Jools Gilson, Professor of Creative Practice at UCC, writes about Philip Connaughton's acclaimed dance work Assisted Solo, nominated for Best Production at this year's Dublin Fringe and set to tour in 2019.
For anyone in the medical and social worlds of Elder Care, or the thousands of people who have a family member with Dementia, and, yes, the rest of us as well, Assisted Solo is an extraordinary evening of bravura dance-telling, a name I want to give to the telling of stories powerfully rooted in the body and dance practices, but which trip over into film, spoken word, image and the sheer force of performance. This is a distinctive, challenging, hilarious and moving telling of a tale; a work which pushes at the boundaries of what any of us have heard tell before about caregiving for Dementia patients, and which had us in The Everyman in Cork on a Saturday night in September, helpless with laughter, as well as choked up with tears. Here again is the sheer political and emotional heft of contemporary dance practices in our small country; our dance artists are an international force to be reckoned with, and yet we so often fail to make financial, physical and social space for their work to resonate with the power they deserve. It is a spectacular loss that this kind of work is seen by so few people, when the debates and meditations at its heart, bring a distinctive originality to what it means to care for someone with Dementia; Philip Connaughton tells his stories differently, and that’s putting it mildly.
Here again is the sheer political and emotional heft of contemporary dance practices in our small country; our dance artists are an international force to be reckoned with, and yet we so often fail to make financial, physical and social space for their work to resonate with the power they deserve.
In one of the early sections of Assisted Solo, the French dance artist Magali Caillet-Gajan performs a solo with a compelling and driven intensity; a light touch as well as humour. It isn’t until we’re in the bar afterwards listening to the after-show talk, that we find out that this extraordinary section of performance is itself a meditation on memory (as Dementia also is), a sequence (for all the dancers) of excerpting sixty different gestures from choreographic works they’ve been in during their professional lives. For Connaughton, this is as much as he can remember before his head explodes (his words). For Caillet-Gajan, she does another sixty to make 120, in a tumult of quick emotional and gestural shifts that haunt the world of this piece as it interplays with the film essays about Connaughton’s mother (shot by Luca Truffarelli).
Watch a selection of scenes from Assisted Solo:
They seem to me an extraordinary performance of memory, and its loss, the inhabiting of one world, to lose it and find oneself in another. It is like watching sunlight shimmer on water - a mind shifting, as danced / performed by this older female dancer. This section of the performance is gloriously characterful but also without sentimentality. Its sheer endurance of physicality is gripping, and it is because this form is an embodied one – its very existence challenging the dominance of text-based Irish theatre, that it can meet the trope of Dementia on its own terms. It is absolutely because dance practice is, by its very nature, powerfully embodied that it undoes the popular idea of Dementia as a brain disease, and re-casts it as a shift in modes of embodiment.
Watch: Phillip Connaughton on Assisted Solo
Aside from challenging himself and his dancers to compose from body memory, Connaughton is also a comedian, with a wicked sense of timing. Replete in his go-go shorts and Popeye T-Shirt (you’ll have to see the show for this one), Connaughton undoes Elder Care of its silences as he recounts the story of his mother and the douche, with a remarkable ability to shake his tail feather. Once the sheer high energy of this section is done, so we move to the piece’s coda, the extraordinary performance of Elder identity, clad in pink dressing gown jackets, and with strapped on water pouches, slowly releasing water onto the stage. This section of the piece is uncompromising in both its tenderness, and its calling out of the unsayable at the heart of Elder Care. It is both unwatchable, and impossible to look away from. Its quiet sensibility, and careful turns, and curves, leave watermarks on the stage, and whilst we know they represent incontinence, and the jackets the permanent bedclothes of the unwell, they manage to represent these things with a quiet and haunting dignity that is hard to translate into writing. It was beautiful. It forced us to stay in the place of Elder Care and embodiment. Somehow this choreographer and his two female collaborators made a work that re-cast the caregiving to older people with humour, honesty and love, without avoiding the intimacies of washing, incontinence, constipation. It is precisely because this choreography of Elder incontinence was not written or uttered, but performed through the body, through a composed visual image, through the making of this piece as a counterpoint of beautiful dancing, of memory games, of hilarious standup, of go go shorts, and vaginas twice the height of the dancers, that Connaughton can bring us to this point, where we are undone by its quietness.
Assisted Solo queers the debate about Elder Care with the sheer force of its humanity, as Connaughton’s ‘real life’ care haunts and drifts among the film fragments of his mother, and his choreography.
At the piece’s end, we witness Connaughton’s ‘morning routine’, on the days that it’s his turn to mind his mother. This is a haunting work of documentary, in which the film maker himself has presence, as Madeleine (Connaughton’s mother) kisses first her son, and then the film maker. We listen to a fragment of Connaughton washing his mother, and the tender gestures of hairspray and lipstick that follow, before he guides her down the stairs. But what we are left with is her upward glances towards the videographer, Luca Trufarelli, as she descends, so that her gentle curious gaze makes his looking eye present, and his presence in her house physical. These glances give us her humanity, as she gently turns at the bottom of the stairs on the arms of her son, and moves out of frame.
Assisted Solo queers the debate about Elder Care with the sheer force of its humanity, as Connaughton’s ‘real life’ care haunts and drifts among the film fragments of his mother, and his choreography. For all its noisy showmanship, Assisted Solo is a quiet contemplation about the choreographies of life, the ways in which our embodiment is our experience, even as Irish culture struggles with recovering from a traumatised relationship to the social body. Dance practices of this intelligence offer a revisioning of Ireland through the dance-telling of experience, not through the distinctive formal conservatism of much text-based Irish theatre, but precisely through its articulate and professionally-trained embodiment, as much as through its willingness to catch the drift of other disciplines. Connaughton speaks his stories with the assurance of a ringleader, and his collaborators’ embodied femininity undo and elaborate his mother’s story, so that, brilliantly, this choreographer dance-tells stories out of the loss of story. Away from shame, or the grimaced response, Assisted Solo is braver than even Connaughton seems to know.
Jools Gilson is Professor of Creative Practice at UCC.