Philip Connaughton is a dance artist from Ballymun, Dublin, who has performed in London, Paris, New York and beyond. Here, Philip speaks with masc ahead of the Dublin Fringe debut of his latest work Assisted Solo, a personal piece in which he explores his relationship with his mother Madeleine as she experiences advanced dementia.
On the power of dance and where it lies: For the viewer, it is in the richness of reference. There are so many things that we do that, subconsciously, mean so many things in terms of the physical body. I remember being on a date with this guy and when I told him I was a contemporary dancer he just went, ‘ugh, oh I just couldn’t handle that. I couldn’t handle watching somebody move like that’. At the time I just wanted to get the bill and go home. But thinking about it again, it’s quite understandable. With the physical body and movement, there are so many things hitting you. Any type of gesture could have so many different meanings for you. And that’s one of its strengths. If you accept that and you don’t look for anything linear; if you accept its non-narrative quality and just appreciate that you’re getting this wash of information, how you interpret that information can tell you a lot – about yourself and not only about the piece.
On dance as an intimidating medium: People can be intimated. I really work hard to not intimidate people. I try - and don’t always succeed - to cross over several areas so there’s something that will not intimidate or scare. I try to have something in the piece that everyone can hold on to, a through line. The first time I came back [to Dublin] as a contemporary dancer, it was the 90s and I was dancing in the basement of the RHA. My mother thought she was going to have a Gene Kelly or a Fred Astaire, but I came back and I was taking my clothes off, rolling around in dirt, throwing stuff on the ground and kicking up a fuss. She turned around to the person beside her and went, ‘Jesus! He’s very bold isn’t he!’. But through exposure over twenty years of coming to see me, by the end of it, she had quite an interesting understanding of what the body and movement was, and was quite critical about things. Just by pure exposure. Dance can be intimidating but so is poetry, so is anything that gets a little bit complex if you’re not willing to put in an effort. Dance is not a passive process. It requires the audience to partake on some level.
On dementia: So many people are living directly or indirectly with someone who has dementia, or are suffering with dementia themselves. And there is, I wouldn’t say stigma, but people have this idea of how awful it must be. And it is terrible. But it’s also manageable, it’s something that you live with and it isn’t all doom and gloom. You’ve got to look for moments of joy. People, we survive. We work with what we have. In the show, I wanted to play with humour as well. I play with humour a lot. It’s a nice way of touching deeper subjects. If you can start with people laughing a bit, then you can hit them with the heavy stuff. They soften.
On the title Assisted Solo: When I’ve done solos in the past, you’re never really alone. There’s always a team around you, helping you. It’s not a solo. As I was looking after my mum, I noticed that this is kind of her solo, this is her thing and I’m helping her. And it suddenly started to seem choreographic to me. I asked a videographer I work with, Luca Truffarelli, to come in and start filming her. We were filming her for six months. In this particular scenario, she’s quite calm, she’s quite happy.
On his mother: She was the family member who has witnessed my career, who has always been there and grown alongside it. Just out of a mother’s will to try and understand her kids. She has grown with me. From seeing me in Oklahoma, to seeing me dance naked, to now being in my piece. But it’s a weird one. Her dementia is quite advanced so she’s not aware that she’s in the piece. She knows me but she doesn’t know my name. If I show her the video material she goes, ‘oh, that’s great’ but she thinks she’s watching somebody else. Something I was never aware of and I’ve now realised, because her filters have kind of dropped with her dementia, is that she has sought in her life to understand all five of her boys individually, and we’re all so completely different. That’s quite fascinating. Because when she was in her full mind, you’re never aware of the amount of multitasking she has to do just to relate to five individuals on a personal level so intensely.
On bodies and ageing bodies: It’s funny. Often when I’m working with actors, they’re like, ’oh my God, a choreographer, a dancer. Look at my body, it’s not perfect’. Ironically, I think dancers have a much more natural understanding of the body and a fascination with it and how it works. We [dancers] don’t have this archetypal idea of the perfect body that other might think we have. Assisted Solo has been a very interesting personal journey in breaking certain barriers, intimacy barriers, with this older person in my life. I was really fascinated with my mother’s body. A female body at the best of times isn’t something I would have to examine or look after. And suddenly it’s with Mum. The first time I had to be intimate with her, in the sense of looking after her and caring for her, I was totally mortified. I called my friend saying, ‘oh my god I’ve just been examining my mother’s vagina. What the fuck? I’m having an existential crisis’. Of course, three days later, you’re just like, ‘oh, this is this’. We live in such an ageist society and particularly in our own community. We can be narcissistic and cruel. I realised I’d been a part of that.
On what to take away from Assisted Solo: No answers. Because I don’t think there are any. Only more questions. And with a sense that’s it’s not all so bad. They can come away with an understanding of the perspective of the carer, but also the person being cared for.