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Slow motions through climates of change

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SlowMo by Instant Dissidence, in Helsingør, Denmark. Photo © Jacob Stage
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Laughing, learning, touring and moving (slowly!) in the face of climate degradation – with Rita Marcalo’s Instant Dissidence

On a sleepy December afternoon in the small Irish town of Cloughjordan, diners at Middle Country Café seem at once bewitched and bewildered to find their winter salads being tossed by a troupe of dancers. It’s the concluding part of Instant Dissidence’s year-long dance and food activism project As If Trying Not To Own The Earth. Punters gamely choose their ‘preparation method’ (a song to soundtrack their salad’s assembly) from a selection of pot-luck options, and are served the same seasonal dish via dances of sometimes wildly different flavours.

To the screeching guitars of Warrant’s Cherry Pie, Gerard Headley and Diogo Santos eyeball each other from either side of the preparation station. There’s all the tension of a high-stakes poker game as Thilde Andreasen deals out steel mixing bowls for them to tussle over before their contents are disgorged, one by one, into a serving dish. Santos dings the service bell to indicate that the salad is ready – and to signal his victory.

The opening bars of Purcell’s Food of Love introduce a prone Andreasen, who mouths the words while Headley and Santos arrange her limbs to balance the bowls in poses that are variously yogic, Egyptian and Greek. The three remaining ‘flavours’ are dynamic variations on a cocktail-shaking theme. With lifts here and arabesques there, bowls fly behind backs, over heads, under legs, the dancers flinging them around with the assuredness and abandon of seasoned mixologists.

Four aproned people around a table, holding kitchen bowls. One reclines on the table, one bowl above her head and another balance on her thigh
Food activism with Instant Dissidence. Photo © Sophie Coote

It’s all delightfully deft and deliciously daft but, as the latest in a series of responses to the climate crisis, it’s also designed to get people talking and thinking about eating sustainably.

‘In the process of this kind of interaction… people will come in and say ‘why are you doing this?!’ People will start talking to you about it because they always do… and it’s fun – like, who moves forward with something if they think it’s painful? Now, if they think it could be interesting, people do move forward, I think’, says artistic director, Rita Marcalo.

Marcalo’s climate ‘artivism’ began in 2018 following the IPCC’s dire warning that countries would have to radically cut their carbon emissions before 2030 to avoid dramatically increased risks to life-sustaining ecosystems and human populations by mid-century –  a message (over)simplified in media to: ‘12 years to save the planet’.

‘I made a pledge that over the next twelve years I would create twelve works, each holding a mirror up to our civilisation and reflecting the way in which humanity is addressing – or not addressing – this warning.’

In spite of Covid restrictions, she has made good on her promise with yearly work that has tackled the climate issue – head-on at first, but as her attitude changed, so did her approach. 

‘I’m trying to just keep this sense of listening to the world and really responding to what’s happening – not being too fixed in what I want to do.’

A hand drawn noticeboard for a community "Imagination Café" with drawings about the environmental impacts and solutions
‘Imagination Café’ sign for Instant Dissidence’s The Rebellion

In 2018, Extinction Rebellion caught Marcalo’s attention and the piece that followed – The Rebellion – included protests in its rehearsal process and Imagination Cafés in its post-show discussions, where audience members were invited to share their visions of a greener future.

‘It’s interesting when I look back now because, at the time, I still thought that Extinction Rebellion was going to make a difference and governments were going to respond and that systems would start to change. And some of that did happen but the work that I’m making now is much less hopeful and is more about – ok, so if everything is gonna break down, what are the things that we need to model?’

That modelling began when Covid hit and made one potential future scenario a present-day reality – because a warmer world is one that is more susceptible to pandemics.

‘I had to ask questions around, how do I make work remotely? So that first year of lockdown, I commissioned dancers to make work from their homes because that’s what everybody was doing! Nobody could go anywhere.’

Blue Quote Mark

How do I work with people who are not expert dancers, and choreograph something beautiful with them?

Blue Quote Mark

She explored questions of geography more deeply in Spring… As If Trying Not To Own the Earth, also produced during lockdown. Ostensibly about food growing and food security (‘How does somebody like me with no skills whatsoever get a tutorial and try and grow some cabbage?’), it also asks how Marcalo could continue her work as a choreographer in a hyper-local context: 

‘Let’s say we’re in a situation where I’m much more grounded in my community, and instead of bringing dancers from abroad, I use my community as dancers. How do I work with people who are not expert dancers, and choreograph something beautiful with them?’ 

Judging by the results, the answer is: with difficulty. The project films, commissioned and screened in 2021 as part of Bealtaine Festival of Age and Opportunity and Dublin Dance Festival, feel like a quirky exercise in anthropology. Marcalo plants seeds and bakes bread using instructions from her collaborators but without the tacit knowledge necessary to do it properly, narrating her actions with endearingly botched pronunciations of Irish words. Her co-creators are also out of their comfort zones, making movement where they normally make food, creating awkward shapes and phrases that never really catch fire. Still, it’s a sporting effort in what were challenging circumstances and a proof of concept for Marcalo, who was modelling for a future where we all need to embrace practices we are not expert at.

‘I am new to Ireland and I’m trying to learn Irish – and I’m new to the land, and I was as clunky with my attempts to grow food as I am with my Irish… I am foreign to the language, I am foreign to the land and I’m trying to do it… And (the co-creator) is foreign to dancing and she’s trying to do it – and this is what happens when you’re foreign to it but you still do it.’

Marcalo approached foreignness from a different angle with Borrisokane is Dancing in 2020, a project born out of some initial local disquiet about the opening of a refugee accommodation centre in a nearby town.

‘I read somewhere around the huge numbers of migrations that are going to happen (because of climate change) and how that will destabilise society. So this, to me, in Borrisokane was like a microcosm of what will come to be and so I thought, what could I try?’

The resulting short film paired local children with refugee children to dance duets to one another’s chosen music, sharing their stories and body language in a fuzzy hug of empathy and mutual acceptance.

Two women in bright colours crouch together on the concrete of a shopping centre. Behind them, passers-by gather to look.
SlowMo at In Between Time festival, Bristol, UK. Photo © Paul Blakemore

Summer 2022 saw Instant Dissidence trial a whole new model in sustainable touring when SlowMo: Connecting Cloughjordan EcoVillage to Mainland Europe via Land, Sea and Dance set out to do exactly what it says on the tin. 

Funded through Perform Europe – an EU-backed initiative aiming to re-think cross-border performing arts presentation in a more inclusive, sustainable and balanced way –  Marcalo planned to slow-travel the company to partner venues in Cyprus, Denmark, Sweden and the UK, as well as build a digital connection with Italy. Because slow travel takes a lot more money and time than even the dearest, most delayed Ryanair flight, she had to cut the creation phase from the process to balance the budget and choreograph each piece en route instead.

‘We planned everything in advance as much as we could but just the idea that we were all going to leave home – all six of us; four dancers, myself and the touring producer – and go and perform thirteen days from the first day of departure, and we had no work ’cause it was going to be created en route, was really scary. I mean, it really took all of us to take a leap of faith and go: this is going to work!’

The pieces themselves were a series of vignette responses to letters about the countries they were travelling through, written by people in their destination cities. They were created and rehearsed in public spaces, in the snippets of time before boarding trains and ferries. Once performed, the pieces were discarded and the dancers started from scratch with new stories from their next destination. If it sounds intense, that’s because it was:

‘(We were) under a lot of pressure – constantly producing, constantly making work. And every time we did a performance in a country, all that work is forgotten – we start creating a whole new one.’

Marcalo describes the vignettes as choreographic gifts to citizens of the destination countries, a concept that allowed her to reconcile her wish to tour internationally with her need to remain socially conscious and locally relevant.

‘There’s one part of my mind that goes: yes, I think my role is to be rooted here…in this community… And then there’s this other part of me that goes: but I love travelling and I’ve always toured internationally and am I saying goodbye to all that? SlowMo says, huh – how about you tour internationally and it’s about them that you’re touring to? SlowMo enables me to do this and still make work that people feel a connection to, because it’s their stories.’

Three of those stories were recently brought to life at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance when the UK iteration of SlowMo was performed for the University of Limerick’s dance students. The passion and playfulness of young lovers in Sweden; the ducking, diving and occasional menace of Danish squat-life and some feral feline stalking from French Madagascar all shared a vivid intensity that the dancers attributed partly to the richness of the letters but also to the short timescales in which the pieces were produced, which meant that there wasn’t the opportunity to overthink or over-rehearse the content.

While there were upsides to the condensed model of touring, it also brought considerable challenges. Train delays and cancelled ferries meant a lot of additional stress for the producers, and the lengthy journeys took their toll on the dancers.

‘Yeah, it was very tough,’ says company dancer Amber Bosteels. ‘Especially tiredness – like, waking up early, rehearsing, moving your body and then transport again, rehearsing again… But the creating itself went quite smoothly in my opinion, even if it was always in a different space.’

Despite its obvious issues, the whole company feels that, with a few tweaks, the touring model could be sustainable – for both the planet and the artist.

A woman walks across a bridge, smiling down at the viewer, with a placard saying "SlowMo"
SlowMo in Ipogia Skini, Cyprus.
Photo © Michalis Papamichael

‘Going on tour with slow travel, you need to leave pockets of time in a schedule for it to go wrong and…you need time for it to be flexible,’ says touring producer Sophie Coote.

‘And then there’s the other aspect, the support… it’s a lot more expensive to do slow travel. We see that even in society – the right thing to do is the more expensive thing and I think… the funding bodies need to react to that and need to be offering to fund things in a slow travel way and [acknowledging] that we need more money to do that. It’s not just a fifty quid Ryanair flight.’

Of course, days spent travelling are also days not spent dancing – or earning. It’s a bitter pill, and one Marcalo and the company have had to swallow on this project, but she hopes that things will change.

‘We made the argument that we would need each dancer to be paid some kind of retainer or travel day fee – even though it wouldn’t be the full fee – and we didn’t win that argument. That is the one thing I am not seeing being acknowledged in the way that funding is changing. Yes, more funding is being given to slow travel but nobody is yet thinking about “what is the impact on a touring dancer’s yearly ability to earn?” Supporting slow travel means supporting people to get paid to slow travel – otherwise people aren’t going to be able to do it.’

Financial considerations notwithstanding, Marcalo now intends to roll the project out across Europe and already has interest from five partner organisations for SlowMo 2023 – but her motivations aren’t purely to model slow travel.

‘There was a moment during this tour that I shifted my thinking. I’m like: I don’t have hope but I’m going on this different way of touring – but during the tour there was a moment when everything clicked for me. That there is more to it than hope. There is meaning-making and connection. And just talking about it and raising awareness. And even if it is hopeless, you still fight.’

Although gloomy about our climate future, Marcalo believes that the behaviours she’s modelling and the connections she’s making will resonate.

‘I have hope that other people will pick up this modelling… I don’t have any hope that it will prevent a huge change that we’re going to have to go through in terms of our civilisation, our systems of living … But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile doing.

‘I would say we don’t have to be hopeful. We have to be committed to meaning-making… (to) hold(ing) the space, whatever it is. I believe that if we as human beings pay attention and make meaning out of a situation, learning happens.’ 

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