied voice — a maternal figure. Following this opening moment, we get into the choreographed movement; this first section feels quite haphazard, as the performers seem to grow accustomed to their bodies and gradually try to explore the limits of their physical capabilities.

Artaud believed it to be “self-defeating for the stage to attempt to copy everyday life” (Innes)⁴ and while MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING doesn’t copy everyday life, or even attempt to, it is clearly taken from everyday life, both in the central relationship and the monotonous, broken movements, which function as a breakdown and analysis of the somewhat calming monotony of everyday life.

Postmodern dance takes inspiration from the ideologies of the postmodern movement, seeking to break away from perceived pretentious modernist views of art and the artist; postmodern dancers sought meaning of all kinds, from skill to language systems to narrative, autobiography, and even political manifestos. Connaughton clearly sought to imbue this piece with heavy meaning beyond the surface level. When it comes to experimental theatre, a concept that often influences a piece is: “We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin” (Brook)⁵. Phillip Connaughton adheres to this concept by opening the piece with footage of himself and his mother projected onto the screen at the back of the space. We see him get her up in the morning and shower her, but what stands out is the slowness of these actions, the deliberate pace he must take with her; this sets up the rest of the piece by firmly placing the thematic core in our minds.

The use of this footage raises a question regarding the ethics of theatre. If we draw a comparison to the work of Romeo Castellucci, Tragedia Endogonidia features a young baby on stage alongside a sculpted head. In a showing reviewed by Fintan O’Toole, the “baby looks at the audience, tries to crawl and starts to cry.”⁶ He calls the use of the baby morally dubious but concedes it is provocative and unsettling. The morality of this is in the fact that the baby was not able to consent to his participation. In regard to MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING, the use of home video of the creator’s mother throughout the piece raises this question of consent. How aware is she, if she is aware at all, of this footage being used in such a public way? “It is one thing for an undertaking to be possible and another for it to be just” (Lyotard)⁷.

From one perspective this is a rather cheap way of manufacturing sympathy within the spectator, but from another, it is almost vital that the footage is included so that we have a glimpse into Connaughton’s life. Near the end of the piece, Connaughton has a conversation with his mother via the film screen, hence one has to assume that he considered this question and either believes his mother would approve or has reconciled it within himself. “The use of video technology becomes more self-referential as the play goes on, blurring the categories of ‘live’ and ‘filmed’” (Werner)⁸. The use of technology in this piece allows it to become a representation of reality, albeit skewed through a postmodern lens.

In the Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet first staged in 2005, Shakespeare’s tragedy is re-imagined by the repurposing of the 1964 John Gielgud directed Broadway production starring Richard Burton. Three performances of this Burton-led production were recorded live from various angles and edited into a film that “played four performances in a thousand theatres” (Redfield)⁹. This recycling of other cultural material, whether through allusions, reproductions, parody or pastiche is absent from MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING, which is an extremely self-contained piece.

The use of footage recalls Wooster Group’s Hamlet but whereas they were making a comment on the way Shakespeare’s oeuvre carries with it the weight of its past performance history, Connaughton’s piece relies on a being outside of space and history, functioning as a section of the creator’s psyche placed on a glass slide and examined under a microscope. The sparsity of the set, or even the lack of a recognisable set entirely, contributes to this effect; while the “notion of architectural fixture is […] by no means a conditio sine qua non for theatre” (Balme)¹⁰ most theatregoers expect a set of some kind. The lack of one in MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING serves to emphasise this idea that what we see takes place beyond time and space, and rather occurs within a person’s mind.

The oppressiveness of the pre-performance atmosphere largely dissipates for the performance itself, but in the final scene it returned in full throttle; we find the movements of the performers becoming increasingly more erratic, the disembodied voice glitching, the lights flickering and flashing alongside an onscreen montage of degraded digital footage, nitrate film in various states of damage and decomposition. All this damage is superimposed over footage of what at first appears to be train tracks but is soon recognised as biological neural networks, alluding to the failing of the brain when it succumbs to a neurological disorder. As it all becomes more intense, one is reminded of a line from ELIZA: “Everything in life happens in one moment” (O’Brien and Quinn)¹¹. What we are seeing as spectators is a moment within Connaughton’s brain and we are privy to the multitude of thoughts that occur within a moment.

Despite its more conventional structure than other postmodern pieces, in a postmodern way it doesn’t rely on a singular master narrative, though it may sometimes seem to. We have the central relationship between Connaughton and his mother, along with the snippets of autobiographical monologues delivered by each of the performers. However, though we have an overhanging arc, the piece is largely disunified, each section connected only by the central concept of memory and time. And while many postmodern pieces seek to examine the workings of the status quo and even sometimes challenge them head-on, in MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING we find instead an acceptance of the way life is, as painful as it may be.

And painful such acceptance can be. If we may be allowed to get personal for a moment, I would like to mention my own experiences with the central condition of the piece; my grandmother has had dementia for five years and has been more or less non-verbal for the last year. The footage in which we see Connaughton going through the names of his siblings, only to have his mother forget his name is a scene I saw enacted many times between my mother and grandmother. Eventually, to help myself deal with it, I said goodbye; once she stopped talking it was like the woman I knew was gone and it was easier to think that she was. But while watching this production I realised that these emotions had never been properly addressed; though this is something that will take time, it has to be done. My grandmother is still alive and I need to come to terms with how she is before the inevitable happens. That Connaughton was able to use such intense and personal feelings in the creation of theatre is something to be admired.

As a piece of theatre, it was wonderful and affecting, but for me and I’m sure for many in the audience it was much more. If a piece can make people feel to a level that MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING made us feel, then I consider that piece a success. Lyotard writes:

“Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside? The operativity criterion is technological; it has no relevance for judging what is true or just. Is legitimacy to be found in consensus obtained through discussion, as Jürgen Habermas thinks?”

Legitimacy comes from individual perspectives. Particularly in theatre, where meaning is only to be found if one either looks for it or is open enough to the piece to allow the meaning to come naturally. We all find what we need meaning to be. That is the power of theatre; for creators, it is an outlet through which they can express themselves and for the spectator, it may help them to discover elements of their lives which they need to deal with. It is a symbiotic relationship, wherein one side of the piece interacts and leans upon the other side. This is especially true of a postmodern theatre, which relies more heavily than traditional theatre on the relationship between spectator and performance. In MAMAFESTA MEMORIALISING we find no real beginning, no true flow or continuity and no closure once the audience leaves. Yet we find ourselves filling in these gaps ourselves. Not only has the piece allowed us a glimpse into the creator’s mind, but our own.

Works Cited

[1] Banes, Sally. Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1980, pp. 15–17.

[2] “Mamafesta Memorialising.” Project Arts Centre, https://projectartscentre.ie/event/mamafesta-memorialising. Accessed 10th March 2020.

[3] “Pareidolia.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pareidolia. Accessed 15th March 2020.

[4] Innes, C. D. Avant Garde Theatre 1892–1992. Routledge, London, 1993.

[5] Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. Granada Publishing, 1977 (First published 1968), pp. 65–97.

[6] O’Toole, Fintan. “Tragedia Endogonidia, Samuel Beckett Theatre.” Dazed and Confused. The Irish Times, 7th October 2004. www.irishtimes.com/culture/dazed-and-confused-1.1160800. Accessed 17th March 2020.

[7] Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. vol. 10, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, pp. xxxiii-50.

[8] Werner, Sarah. “Two Hamlets: Wooster Group and Synetic Theater.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 323–329. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40210280. Accessed 14th Mar. 2020.

[9] Redfield, William. Letters from an Actor. Limelight Editions, 1984 (First published 1966), pp. 235–243.

[10] Balme, Christopher B. Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies. Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 47–61.

[11] O’Brien, Eugene & Quinn, Gavin. ELIZA’s Adventures in the Uncanny Valley, 2018.

Writer — Folklorist — Film buff — UCD Graduate

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