Royston Maldoom is frustrated. The internationally renowned choreographer – veteran of countless acclaimed international dance projects – is sitting in the offices of DU Dance in Belfast, musing over how the art form has developed in Northern Ireland since he first set foot here a quarter of a century ago.
Or rather not developed – at least not in the way Maldoom himself once anticipated. ‘In the 1990s,’ he recalls, ‘Denis Smyth had his Arts Council initiative to set up cross-community youth dance groups, and he asked me over to look at how he might develop it.’
When he came, Maldoom saw huge potential for dance to play a major part in continuing to bridge the gap between Northern Ireland’s historically divided communities, and for a time all was heady optimism. Alas, Muldoon's vision was not realised.
‘I felt in the late 1908s and early 90s, when Ulster Youth Dance was set up and really growing, that something extraordinary had happened I was sure was going to multiply and grow...' he trails off, wistfully.
‘One of the things dance provides, which is one of the things that Northern Ireland looks for, is how to bring the communities together,’ Maldoom argues. ‘And yet dance has somehow never been fully taken up and recognised here, as far as I can see, as it is in Scotland and many places in England.’
Muldoon chooses his words carefully when asked to consider why that is. ‘I think there was a change of emphasis, particularly in the Arts Council, which separated what was seen as professional dance from what was seen to be educational dance.’
In other words, Muldoon believes that funding for the type of hands-on community arts projects that he so passionately believes in suddenly became much harder to justify, the pioneering work of taking dance to real-life settings, for real-life people, more difficult to facilitate.
Some of that difficulty persists to the present day, and afflicts professional dance too. ‘It is extraordinary that there is no, even small, national company here,’ Maldoom observes. ‘And it’s a tragedy that those who do want to take dance further have to go away to get their training.’
Pockets of excellence remain, however, in Derry~Londonderry with Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company and in Belfast with DU Dance (NI) itself, a company Maldoom has great affection for and continues to work with on a regular basis. Their latest collaboration is Back To The Wall, a piece for three generations of men and boys, the youngest of whom is seven, the oldest over 80.
‘When I came over I had no idea what I was going to do,’ Maldoom says, ‘apart from the idea of the wall. And the reason that came about is, I was working in Berlin before the wall came down, I was working in Berlin just after the wall came down, I’ve lived in Berlin for eight years, and I’m only five minutes from where the wall was.
‘And I’ve been three times working in the West Bank in Palestine, where the wall is such a big issue, it’s really in your consciousness all the time. So walls are something that seem to be very much in my life at the moment.’
Walls, both physical and psychological, have strong symbolism in Northern Ireland, though Maldoom is adamant that the content of the Back To The Wall project is not overtly political. The idea was, he says, more physical – ‘to take this wall, and see what happens on it, in front of it, around it, along it. To take it as a physical thing and, if you like, play with it.’
Maldoom is full of praise for the can-do attitude and inventiveness of those participating in the Belfast project, who did the ‘playing’. ‘I was trying to allow them as much as possible to find their own material and movement, and they were absolutely great. They connected instantly and were very comfortable with each other, the little ones with the older ones, and the young men as well. It was very, very easy.’
The group of young boys from Elmgrove Primary School in east Belfast are singled out by Maldoom for special mention. ‘They have an amazing teacher, Andrea Brown, who is extraordinarily creative, and encourages them to be creative themselves. I saw some of the work she did in the classroom, and actually took some of that idea and used it in our piece.’
Working with men and boys is, according to Maldoom, somewhat different to working on women-only or mixed-gender projects, which Maldoom has vast experience in. ‘Emotion is particularly big when you’re working with men,’ he reveals.
‘Men have a very clear idea of what’s a masculine movement, and what isn’t. What men can do in terms of touch is important, and what they can’t, and where they can go emotionally, and where they can’t. So I have to start from that place, give them confidence and pull them out, and challenge them to go further.
'What happens is they become so vulnerable, they suddenly do things which are quite threatening to their sense of who they are. And having done it, they have to re-adjust to a new reality, and say, “I’m also that, I can do that, I can feel this, I’ve expressed that”.’
Dance, Maldoom points out, also has special potency in situations where verbal communication is difficult for participants, or even impossible. ‘I work in Europe with a lot of asylum seekers and refugees, doing projects where there may be 27 different languages. I may work in Germany, in a school where only one or two people out of 50 has German as their first language.
‘And then you have people who are simply not good at conversing on a linguistic level, for whatever reason. In dance they have the ability to express themselves, to themselves and also to others.’
The results of the Back To The Wall project have been captured in a short film, shot on location in Belfast by Gerard Stratton of the Triplevision company.
Maldoom had no part in the editorial process, so is looking forward to seeing what Stratton has made of the footage. ‘It’s really exciting, because although I know what the movement material will be that he’s using, I have no idea what this film will be, what he’s done with it.’
That sense of raw excitement, and a visceral commitment to the idea of dance as a powerful tool of self-discovery and regeneration, remain central to Royston Maldoom’s professional activities as he enters his 70s. There is no sign whatsoever of his evangelical approach to the medium fading.
‘Dance is a physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive, social activity. All those things happen within the contemporary or community dance field, or should, and they all have an equal importance. So you’re working on all of those levels. There’s a lot in one package. The discovery of yourself, and the interaction with others, is something quite extraordinary.’
By Terry Blain