Totems – National Gallery of Ireland – Review

Totems – National Gallery of Ireland – Review by Frank L.

Choreographed by Liz Roche

Photos by Luca Truffarelli

Until July 9th

Totems is a celebration of the recently renovated National Gallery. There is much to celebrate. The piece began in the splendour of the Shaw Room with Daniel Maclise’s magisterial painting of The marriage of Strongbow and Aoife looking down from the North Wall of the great room. The audience was primarily seated in two rows along the east side with a few members sitting in a row at right angles at the foot of the double staircase which is on the South side. The three musicians sat on the West side. In the vast space, the audience and the three musicians seemed a sparse collection of souls. The enormity of the space represented a monumental challenge to Liz Roche given the number of dancers in the company. They were Gloria Ros, Liv O’Donoghue, Katherine O’Malley, Miguel do Vale, Marc Stevenson and Henry Montes. Courageously she chose only to use four of them in this dauntingly large space.

The four dancers descended, two on each of the staircases, attired androgynously in loose fitting, horizontal bands of colours with their heads encased in light cloth. They walked slowly and erectly as if they were totem poles in motion. They then moved using a large amount of the available space into various shapes before coming together in a haunting tableau of a crucifix held at an angle. It was like an old master painting of the events which took place at Golgotha. A great deal of the space was engaged by the dancers who after a while removed some of their apparel. They then congregated at the Southern end on a collection of pastel coloured mats where they intertwined in a never ending series of shapes. All the while the three musicians were playing a score with a medieval sensibility which included a collection of bells attached to the foot of one musician which created both a medieval and Arabic atmosphere. The music was composed by Ray Harman, Mary Barnecutt and Doug Sheridan. Sheridan, not only operated the bells with his foot but used his voice as well as playing a stringed instrument. The three of them combined to make a score which captivated the space and the audience.

After about twenty minutes there was a break and the audience ascended the double staircase to the Grand Gallery, a space of similar proportions to the Shaw room but of an entirely different feel with its overhead natural light, tiled floor and multiple paintings hanging on its walls. Initially the audience was held in the vicinity of the staircase as two new dancers in pastel green (reminiscent of a surgeon’s scrubs) moved while reciting in staccato spurts text from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. This section was comparatively brief and then the audience was permitted to occupy the benches which were situated along the perimeter of the Southern end of the Gallery. Meanwhile the original four dancers had returned. The musicians took their place in the centre of the space about halfway along. The music continued but it was at a different pace and for a substantial part was assisted by the steady beat of a metronome. The feel was in juxtaposition as to what had gone before.

The entire piece lasted about an hour. The overall effect was of having been on a unique and absorbing journey. The collaboration of the National Gallery and the Dublin Dance festival had created the space for Liz Roche to embrace the National Gallery in an artistic manner in many ways alien to its essence… physical movement is rarely seen and music not often heard in an art gallery. To have both at the same time is even rarer. Added to the sense of daring was the fact the piece was inspired by the gallery and its contents. The Gallery itself had given birth to a new creation. This was an ambitious undertaking at which it was a privilege to be present. Totems’ ambition and execution augurs well for the vibrancy of the Gallery in the coming months and years.

Choreographer: Liz Roche

Performers: Henry Montes, Glòria Ros Abellana, Miguel Do Vale, Marc Stevenson, Liv O’Donoghue, Katherine O’Malley

Music Composition & Performance: Ray Harman, Mary Barnecutt, Doug Sheridan

Costumes: Catherine Fay


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