How do you clear a bad name? In 1911, the Irish-born diplomat for the Crown, Roger Casement, was knighted for exposing human rights abuses in the Congo and Amazon. He was later trialled for treason as a co-organiser of the 1916 Rising in Dublin. During the trial, pages from his supposed ‘black diaries’ detailing sexual encounters with men were leaked by British authorities and shocked the public. Casement, who crossed borders to help others, was suddenly made a stranger in his own nation, and hanged.
Choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir beautifully realises that an effective way to clear a name unfairly tarnished is to fulfil the condemned man’s vision. This ebullient dance piece, part of the choreographer’s year-long Casement Project situating the rebel in queer contexts, evokes an empowering journey towards gay acceptance as if seen through Casement’s own humanitarian lens.
Whatever the questions of authenticity over the ‘black diaries’, Ó Conchúir recognises that the reformer’s spirit within gay culture is implicit nonetheless. Dancers appear as scenesters, dressed in plaid and tank tops covered in explicit quotes from the diaries (“Deep To Hilt”, “Very DEEP Thrusts”), introducing themselves with the words: “I am Roger Casement”.
That summoning of the dead, thrillingly, takes on otherworldly attributes in Ciaran O’Melia’s superb stage design. A mountain of loudspeakers sends out an account of the exhumation of Casement’s grave, and luminous gold fabric turns dancer Bernadette Iglic into a ghostly figure signalling from beyond. Alma Kelliher’s sound design is suitably surreal, making beats from gunfire and electronica.
Ó Conchúir’s choreography is a fascinating balance of ethereality with gritty realism. Observe how he takes a naturalistic motion – the desperate charge of bodies linked arm-in-arm, as if on Casement’s gunrunning mission in 1916 – and reworks it into something philosophical: wider movements that thrillingly highlight bodies coming together as a campaign, a society, or even a nation.
Artfully, the same covert air of Casement’s military operations descends on the clandestine realities of gay relations. Philip Connaughton cuts a figure fraught with doubt on their path towards self-actualisation, all the more aching when placed against the playful flirtations of Mikel Aristegui, and Theo Clinkard’s self-possessed voguing. The mercurial Liv O’Donoghue halts to form her ponytail, in this dance’s celebration of not just men’s homosexuality but also, seemingly, femininity.
Ó Conchúir never veers too far from biography. Matthew Morris may be stripped naked for a reading of the mortifying medical examination of Casement’s anus, but the dancer, covered in breath-taking tattoos, scoffs it off. Later, passages from the once condemnatory ‘black diaries’ are delivered with pleasure.
Those subversions are sweet, in a production that finally finds peers for the cast-off Casement. The company excitingly acknowledge each other as they run the distance, resembling the rebels of today. Their determination shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Butterflies and Bones is on until 22nd October 2016 at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Click here for more details.