When John Scott was young, his father who was a lighting designer, would bring him backstage at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. There he would see the behind-the-scenes action that goes on in the theatre. “Sometimes I’d have to sit out in the auditorium and watch the show,” he says. “For me there was no separation between the front of house and backstage. What happened on stage wasn’t magic. It was just what was going on behind a door I just walked through.”
It’s something that you find in his choreography. Scott’s on-stage world is the same as the off-stage. There’s no attempt at make-believe or beautifying the performance and his movement vocabulary finds easy empathy in the barren settings of a stripped-back stage.
Just as he traces those early childhood experiences in his aesthetic, other influences are clearly and keenly mentioned in conversation, like Meredith Monk, Pablo Vela, Thomas Lehman or Sara Rudner. A latecomer to dance, he began dancing with the semi-professional Dublin City Ballet, aged twenty-two and got to dance for Anna Sokolow.
“Dublin City Ballet danced the classics, but when Sokolow came I had my first experience of seeing a choreographer making work out of thin air,” he says. Inspired to create, these first works fore-fronted a sense of rough beauty and a movement vocabulary that resonated his ballet background, but became diluted in successive works. The great purge came with Macalla, a sprawling evening of movement anarchy at one of Dublin’s gleaming art galleries. Revered ballerinas were pushed around in shopping carts, a six-year old girl danced and a waiter from a nearby café was put into the piece three days before it opened. Slammed by hitherto sympathetic critics who were disappointed that Scott had abandoned a more respectful aesthetic, the anarchy became emblematic of Scott’s work, both on-stage and in the rehearsal studio.
It’s a state of being that he revels in. He tirelessly revises his works and changes the order of his dances, yet his work is never conceptually lazy or theatrically slapdash. He choreographs with a steady hand, but never produces dance that is over-polished and safe. A group of supportive and committed dancers helped him find his choreographic voice, but in 2004 he found aesthetic empathy the unlikeliest group of performers: torture survivors.
The Dublin-based Centre for Care for Survivors of Torture asked Scott to give workshops for some of it’s clients. “I never dreamed I’d put any of it on-stage. I was passionately moved from the beginning,” he says. “At the first workshop I explained that my work doesn’t tell stories. I will never ask them about their lives. They can show me if they want, but we were just there to find a way to move together.”
Years later, one of the participants, who danced in Scott’s subsequent works, explained that was an important signal for them. Here they were safe. In drama workshops they found themselves saying things that were too exposing. Scott’s movement was exactly how they needed to express themselves. Whenever language was used, it was just a musical texture. “They were speaking Lingala or Swahili,” Scott says. “They were letting things out knowing nobody could understand.”
The workshops culminated in Fall and Recover, performed by a cast from the Centre for Care of Torture Survivors alongside two of Scott’s regular dancers. What’s most striking is the sense of dignity that is reflected through authentically produced movement. There is no emoting – and not a hint of “victim art” – but very simply articulated vignettes that culminate in the prostrate bodies being outlined in salt, just as the bodies of murder victims at a crime scene are outlined in chalk. Except that the salt is impermanent, as likely to be blown away and forgotten, just like the stories and histories of the victims of torture.
But the torture survivors have offered Scott a fascinating palette for his choreography. One former Angolan army conscript, Sebastiaõ Mpembele Kamalandua, has a way of moving that mixes swift precision with an uncanny sense of space. He has become a regular performer with Scott’s company and has seamlessly integrates with high pedigree dancers like Cheryl Thierren and Ashley Chen, formerly of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Gaining refugee status has been problematic for some of the clients of CCST and Scott has spent a considerable time arguing their case in the courts and immigration offices. His outrage at Ireland’s cumbersome process is always just below the surface and is as likely to emerge at a post-performance talk as an interview with a journalist. “There’s racism, inefficiency and incompetence within the system,” he says adding that gaining visas for international performances is a constant annoyance.
The multiracial cast that he presents on-stage may reflect Ireland’s recently-gained cultural diversity, but his stripped-back aesthetic also fits into recent austerity. In fact, if Riverdance and Michael Flatley reflected Ireland’s bloated Celtic Tiger boom, then John Scott is a more sensible reflection of Irish culture through the lens of austerity.
“These straightened times suit us very well,” he says. “For years public funding was put into building arts centres with curtains and drapes, suggesting that theatre-dance needed all of these deceptions. We were always happy touring to places where the floor might have a few splinters but we could wear shoes, so it would be fine.”
His latest work Actions was made in five three-hour sessions, but bears the imprint of a work finely honed for much linger. That’s down to a fluent creative process that he has developed over time. “Maybe we do take too much time over creating work. Simplicity will become more important as money dries up. Maybe the boom will come back and we’ll all have lots of dramaturgs and assistants,” he says.
Somehow you don’t believe that Scott will ever be seduced by the trappings of large budgets, no more than he was impressed by the lights and sounds of the stage as he sat in the Abbey Theatre as a young boy. He could see through the artifice then and he continues to eschew superficiality for the important eloquence of meaningful choreography.
published May 2011