WHACK!! A wince appears on the face of dancer Philip Connaughton. His co-performer Ashley Chen has just thrown a shoe at the back of his head. In a working relationship spanning thirteen years, there are softer displays of affection.
This dynamic duet choreographed by the performers is something of a dance biography, with traces of their trusting and kinetic relationship made apparent in scintillating shapes. Significantly, the production comes at a time when both have established, with confidence, their careers as choreographers. Chen, a Parisian performer who has worked with vanguards of modern dance such as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and Russel Maliphant, set up his Compagnie Kashyl in 2012. Connaughton, quickly becoming the Enfant Terrible of the Irish contemporary dance world, has regularly produced work under his own name since the same year.
The sheer faith between the artists makes for fierce physicality. An awe-inspiring opening sequence has Connaughton running around in his underwear to the 1980s guitars of Ty Parr’s National Aerobic Champion theme, holding a shawl triumphantly above his head. Chen takes stock from a heap of versatile footwear – shoes, sneakers, stilettos, slippers wellingtons – and proceeds to fire them at his colleague. Noticeably, Connaughton’s legs bear the bruises of past performances.
The stakes are raised as physicality is pushed to the verge of injury. When the dancers re-enter in formal suits, and perform a gallery of absurd wrestling moves to carry each other across the length of the stage, it’s ambiguous if the piece is conveying the myriad ways in which peers can help each other get over the line, or the myriad ways they can humiliate each other. From awkward grappling to the jolt of limbs, kicked ribs and slammed bodies, the choreography shifts between comedic and tragic tones.
Once introduced, these holds become familiar and are used again in the explosive movement between bodies. Increasingly, the piece goes beyond the dancers’ personal relationship and takes on more universal meanings of rivalry. Chen, a brawnier figure, cuts loud and powerful shapes, while Connaughton playfully prefers botched ballet skips and jumps in pursuit of beauty. That perfection feels like something of a resentment, and motivates the two figures to constantly hit back at each other.
As one self-gratified figure gets ruthlessly rammed by the other, the choreographers don’t just convey the line between casual horseplay and violence; they brazenly cross it. Yet, underneath there is the affecting sensitivity of a collaboration that requires total trust to work. When the piece premiered in Paris a year ago, Connaughton got a busted rib and Chen broke his little toe. In many ways, this brutal piece of dance work is a delicate balancing act, propped up by friendship.
WHACK!! was on at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Click here for more of their programme.