What makes someone invent the strangest of stories? Choreographer Philip Conaughton’s new dance-opera, based on UFO sightings reported to the French Space Agency, doesn’t try to convince the audience of the existence of the paranormal. Instead, it begins with a woman (soprano Kim Sheehan) regretting constructing a lie about a visitation. Elsewhere, such stories would probably be dismissed. Here, they’re given a fair hearing.
In Connaughton’s compelling production, he and dramaturg Gina Moxley balance the desperate attempts of a storyteller with the preoccupations of a collective. The latter comes to us as four figures (deft dancers Zoé Bernabéu, Kevin Coquelard, Lucia Kickham and Ryan O’Neill), first appearing in manic exhalations. Like an extended take on the birth-cry from Samuel Beckett’s Breath, they quiver through fearful gasps to angry growls and satisfied groans, before becoming fully formed. The question, is whether these new beings are alien or human.
Connaughton’s choreography suggests a set of lives consumed by the practicalities of living. The dancers’ movements, primarily hand chops and swipes, resemble the lift-and-handle of everyday tasks. All the while, Sheehan sings with striking intensity as a witness going through the agonies of no one listening to her UFO testimonies. Connaughton, in an arch move, even sits across from her in order to demonstrate complete disinterest.
There is more than a touch of eerie science fiction to Luca Truffarelli’s stage design, which suspends alien pods overhead. Emily Ní Bhroin’s uncanny costuming and Grace O’Hara’s stunning SFX elements see the dancers become an ambiguous cross between otherworldly beings and a Greek chorus. But Connaughton’s production lacks the fast pace of a sci-fi thriller. Instead, it strives for something more psychological: an environment where the aliens might not be out of this world; maybe they’re the people doing the alienating.
Even if the extraterrestrial sightings can come across as banal (‘the cattle were behaving perfectly normal’), Michael Gallen’s music makes them transcendent. His lulling piano and Sheehan’s ethereal voice have a stirring effect. As the piece reaches a climax, the dancers drag the woman away, as if attempting to pull her out of a delusion. But the production stands up for her. A strange object falls from the ceiling, just as she describes the arrival of an alien orb. Her words, it turns out, are more real than we’ve so far believed.
Connaughton appears to think that outlandish stories deserve a platform. If there isn’t truth in the specifics, there might still be something valid in the reasons for creating them. After all, what can shift people from their isolation and make other takes notice if not stories about other worlds?
Extraterrestrial Events was performed as part of the Dublin Dance Festival 2017. Click here for more details.