Cloud Study is part dance, part dream, part theatre, part athletics. This nebulous piece, choreographed by John Scott with specially commissioned music by Derry composer Ryan Vail, is comprised of two compelling dancers: Mufutau Yusuf, an Irishman, born in Nigeria, and Salma Ataya, a Palestinian contemporary dancer.
Over the 55-minute piece they attempt to run 1,000 kilometres in circles and lines through the space, chasing dreams, memories and home. Mufutau and Salma spoke with Aoife Donnellan about how dance expresses the inexpressible, and what ‘Cloud Study’ means in the current political climate; dance as a political act.
First things first, what inspired you to become a contemporary dancer?
Mufutau: I had many sources of inspiration, I guess the common denominator would be my desire to express my thoughts and imagination physically. I try not to limit my creativity to the studio, but anywhere that can nurture it, be it nature, public spaces, my living room. There is an underlying characteristic to my creative process, though each process itself can differ, depending on concept, inspiration, collaboration and more. I am easily influenced by my unbridled imagination and allow it to guide my creative process.
Salma: I actually started as a traditional dancer performing Dabkeh – a Palestinian folk dance. I knew that I wanted to move since I was young and I find dancing is a way to express myself and my case better than other ways, like talking for example. When contemporary dance came to Palestine, I was new to it, but it helped me more with expressing myself because it’s open and not limited as with traditional dance, which I suppose is similar to Irish dance in many ways. It has jumping and smiling all the time.
Choreographer of the project, John Scott, describes Cloud Study as “a very human study of the idea of running while thinking about the backdrop of the awful things that are happening in the world”. The concept that the clouds witness atrocity in the world passively is really important in Ireland right now as the housing crisis and global warming continue to be witnessed by people and politicians who don’t feel compelled into action. What inspired you to be a part of this piece of work in this city?
M: I guess I believe that in varying degrees we can all be held culpable for what is going on around us, and in some way each of us need to play our part in rectifying these ‘atrocities’. The purpose of this piece or of ‘running 1,000km’ is not to preach about our failings towards these issues, but to inspire a new level of humanity that can propel us to take action. Through myself and Salma’s own abstract recount of our own experience in relation to the social issues in Ireland and in our native countries, Nigeria and Palestine, I hope we can inspire people to have better dialogues which can lead to practical actions. The power for change is more in our hands than we think.
S: I think everyone can relate to Cloud Study in any case with the themes and ideas happening in the performance. Working with John is so inspiring because things and movement are not limited. You can be open as much as you can and the important thing is that you can be you. You don’t have to pretend or act, what is happening on stage is the real you and what you feel, or you do, it can be different from time to time in the performance. Cloud Study is an open piece that allows the audience to be part of it in anyway they feel. Everyone is running away from something, or to something, in the same time they are aware of what is happening in the world, but the running is continued all over the world.
What power does modern dance have in a political moment that is being labelled as ‘indescribable’? Do you think modern dance captures empathy where words fail?
M: I believe modern dance, or dance in general, has an immense power to manifest these abstract thoughts and emotions that words fail to articulate. Our physical language has as much validity as our spoken language, even in social and political discourses, and should be re-examined as a practical tool in conveying our thoughts and viewpoints.
S: For me, as a Palestinian dancer, I find the dance I create is a way to fight and send my messages and my ideas through dance rather than ways that I am less confident in. I see a lot of performers speaking about the case of Palestine and the situation there, and I feel people can understand what I am trying to convey through my art. Modern dance is so powerful especially because most of society is not able to listen anymore, they are sick of words. It’s another way to speak and everyone understands body language. It can be more powerful than the words.
Do you think the performance represents something bigger than the sum of its parts? Or are you just travelling from A to B? What does it mean for you both to chase “dreams, memories and home”?
M: In many ways the struggle represents something bigger, it’s also simply a struggle to get from the beginning to the end of the piece, from A to B. It is both political and metaphysical, and at the same time it isn’t. The simple act of chasing “dreams, memories and home” has political influences, if you look in light of the homeless crisis in Ireland, or the global refugee and immigration situation. The current stance of politics has cast us out of our Eden and we are left to fend for ourselves, and the measures we take to fend for ourselves extend beyond politics. The ‘marathon’ becomes very real.
Traveling 1,000km in a static space is quite a feat. Spatially representing an enormous distance must be physically demanding. How have you been preparing mentally and physically for the performances?
M: From my own perspective, travelling 1,000km in this static space is really a metaphor for the feat in conveying the challenges when confronting these contemporary issues. In a way we all search for a collective utopia on this planet, and chasing this near impossible dream can feel like the marathon of your life. For me, this is what interests me most; conveying our perseverance in doing our part to make this utopia a reality. I think it’s incredibly poetic and touching. I hope to inspire even the smallest amount of humanity and to empower people to have a more concrete discourse in how we can solve these issues. We are striving to reach the audience with this message and this is what drives our vigour and endurance.
S: I need to live the performance moment by moment; this is my way to prepare for it mentally. When I give myself and my body the space to feel or to live every moment and movement in the show then I can do it.
Of course we need a big warm up before the show to prepare for the physicality in it, but in the same time I will give myself the space to do what I feel in the moment, also to not forget to breath every second in.
Described as “part dance, part dream, part theatre, part athletics”, what does Cloud Study attempt to capture as a piece?
M: I believe Cloud Study tries to capture our search for humanity and empathy in our current plight and uses that to inspire further discourses in how to overcome these contemporary issues.
S: Cloud study is a mixture of things because it’s a real piece. We are not pretending we are speaking about ourselves and that’s what it made it real. So I am not just dancing, I am also dreaming and speaking and feeling. It’s different when you decide to do a dance theatre than when you decide to do a dance, but other things come with it. These things came honestly.
Attempting to represent such a journey in space gives people an understanding of time’s constant effect on the body, and the mind. Do you think Cloud Study is an important piece for Irish audiences to witness currently, as a public that finds it hard to share personal struggles?
M: That’s very true, as the piece progresses, and the space is pulsating with energy, you feel the continuation and weight of time, especially in moments when the music disappears and you’re suddenly pulled back into the present moment or hear the panting and heaving of me and Salma.
As time elapses, and the exhaustion of myself and Salma becomes more apparent, the feeling of running, chasing, resisting, fleeing becomes more ingrained into the space and there is where I hope the audience can grasp the extent of our struggle, our longing and our perseverance. I hope that in this moment, they bring to mind their own struggle and feel empowered to want to share this with others, and in the conversation that ensues, we will realise that we are not alone in our struggle, emboldening our kinship in one another and working together towards making a better society for ourselves. Ireland, to me, has always been a proactive society, however with the rising bureaucracy we are sometimes left in the dark on certain issues and cannot see the steps we need to make towards rectifying these issues. We all search for a beacon in this dark and that is what I hope Cloud Study can provide.
Cloud Study runs at Smock Alley Theatre November 21-24.